15 Avr 2024
15:00–16:30

Lieu: Online | Webex

Organisation: Basel Action Network, Geneva Environment Network

This event, launching a new book "Plastic Waste Trade: A New Colonialist Means of Pollution Transfer", is organized within the framework of the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues. The event discussed how the ongoing negotiations at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution can address the problems inherent in the plastic waste trade.

About this Session

By the end of 2024, countries worldwide are expected to come to an agreement on how to manage plastic pollution, a transboundary problem exemplified in the movement of marine debris through ocean currents, and the movement of plastic through cross-border supply chains.

The book Plastic Waste Trade: A New Colonialist Means of Pollution Transfer takes a holistic view of the international waste trade and in doing so argues that the transfer of plastic waste from mainly Global North to primarily Global South countries constitutes a form of 21st Century colonialism. The authors take viewers through the history of the plastic waste trade – from toxic disasters in the 1970s and 1980s through the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal in 1989 – until China’s  2018 implementation of a “National Sword” policy effectively banned the importation of plastic waste and threw the plastic waste supply chains into disarray.

From there, the authors explore both the legal trade in plastic waste and the underground illegal trade in waste, arguing that both lead to devastating impacts on ecosystems, workers, and communities in receiving countries and highlighting how countries that receive waste are often less equipped to process it than the countries that export waste. The last section of the book presents cases from countries on the receiving end of the plastic waste trade, highlighting inherent problems from sociological and environmental justice perspectives.

What does this mean for the Global Plastic Treaty negotiations?

How can the ongoing negotiations at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, address the problems inherent in the plastic waste trade?

The speakers offered a sneak peek into the contents of the book, and deliberate over the opportunities for the Global Plastic Treaty to end waste colonialism.

Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues

The world is facing a plastic crisis, the status quo is not an option. Plastic pollution is a serious issue of global concern which requires an urgent and international response involving all relevant actors at different levels. Many initiatives, projects and governance responses and options have been developed to tackle this major environmental problem, but we are still unable to cope with the amount of plastic we generate. In addition, there is a lack of coordination which can better lead to a more effective and efficient response.

Various actors in Geneva are engaged in rethinking the way we manufacture, use, trade and manage plastics. The Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues aim at outreaching and creating synergies among these actors, highlighting efforts made by intergovernmental organizations, governments, businesses, the scientific community, civil society and individuals in the hope of informing and creating synergies and coordinated actions. The dialogues highlight what the different stakeholders in Geneva and beyond have achieved at all levels, and present the latest research and governance options.

Following the landmark resolution adopted at UNEA-5 to end plastic pollution and building on the outcomes of the first two series, the third series of dialogues will encourage increased engagement of the Geneva community with future negotiations on the matter.

Speakers

By order of intervention.

Sedat GÜNDOĞDU

Professor, Cukurova University, Türkiye

Peter STOETT

Dean and Professor, Faculty of Social Science & Humanities, Ontario Tech University

Jim PUCKETT

Executive Director and Founder, Basel Action Network (BAN)

Krista SHENNUM

Researcher, Climate Rights International

Jindřich PETRLIK

International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN)

Yuyun ISMAWATI

Senior Advisor and Co-Founder, Nexus for Health, Environment and Development Foundation (Nexus3) | IPEN Steering Committee Member

Magdalena DONOSO

Regional Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA)

Griffins OCHIENG

Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice and Development | Co-chair, IPEN Toxic Plastic Working Group

Pui Yi WONG

Basel Action Network (BAN) | Moderator

Highlights

Video

Live on Webex

Summary

Pui Yi Wong from Basel Action Network began by expressing gratitude to the authors of the book » for partnering with the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues to discuss its findings. The dialogues aim to link ongoing multilateral efforts to tackle plastic pollution, particularly in light of the upcoming Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC4) meeting to develop an international treaty on plastic pollution.

The event began by Sedat Gundogdu, editor of the book and Professor, Cukurova University, Türkiye, providing background information on the book, detailing its origins in research on microplastic pollution in the Mediterranean Sea. The investigation led to the discovery of illegal dumping of plastic waste in Turkey, primarily from European countries. Gundogdu explains the timeline of events, government responses, and ongoing challenges related to plastic waste importation and pollution. The book aims to shed light on the connection between plastic waste trade and waste colonialism, highlighting the environmental and social impacts of this phenomenon.

