UN meeting gives countries right to refuse unrecyclable, polluting plastics

Governments at the 14th Conference of the parties (COP14) of the Basel Convention acted to restrict rampant plastic waste exports by requiring countries to obtain prior consent before exporting contaminated or mixed plastic waste. 

A deluge of plastic waste exports from developed countries has polluted developing countries in Southeast Asia after China closed the door to waste imports in 2018.

IPEN, the global network of environmental health, science and public interest organisations that has exposed environmental impacts of plastic waste exports to developing countries, applauded the move as a critical step to stem the toxic tide of plastic waste.

Norway proposed the new restrictions and received overwhelming support at the meeting. Opponents of the decision included Argentina, Brazil, US, and the chemicals and plastics industries. Aggressive industry and US lobbying at a previous UN meeting temporarily slowed progress on the plastics waste, but at this meeting, governments took a dramatic step forward. The decision occurred against a backdrop of a UNEP report on combatting marine litter and micro plastics and consensus resolutions on this topic at the 3rd and 4th meetings of the UN Environment Assembly.

The new UN decision will have the greatest impact on the US because the treaty prohibits the export of listed wastes from countries that have not ratified the Convention (such as the US). In 2018, the United States exported 157,000 large shipping containers of mixed plastic wastes to developing countries already overwhelmed with plastic pollution. The new UN decision will force the US to deal with its own plastic waste into the future.

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