At the beginning of last year, 187 countries took measures to limit the export of plastic waste from rich countries to developing countries. It doesn’t work as well as they hoped.

According to an analysis of global trade data by the nonprofit Basel Action Network, or BAN, violations of a United Nations agreement regulating international trade in plastic waste have been “rampant” over the past year. past year. Since January 1, 2021, when new rules were supposed to start cracking down on countries that ship their plastic waste overseas, the United States, Canada and the European Union have unloaded hundreds of millions of tons of plastic to other countries, where much of it may be buried, burned or discarded in the environment.

“Toxic pollution and its burden on communities and ecosystems in importing countries continues as a direct result of these multiple violations,” BAN wrote in its analysis.

The regulations in question are part of the Basel Convention, a framework designed to control the international movement of designated “hazardous” waste. In the years following its adoption in 1989, the convention covered substances such as mercury and pesticides. But in 2019, signatories to the convention agreed to add new guidelines for discarded plastic, limiting its movement between nations except in specific circumstances, beginning in early 2021. For example, the convention now prohibits the export of unmixed contaminated plastic waste without the notification and consent of the importing countries, as well as the assurance that it will be managed in an “environmentally sound” manner.

These requirements – which were put in place to help protect communities and the environment from the planet’s growing glut of plastic waste – are stringent and have contributed to the overall decline in the flow of plastic waste to the developing world since 2020. But the international trade in plastic waste is far from being suppressed, and BAN says its current scale indicates widespread violations of the Basel Convention.

For example, the United States, which is one of eight countries yet to ratify the Basel Convention, sent over 800 million pounds of plastic waste to Mexico, Malaysia, India, Vietnam and other parties in Basel last year – an activity that violates the plastics amendments to the convention, as they state that party countries cannot trade regulated plastics with non-parties. According to BAN, the only way it would be legal would be for all plastic shipped by brokers who contract with US waste collectors to be “nearly contamination-free” and sorted into single polymers, such as PET, the type of bottles d plastic water. are made from. This is a standard the United States has been unable to meet, even for its domestic recycling industry. “We are unable to economically separate plastic to a level where it is isolated polymers and not contaminated with at least 5% or more of other elements,” said Jim Puckett, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of BAN. . The economic and technological barriers are simply too great for U.S. recyclers to properly sort and handle the plastic they receive, forcing them to send most of it to landfills.

If the United States can’t even sort its own plastic waste, Puckett asked rhetorically, then how can it sort hundreds of millions of pounds of it for export? “It just doesn’t happen,” he said.

BAN also suspects Europe of non-compliance with the Basel Convention, including violations of the ban on exporting unsorted contaminated plastic waste from the EU to countries outside the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. . Throughout 2021, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and other developing countries continued to receive a large share of plastic waste from Europe – particularly from the Netherlands, whose plastic exports to developing countries increased significantly last year, from an average of £18.3 million per month in 2020 to £41 million in 2021.

When plastic waste is shipped to countries with insufficient waste management infrastructure, it can cause lasting harm to people and the environment. Plastic that is not recycled can end up being incinerated, releasing dangerous chemicals that poison communities and the food chain. Otherwise, excess plastic can be dumped in uncontrolled landfills or polluted directly into the environment, resulting in contaminated water sources and impaired ecosystems. In the Philippines, a major plastic importer, the influx of plastic waste is so overwhelming that it has sickened Manila residents and clogged the island nation’s coastlines.

Since enforcement of the Basel Convention is primarily the responsibility of individual member countries, BAN said there is little the international community can do to crack down on violations of the plastic waste trade. Plastic importers may be reluctant to strictly enforce the Basel Convention because they receive payments from exporting countries for doing so, and because some plastic waste may be reused in new products for industry and manufacturing. In the immediate term, BAN called on party members to implement stricter port inspections for illegal imports and exports of plastic waste, and on governments to impose tough penalties on companies that violate the convention.

A longer-term solution would have to look upstream, Puckett told Grist, and consider ways to limit the creation of plastic in the first place. He pointed to a recent UN promise to negotiate a binding global treaty covering the full plastic lifecycle by 2024. Although the final deal will have to contend with the political power of the fossil fuel and plastics industries, a strong treaty could in theory do much more than the Basel Convention to curb the export of waste to the developing world.

“We are under no illusions that it will be easy,” Puckett said, “but we have to get the amount of plastic we produce under control if we are going to have an impact on plastic waste.”