With the ink almost dry on the Basel Convention Amendments for Waste Plastic Border Controls, Europeans can breathe a sigh of relief. Job done.
But could the well-intentioned revisions actually backfire - resulting in increased environmental impacts, the stranding of recoverable assets - and even a push for reparations to Asia for years of plastic waste dumping??
Industry insiders fear all of these unintended consequences - and more.
The wheels were set in motion two years ago, with China’s impactful National Sword. The appetite for change spread rapidly, fuelled by the burgeoning middle class and social-media-adoring millennials and the moratorium quickly extended to other nations in the region.
Today, Asia dictates plastic waste trade terms to the rest of the world.
In the decade prior to the National Sword, Europe exported over 30 million tonnes of waste plastic, mostly to Asia. Conservative estimates are that at least 10% of that will not have been recycled. As a result, as much as 95,000 container loads could potentially be returned to their country of origin. (sources: The Observatory of Economic Complexity (MIT) and Reuters).
And there are precedents. Just last month, The Philippines’ President, Rodrigo Duterte threatened war against Canada over 1500 tonnes of plastic waste dumped there in 2014. Despite it being a legitimate commercial recycling trade that went wrong, Canada has backed down and is repatriating the containers of waste, back for disposal, at its own cost.
Malaysia’s Environment Minister, Yeo Bee Yin, has escalated the concept of returning non-recoverable plastics, with plans to ship thousands of tonnes of plastic waste back to France, Britain, Japan, Spain, USA and Australia.
Plastic becomes waste somewhere. The exported products that are so important to the EU economy are consumed in countries that do not have the capacities - or economies of scale - to recover the inherent plastic assets.
Without the trading of plastic waste (with proper oversight and quality control), plastic assets become stranded - leading to plastic stockpiles, trade spats, and ongoing negative environmental impacts.
Ironically, the protection that Basel affords recipient nations may be the very lever that shifts market forces away from plastic circular economies.
Those same industry insiders who foresaw the impact of the National Sword on Europe, are now speaking of stranded assets crippling the development of emerging circular economies and fostering instead, a black market.
Circular economy thinking and collaboration is needed. Instead of having a mindset of fear, and creating roadblocks to the movement of plastic waste, we should be focusing on its recoverable value.
No one city, no country, not 100 companies - not even the EU - can make circular economies alone. Plastic pollution respects no border. With our drive for sustainable cities, we must also consider the consequences that local actions have globally. The key to circularity is shared responsibility and collaboration.
Europe’s sustainability practices are recognised as being world-leading. While decision-makers fine-tune the Basel amendments, now is the time for EU businesses to demonstrate their collaborative leadership to the world: casting off the regional blinkers and working urgently to facilitate circular economies in all corners of the globe.
What a great time to attend the solutions-focused Plasticity Amsterdam, on
20 June 2019.