Peter Stoett, Dean and Professor, Faculty of Social Science & Humanities, Ontario Tech University, framed the issues of waste colonialism within broader historical patterns of colonialism and exploitation. He outlined a topology of waste colonialism, distinguishing between historical waste colonialism and waste neocolonialism, emphasizing the impact on environmental justice and sustainable development. Stoett described indirect waste accumulation and criminal waste trade as ongoing sources of harm within this context. He concluded with a discussion on waste decolonization and the need for limits to industrial growth.

Jim Puckett, Executive Director and Found of Basel Action Network, discussed the legislative efforts to prevent waste colonialism and toxic trade, focusing on the Basel Convention and recent amendments targeting plastic waste. He highlights the challenges in regulating waste trade and the drivers behind waste movement, including the global commons syndrome, lack of democracy and empowerment, and the greenwashing of terms like recycling and circular economy. Puckett emphasized the importance of preventing waste colonialism through legislative measures and transparency. He concluded by discussing the limitations of the current waste trade governance framework and the need to address the root causes of plastic waste production.

Krista Shennum, Researcher, Climate Rights International, and Jindřich Petrlik, International Pollutants Elimination Network, delve into the human rights and environmental impacts of the global waste trade, particularly focusing on plastic waste. Shennum discussed how plastic waste trade poses serious threats to human rights across its life cycle, from production to waste management. She emphasizes the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations in receiving countries, leading to human rights abuses. Workers, especially in the informal economy, face health risks due to exposure to toxins during recycling processes. Shennum highlighted a report documenting health impacts on workers in Turkey, a major recipient of plastic waste exports. She calls for a binding treaty to regulate plastic production and protect human rights.

Petrlik discussed toxic contamination caused by plastic waste in developing countries. He emphasized the release of hazardous chemicals at every stage of the plastic life cycle and the lack of global regulation for most plastic chemicals. Petrlik presented data on the export of contaminated plastic waste to developing countries, causing pollution and health risks. He mentioned studies on toxic contamination in various locations, including Ghana and Indonesia, and the pollution of food chains. Petrlik concluded by highlighting the contamination of recycled plastic with toxic additives, calling for urgent action to address this issue.

Overall, the presentations underscored the urgent need for global regulation of plastic production and waste management to protect human rights and the environment.

Yuyun Iswamati, Senior Advisor and Co-Founder, Nexus for Health, Environment and Development Foundation (Nexus3), then discussed the situation in Indonesia, highlighting the importation of plastic waste mainly from Western Europe and the subsequent environmental and health impacts caused by improper disposal methods such as burning.

Griffins Ochieng, Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice and Development, focused on Africa, emphasizing the threat posed by continued waste trade, particularly from the US, and the lack of adequate recycling infrastructure in African countries.

Magdalena Donoso, Regional Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), discussed the situation in Latin America, noting the influx of plastic waste from the US and the challenges faced by countries like Ecuador and Mexico in managing this waste.

Overall, the speakers called for the urgent need for a global treaty to address the plastic waste crisis, emphasizing the importance of reducing plastic production, enhancing recycling capacity, and holding both producers and importers accountable for their waste. They also highlighted the role of international conventions such as the Basel Convention but emphasized the need for stronger regulations and enforcement mechanisms in the new Plastic Treaty to combat plastic waste trade effectively.

Q&A

Questions that were shared in the chat, but were unanswered due to time constraints have been answered by Jim Puckett | Executive Director, Basel Action Network after the event. 

Q: How will plastic waste not regulated by the Basel Convention be regulated under the new Plastic Treaty and are there any specific measures it should include to complement or fill gaps within the Basel Convention?

A: While there is no definitive answer on whether there will be an effective solution to fill these gaps in the future treaty, there are important aspects in the Revised Zero Draft we need to push for:

1. We must ensure that Sub-Option 1 is adopted in Part II, Section 10b on the transboundary movement of plastic waste. This option will require the Prior Informed Consent procedure to be expanded and be applied to all plastic waste, not just Annex II (mixed plastics) and Annex VIII (hazardous) plastics.
2. We must require full transparency for all chemicals in waste in Part II, Section 13 on transparency, tracking, monitoring and labelling, Option 1, No. 1, 2, and 3. Currently, in practice, the Basel Convention does not require the full disclosure of all of the constituents of plastic waste shipped (e.g., the additives in the polymers).
3. Further, if the Members believe that the Basel Convention should do more to close the existing gaps in the global governance of plastic waste, this can be stipulated in a resolution attached to the final text at time of adoption.

