As part of my ongoing discussion of plastic regulation in Canada, I ended up in an enlightening discussion on Twitter. It wasn’t enlightening for what it taught me about the handling of plastic waste; rather it was enlightening in that it showed me how little even seemingly well-informed individuals know, and what activists were saying, about the topic.
The discussion began with a pundit on Twitter decrying a tweet about a recent piece in the Financial Post about plastic: Opinion: Don’t ban plastics. They help green the Earth. The article, while imperfect, correctly summarized some of the challenges with moving away from plastics for select consumer uses. A highly-educated individual replied to the thread:
okay okay okay okay okay but… wait… my understanding of this is that it’s not a problem for us because we… wait for it… SHIP. IT. OVERSEAS. We make it other countries’ problem. I just… what! WHAT! WHAT IS THIS CRAP??
I responded by pointing out “Canada has banned the export of such waste under the Basel Convention and has not given any permits for export since the new rules came into force“.
The highly educated individual (and many of their peers) then filled my social media feed with a flurry of old news stories about the export of plastic waste to developing countries and the highly-educated individual concluded with the line:
(Psst – Canada made a deal to give some our garbage to the US which didn’t ratify the Convention and still offshores garbage)
Given this stream of misinformation on my social media feed I thought it would be useful to prepare a short blog post that explains exactly how the new rules apply for the transboundary transportation of waste plastic.
To begin, Canada is a signatory to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (the Basel Convention). The Basel Convention is a multilateral agreement intended to “protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous waste“. Virtually every country in the world is a party to the Basel Convention with the United States and Haiti making up the elite team of countries that have signed but not ratified the Basel Convention. As described at the Government of Canada web site:
The Basel Convention came into force on May 5, 1992, after being ratified by 20 countries. Canada ratified the Basel Convention on August 28, 1992.
The Basel Convention’s key objectives are to:
– Minimize the generation of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials;
– Ensure they are disposed in an environmentally sound manner and as close to the source of generation as possible;
– Minimize the international movement of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials.
The Basel Convention controls the transboundary movement of hazardous and other wastes through its provisions for “Prior Informed Consent” (PIC) that must be met before any shipment of wastes is permitted. Shipments without proper documentation are considered illegal under the terms and conditions of the Convention. Each Party to the Convention is required to take appropriate measures to regulate the transboundary movement of wastes.
As of 2021, the Basel Convention was updated with the Plastic Waste Amendments. Prior to these amendments plastic waste was not effectively covered under the Basel Convention. Under the amendments non-hazardous plastic waste is now covered including:
- plastic scrap and waste that is contaminated (e.g., with food residue and/or other non-hazardous waste)
- plastic scrap and waste mixed with other types of scrap and waste
- plastic scrap and waste containing halogenated polymers (e.g., PVC)
- mixed plastic scrap and waste, with the exception of shipments consisting of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that meet the criteria described in Basel listing B3011
On January 1st, 2021, the Basel Convention’s Plastics Waste Amendments became effective in Canada. These new rules make will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent by requiring prior informed consent for the movement of plastic wastes. In order to export this material exporters need a permit from the federal government to export their waste and a permit from the receiving country to receive the waste. As of the writing of this blog post Canada has not issued any permits for the export of plastic waste.
What this means from a practical perspective is that as a signatory to the Plastic Waste Amendments, Canada has effectively stopped the export of plastic waste, with one critical exception. Under the Basel Convention Canada can retain its historic bilateral trade in plastic waste with the US. So, yes, Canada does indeed export a small volume of post-consumer plastic waste to the United States.
Now I know a lot of you will say, but the US hasn’t signed onto the Plastic Waste Amendments so if we send our waste to them they can simply export it elsewhere? Except that is not the case. Under the Basel Convention the US can’t export plastic waste to any party that has signed onto the Basel Convention. So no our waste will not go to the US and then flow from there elsewhere.
But what about existing bilateral deals the US has with countries like the Philippines? Yes, it is true that these bilateral deals do exist, except as the US EPA web site points out
The United States has separate bilateral agreements with Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and the Philippines which cover transboundary shipments of hazardous waste under specific terms. For example, under the bilateral agreements with Costa Rica, Malaysia and the Philippines, the United States may receive hazardous waste for recycling or disposal from Costa Rica, Malaysia, and the Philippines, but may not export hazardous waste to these countries.
So, no, that loophole is closed. There is no scenario where Canadian post-consumer waste plastic can be exported to the US and then that waste exported to any other country in the world.
To conclude, no matter how many out-of-date news articles highly-educated individuals and activists post on Twitter, Canada does not and can not ship its post-consumer waste plastic to developing countries without the express agreement of both countries. Canada can send some industrial resins to select countries under strict export regulations but we simply do not export our waste plastic be abandoned in developing countries. As such, this should not be a consideration in determining whether we ban plastics in Canada. Similarly, no matter how many times the activists say otherwise, Canada cannot ship our waste plastic to the US to be trans-shipped to developing countries. This is simply a false talking point used by activists hoping that listeners will not know any better.