Tracking trash and international law
Among the myriad of laws, international treaties, directives and guidelines controlling commodities, waste products and their transport routes via air, land and sea, one has repeatedly hit the headlines in 2019 – that of legal and illegal waste disposal.
The Basel Convention is an international treaty controlling the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes and its disposal. The Khian Sea incident – which involved the dumping of 4000 tonnes of waste ash from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Haitian shores in 1986 – is said to have been one of the events to catalyse the drawing up of the Convention. Only the USA and Haiti have not ratified the law.
The treaty has been called upon to reduce the amount of waste leaving developed countries for supposed treatment or recycling in less developed countries where mismanagement is rife.
Interestingly, most plastic is not classed as hazardous unless it is contaminated with a certain ‘hazardous’ substance however, as a multilateral environmental agreement, on 10 May 2019 the Basel Convention formally recognised the issue of plastic waste, specifically marine debris as a consequential issue.
The text has since been amended to include plastic waste in a legally-binding framework making transfers of waste more transparent by putting the onus on waste generators and the disposal facilities to report closely on each shipment under a Transfrontier Shipment of Waste permit (TFS).
Nearly a million people signed the petition to make this happen in the midst of China banning plastic imports, Malaysia revoking permits, Vietnam no longer issuing new permits to import and India expanding its ban on solid plastic waste imports.
It’s controversially cheaper to produce new plastics rather than recycling them due to the high costs of handling, running machinery for sorting categories and transport for resale of recyclable plastics. The economics of this mean that more is produced and as little as possible is recycled within the constraints of government enforced recycling rates set to municipal and commercial contracts.
Malaysia has sent back around 3000 metric tonnes of plastic waste to the UK, Canada and Australia. Meanwhile, Cambodia sent plastics back to the UK and Indonesia is to send contaminated plastic waste back to New Zealand.
A TFS permit ensures the regulation is imposed and closely monitored by each competent authority which is designated by the member state – a Basel focal point for each member state is also designated. The treaty works and works well to create transparency around the waste that move under its remit but the waste accumulating in our oceans do not ‘belong’ to anyone and falls outside of the strict controls of international law.
The result of tracking the entry of trash to our oceans is twofold: to identify polluters i.e. who the waste ‘owner / generator’ is and ensure a satisfactory level of remediation is imposed (the polluter-pays principle). Secondly, to understand the reasons as to why the source exists: these often run deeper than just the mediatised idea of a careless emitter of litter.
The urgency of understanding these issues will enable us to tackle the plastic waste leakage being released into our seas.