Experts talk impact of new Basel Convention Rules one-scrap plastic exports

Panelists delved into the details of the new Basel rule and what it meant for the international plastics scrap trade, particularly e-scrap plastics. Swaliha Shanavas reports.

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February 10 2021
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As most of you are aware, on January 1, 2021, new global rules came into force for all Basel Convention Parties and their trading partners for the trade in plastic scrap. As expressed by a panelist during the recently held e-Stewards panel discussion, not since the National Sword policy of China has there been such a dramatic turn of events affecting how the world deals with plastic scrap.

The discussion focused on electronic scrap plastics and the situation in North America, important issues affecting international trade of e-scrap plastics, and consequences of exporting to developing countries and or not following the new Basel rules. The dialogue featured industry specialists including Jim Puckett, Founder and Director of Basel Action Network (BAN), Steve Wong, CEO of Fukutomi Recycling, Craig Thompson, Director of Global Business Development, FPD Recycling, and Jeff Gloyd, VP of Sales and Marketing, URT LLC.

The New Rules

Jim Puckett kicked off the conversation by highlighting key facts on the new rules, special regulatory situation with respect to the US, EU, and Canada, how the new regulations are impacting the recyclers and so on. “The Basel Convention is primarily there to protect the developing countries from abuses of hazardous waste exported to them from the developed countries,” said Puckett, also explaining the legal aspects related to the treaty.

The treaty has Soft Law and Hard Law aspects that are important. While the soft law lays out some general obligations on the countries regarding waste management, the hard law defines certain wastes to be subject to control under two categories – “hazardous waste” and “other waste” and people could face criminal charges for violations. “Other waste”, defined in Annex II (wastes for special consideration), may not be considered hazardous, but will still be controlled.

Following the amendments there are 3 categories including waste collected from households; incinerator ash from incinerating household waste; and the new category that includes certain types of plastic scrap. “The controls that are required under the hard law on the ‘hazardous’ and ‘other wastes’ are usually Notification and Consent (default control). It sets the prior informed consent (PIC) procedure in place, without which it would be considered illegal trafficking,” said Puckett.

There are also other controls, which are prohibitions/bans that include ban on trade between parties and non-parties. “This is a ban where unless you have a special ‘Article 11’ agreement between countries that are parties and non-parties, trade is prohibited,” he emphasised. Only 8 UN countries are not Basel convention members, which includes USA. “This creates tremendous problem in the governance, because the US which is the world’s most wasteful country per capita, is not part of this important treaty,” said the Director.

The intention of the New Plastic Waste Amendments is to ensure control and transparency of transboundary movements of plastic waste that is not likely to be recycled in a proper way. These are plastic waste mixtures (other than PET, PE, PP mixes), contaminated plastic wastes, halogenated polymers (e.g. PVC). The default control provided would be PIC and requires notification by exporting country and consent of importing country.

There must be assurance of “environmentally sound management” regardless of whether the waste is allowed or not, and failure to comply will be considered as illegal traffic and a criminal act. This is the new listing that came into force as of January 1, 2021. “Currently, some countries are considering plastic scrap as hazardous. And then there is waste for special consideration (Annex II). This is regarding most mixed and contaminated plastic scrap, an area that will undergo dramatic change as of this year.

These would be considered a no go due to the fact that they are mixed and will fall in the new category Y48 unless the mixture is just PET, PE and PP. We are also looking at e-scrap plastics as they have also been routinely mixed and will be no go,” Puckett elucidated. With regard to levels of contamination, various countries are determining the level of extraneous material allowable. For instance Hong Kong has set it at .5 percent while Indonesia has mentioned zero contamination. “So positions are being developed.

The EU Draft Guidance is floating the 2 percent level and this likely will be decided for all intents and purposes by China/HK and EU. We can predict that it probably won’t be greater than 5 percent,” he commented. In terms of exports, if the material is going from one Basel party to another, the trade is allowed, but only with PIC. “If it’s going from an EU country to non-OECD Basel Party, the trade is banned because EU included Annex II while implementing Basel Ban Amendment,” he said, adding that the US export situation is different since it is a non-party. Trade between US and Basel parties will not be allowed and would be considered technically illegal, unless a bilateral agreement exists.

Challenges and implications for recyclers

Steve Wong highlighted Fukutomi’s recycling capabilities and the technology used, and elucidated the challenges in recycling plastics, especially e-plastics.  “Plastic accounts for about 19.5 percent from dismantling of e-scrap, primarily PS, ABS, PE, PP (50-60%), with the remaining consisting of not less than 50 different items including compounds and other polymers with possible additives, glass fibers, flame retardant agents etc.”

There is a need for an effective sorting method to segregate plastics by type and even with automated sorting like optical and electrostatic separation, “it is costly and time consuming,” he observed. “E-scrap plastics recycling in not commercially viable as cost of recycling is often higher than the selling price of recycled materials.” In Wong’s view, unless there is an effective sorting system, e-scrap plastics recycling will be challenging, particularly in terms of keeping the contamination level within the required limit of less than 2 percent required for exports.

“Export without pre-treatment is no longer an option under the new requirements of Basel convention,” he stressed. Trade imbalance is adding to the pressure and creating issues in the sector. While there is a high demand for raw material in Southeast Asian countries, supplies are limited, and in segment economies of scale are very important, said Wong. “The US is one of the largest e-scrap plastics generating countries, but under the current Basel Convention rules the export of mixed e-plastics to these countries is not possible. The only option is to recycle the material locally.”

