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Report: U.S. Plastic Waste Exports May Violate Basel Convention

waste plastici
Mishandled waste plastic in Malaysia (Adam Dean / Gaia)

Published Mar 14, 2021 7:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

Despite new treaty requirements, U.S. customs data suggests that American exporters and the ocean carriers that transport their cargo are still shipping plastic waste to recycling plants in developing countries. These operations are often associated with uncontrolled dumping, allowing "recycled" plastic to escape into waterways and wash into the ocean. 

"Despite new global trade rules coming into force this year, our city, county, state, and federal governments appear to still be happily shunting their plastic wastes to horrific operations in developing countries, despite this trade now being illegal," said Basel Action Network's Executive Director Jim Puckett in a statement. "Clearly, the Biden Administration has to step up at once and put the brakes on this form of environmental injustice."

Global trade in waste plastic totals about eight million metric tonnes per year, according to a recent study by UNCTAD. Under the new Basel rules that took effect in January 2021, mixed and contaminated plastic wastes or wastes containing PVC are supposed to be subject to strict export controls - measures that are intended to cut down on uncontrolled dumping in developing countries. However, BAN says that U.S. Customs data for January 2021 shows that these exports to non-OECD countries have not fallen. Some outflows, such as exports to Malaysia, have actually increased. 

The customs records show that U.S. plastic waste exports to the developing world totaled some 25,000 tonnes and 4,700 shipping containers' worth of scrap plastic in January alone - about the same level seen in January 2020, before the new rule took effect. Malaysia easily topped the list of destinations, followed by Vietnam and Indonesia. 

All nations except for the United States and Haiti have joined the Basel Convention. The treaty's 187 signatory states are not allowed to import controlled waste from nations that have not ratified it. This provision makes U.S. plastic export shipments "criminal traffic as soon as the ships get on the high seas," according to BAN, and carrying these shipments could expose ocean carriers to liability. 

In addition, BAN alleges that U.S. plastic sorting facilities are not capable of achieving the low contamination rates required by the convention, and it identifies several specific shipments that likely violate the quality specifications in the new rules. 

"We have found evidence already in the customs data of specific illegal shipments, and it’s highly likely, that once the shipments are inspected, a majority of it will be found to be illegal." said Puckett. "Further, we have also found evidence that the shipping companies we have called upon to cease plastic waste exportation to developing countries continue to aid and abet this criminal trafficking in waste."

Americans recycle about nine percent of their plastic waste every year, and a substantial share is shipped overseas for processing. A recent study led by Kara Lavender Law of Woods Hole's Sea Education Association found that the U.S. may rank as the world's third-largest source of ocean plastic - not only because it is the world's largest producer of plastic waste, but because the waste it does recycle may be mishandled when it is shipped to the developing world.