Amid what some have described as a crisis level of plastic waste pollution in the world, 187 countries, but not the United States, have signed an agreement limiting the export of such waste. The 187 signatory countries, at the end of a two-week convention in Geneva, Switzerland, agreed to add plastic waste to the United Nations-supported Basel Convention, which governs the transfer of hazardous materials between countries. The United States did not even participate in the discussions, in part because, according to The Hill, it is one of just two countries not to ratify the original Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, which is usually referred to more simply as just the Basel Convention. This occurs against the backdrop of the widely held view that the Trump administration has an anti-environment, pro-industry stance that includes pushing the use of fossil fuels, from which plastics are made, and this is hardly the first multinational agreement that the Trump administration has refused.
The U.S., despite its unwillingness to participate in the agreement, will nonetheless be effected by the agreement, since many of the countries where the U.S. has been sending plastic waste did sign on to the agreement. Under the agreement, most mixes of plastic waste and any contaminated plastic waste (such as plastic medical waste, for instance) will have to have the consent of the receiving country before they can be sent into the country, i.e. the plastic waste trade will go from being strictly a private industry to one requiring governmental approval from the receiving country. This will limit the capacity of the U.S. to use third world countries as a dumping ground for its plastic waste. Nearly a million people around the world this week signed a petition in support of adding plastic waste to the Basel Convention, with the petition indicating, according to CNN, that western countries should be stopped from “dumping millions of tonnes of plastic waste on developing countries instead of recycling it.” According to CNN:
The governments of 187 countries have agreed to control the movement of plastic waste between national borders, in an effort to curb the world’s plastic crisis — but the United States was not among them. Nations agreed to add plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that regulates movement of hazardous materials from one country to another, in order to combat the dangerous effects of plastic pollution around the world. …Although it sat out of the decision, the ruling will still apply to the United States when it tries to trade plastic waste to virtually any country in the world. The US has been sending its plastic waste to various countries around the world, including China and Malaysia, but has recently faced crackdowns in those countries as they attempt to cope with the amounts of plastic flooding through their borders. Over the past year, other southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and India have also reportedly taken steps to restrict the import of foreign plastic waste, which has left containers of plastic sitting in US ports waiting for a destination.
Estimates are that the world’s oceans now contain over 100 million tons of plastic, the great majority of which comes from land-based sources. Of course one of the particularly problematic issues with plastic waste is the length of time plastic can persist in the environment, depending on its type taking hundreds of years to degrade, even up to 1000 years in a landfill setting. The public has grown increasingly aware of the scourge of plastic waste, leading to initiatives like limiting the use of plastic grocery bags and plastic drinking straws, as well as an emphasis on the recycling of plastics used. Exporting U.S. plastic waste to other countries certainly seems like an unethical way to move that part of the problem outside our borders, but now with this new addition to the Basel Convention, even though the U.S. did not sign on, it will nonetheless face limitations in exporting its plastic waste because so many other countries did sign on to it.