To cope with the current challenges, he said recyclers like Fukutomi need to familiarise themselves with the new Basel requirements, act as a bridge between fellow recyclers with regular exchange of information. It is also possible to partner with local companies or encourage companies to move recycling capacities from the Fareast or Southeast Asia to US or other countries in Europe to process the material domestically for downstream production locally or export markets. “It is important to focus on recycling at the source.

The operating environments will continue to impact our industry in the coming years. Given the challenges of Basel convention compliance, corona virus impacts, unstable prices and imbalanced supply and demand, players in the industry should think of long term sustainability, promoting EPR and use of recycled content,” emphasised Wong, also stressing the need for collaboration between various stakeholders to achieve this.

Talking about the solutions for e-scrap plastics, Craig Thompson highlighted certain aspects that were creating confusion in the market, especially among European recyclers. He said most recyclers have not put solutions in place yet and that Chinese traders in Malaysia for instance are still requesting e-scrap plastics, so there’s still big demand there. Despite the Basel convention coding changes, “the confusing element is that permits are being issued for 2021 to accept e-scrap plastic scrap,” Craig noted, also adding that e-scrap plastics globally are small in volume now compared to packaging plastics (bottles, food trays, etc.) and perception has been an issue with the consumers only seeing news on issues created by plastic, which is again causing confusion.

People who are involved in e-scrap plastics will know that it is extremely complex to separate e-scrap plastics with over 10 polymer types and other contamination than, for instance, a drinks bottle with typically three polymer types and some liquid residue, he commented. There are restrictions due to the different polymer types in e-scrap plastics and some in countries certain types are considered hazardous so they can’t be exported. “So with mixed polymers it is difficult to recycle and meet the requirements of EU regulations.” There needs to be prior consent and last year the shipper had to get notification from the consignee for the shipment to be allowed. But now the only way to move e-scrap plastics to Malaysia will be through “prior notification with a TFS application – Red List – Transfrontier Shipment notice the same as sending CRT glass to Europe for treatment,” he elaborated.

The process is very costly, takes a long time to put in place and it’s not a viable solution for e-scrap plastics as there’s not enough material, he said. But solutions do exist in the US now to process e-scrap plastics and treat the material in local markets, Craig highlighted. In Europe recyclers have or are installing new plants for processing e-scrap plastics in country. In the US and Canada URT and e-cycle have both installed new lines for processing e-scrap plastics in country. He said their company in the UK is installing new technology using x-ray separation to process e-scrap plastics, one of the first to be installed using a dry process to separate e-scrap polymers, which allows for the production of clean polymer types.

On the topic of exporting e-scrap as a whole (with electronic and plastic components) under the new regime, Puckett said, “with few exceptions, e-waste is generally considered as hazardous waste, so it’s on the A list and not B list. If it is electronics with plastic in there with circuitry, regulators are going to see that as e-waste and will not consider it as plastic waste, so there would be more rigorous controls for hazardous waste.”

As for exporting material from OECD countries to Basel members like Myanmar that are yet to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment, the BAN president said, “the amendment is part of the treaty now so OECD countries are forbidden to export to Myanmar,” meaning all other developed countries (except for US) are part of the convention and would be forbidden to export hazardous waste. Also, with respect to these new listings, they would have to use PIC, but in case of EU countries a full ban would apply. So the latter would not be able to export these plastics to Myanmar under any circumstance, but a country like Canada, could do so with the consent of Myanmar.

Though figures are not available on the quantities of e-plastics currently being exported from the US, Puckett said most industry players knew it was common to export to countries like Malaysia until this year, “and once the amendments were adopted e-Stewards as a group of recyclers also considered this waste to be hazardous and stopped ahead of the date of the Basel rule on January 1, but other recyclers have been sending everything to Asia.”

Steve Wong expressed that “at the moment, I see large quantities of e-scrap plastics going to the far east, but in most cases, particularly going to Thailand. Though exact figures are not available, this amounts to a great deal of material being exported each year.” Regarding enforcement and how the US programme regulators would know if people were complying, Puckett said the law is usually enforced by the countries involved, where the parties implement the rules that are incorporated in their national legislation. As the US is a non-party, these rules do not apply and there will be no enforcement, but he said they were already talking to various states to find solutions.

States are “challenged by our own constitution that affects international trade,” he commented, adding that they could do certain things like making everything transparent and not giving credits for recycling exports that are violating international law, etc. With regard to recycling markets for e-scrap plastic BFRs, Craig Thompson said, “Last year the UK put a ban on the export of all e-scrap plastics containing BFRs. So the only way of treating BFRs under the UK regulation is through incineration, preferably with waste-to-energy attached so targets could still be met on the BFR plastics.”

On how well EPR will align with the new rules on plastic waste, he said, “We’ll see if we can implement EPR on all types of plastics. The plastics waste movement is looking seriously at imposing comprehensive EPR on plastic packaging for example,” he commented, also adding that like in the EU, there is EPR in some states in the US for certain products. There is also EPR which impacts plastics that are part of the equipment. “In summary, people are looking at expanding the EPR concept for plastics dramatically,” he noted


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