Meanwhile, we must continue to press Basel and other agreements, such as the EU Waste Shipment Regulation and the Bamako Convention, to address the loopholes in regulating the trade of plastic waste, such as the failure to cover synthetic textile wastes, synthetic rubber wastes, etc.

Q: How does recycling technology in developing countries compare to Europe? How do they deal with the wastewater in recycling plants? Does it cost much more to dispose waste in developed countries that already have technology for environmentally sound management than to send the waste to the other side of the globe?

A: In our experience, several facilities in developing countries, even when formal and licensed, often fail to properly manage unrecyclable fractions of the plastic waste imported. These fractions are often trucked from the facilities at night and dumped in rural fields and waysides. They could end up being burned either openly in fields or in boilers and incinerators lacking pollution controls. Chemical additives and microplastics are not measured. Microplastic and chemical contamination is washed into surface and ground waters via the wastewater effluents, often times without proper treatment.

Inside the plant, workers are exposed to contaminants in the plastic wastes released through the melting operations — volatile organic compounds are inhaled by the workforce with no personal protective equipment. Outside the plant, communities suffer from dumping and burning of plastic wastes.

The costs of recycling are much higher in developed countries due to the internalization of the cost to mitigate these harmful impacts. This is why, in order to avoid these environmental costs, companies in developed countries externalize the costs by sending the wastes to countries with weaker environmental laws, regulations, and enforcement.

Also, there is an economic cost, where more investment is required to operate such facilities in developed countries for energy, labor, and rental, among others, and this increases the costs of recycling. For example, from our studies, the recyclers of electronic waste plastics in developing countries like Malaysia offer to pay American exporters 14 cents per pound for e-plastic waste while US plastics recyclers can only pay 2 cents.

Q: Why do countries not comply with the Basel Convention? Is it a lack of supervision, lack of cooperation from different interests, or difficulty in information accessibility? There are very little implications for exporting countries that violate the amendment. What should be the best enforcement to ensure a just waste trade?

A: International law is enforced by nations that are Parties to the treaties. There is no international police or tribunal governing them. Many countries have not created national laws to implement their treaty obligations which makes enforcement very awkward at the local level.

Also, nationally, there is often a lack of cohesion between customs agencies (controlling borders and with the authority to inspect shipments) and the environmental ministry agencies that have the responsibility for implementing international environmental treaties such as Basel.

Sometimes, there is undue influence on enforcement agencies by the local industries. Finally, the compliance mechanisms under Multilateral Environmental Agreements, such as Basel’s Implementation and Compliance Committee, are very weak and have little ability for civil society or whistleblowers to report problems, let alone do something to resolve the complaints. An important element of enforcement is to ensure that whistleblowers have adequate channels and protections to come forward with information.

Q: How do we deal with the large quantities of plastic waste that illegally enters our country? We do not have laboratories specialized in measuring persistent organic pollutants to identify the contents of this waste, and those who work in the field of recycling imagine that it is of excellent quality and at a low price.

A: This is the key point. Because the trade in plastic waste is not controllable, with no monitoring of the chemical additives or contaminants in the plastic waste, it must be banned completely. Plastic waste should be managed by each country, with a focus on waste minimization. It is not feasible to test thousands of containers for toxic pollutants.

Q: Where can we access the books with the presented studies?

A: The link to the book is here, while the chapter on toxic contamination can be accessed here.

Q: Regarding plastic in the paper bales have you found that it is from multilayered packaging, intentionally misdeclared and shipped, or genuine lack of sorting?

A: More details can be found in IPEN’s report on hidden plastics in waste paper bales. In the case of Malaysia, preliminary investigations indicate that it is a lack of sorting. An illustrative case occurred in Thailand in 2022, where waste from Australia was intentionally misdeclared as paper waste, but the shipments were found to contain mixed municipal waste. For Indonesia, the volume of plastic waste is extremely high, and it is likely a mix of intentionally misdeclared shipments and a lack of sorting. For more specific information about the contamination at sites affected by plastic waste disposal, see this report by IPEN and Arnika.

Q: Some SEA countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand became new target of plastic waste trade after China banned plastic waste import in 2018. Will there be conflict emerging, either among states or at regional level, if those states start enforcing similar policy as China?

A: For now, only Thailand has announced a ban on plastic waste imports. It is difficult to say if the other countries will consider banning plastic waste imports like China. But as long as the countries can show that the imports are causing harm to human and environmental health in their country, a ban can be justified.

Documents

Links