California eyes efforts to spur US ratification of Basel Convention

Dive Brief:

  • Lawmakers and activists in California aim to curb the export of low-value scrap plastic to developing countries in calling for the Biden administration to ratify the Basel Convention, an international agreement that aims to ensure certain waste is handled responsibly. The United States is one of just a few countries in the world not a party to the agreement, and the call for ratification is part of a larger nationwide effort by NGOs to include U.S. waste export issues as part of the president’s environmental platform
  • Supporters who will be at an upcoming hearing for Resolution AJR-4, sponsored by Assembly member Cristina Garcia, argue ratification would help curb the export of certain types of plastic pollution from U.S. ports, particularly in California, which the Basel Action Network says is responsible for about 27% of “plastic waste.” 
  • Palo Alto, California, is drawing criticism for recently renewing its waste hauling contract with GreenWaste, despite the company not being able to pinpoint how some of its waste exports were being managed once they left the U.S as required by a 2019 agreement. 

Dive Insight:

California in recent years has made efforts to  divert more plastic away from landfills, but some lawmakers say the state must do more to keep those diverted materials from being shipped to developing countries that do not have robust waste management. 

A recent amendment to the Basel Convention added some types of mixed and contaminated plastic shipments to its control procedure as a move to curb plastic pollution. As of Jan. 1, countries party to the Basel Convention cannot trade these materials without a special arrangement. 

Garcia said in a statement that California is currently the top exporter of such plastic wastes in the country, and a nationwide adoption of the Basel Convention and its most recent amendment would effectively curb the problem by “properly regulating the international environmental injustice of plastic dumping on countries without currently having the capacity to properly manage the material.”

The resolution, which is scheduled for a hearing June 14, is not legally binding and will require action from Congress to ratify. Supporters see it as a strong message that the U.S. must answer for the way it has contributed to plastic pollution worldwide, said Jan Dell of The Last Beach Cleanup, which supports California’s efforts to stop exporting trash.

A recent report from California’s Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling, which aims to provide a roadmap for bolstering the state’s recycling system, also listed ratification of the Basel Convention as a priority.

The NGO coalition said in its joint letter that since the U.S. is not part of the Basel convention, it continues to export low-value plastic scrap such as mixed and contaminated plastic referenced in the Ban Amendment. The signers said the practice was “aiding and abetting illegal trafficking in plastic waste.” Brokers in the U.S. send about 2,440 metric tons of “plastic waste” per month to non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the letter states.

California has a state goal of achieving a 75% recycling rate, but that goal has driven waste and low-quality plastic scrap to be exported “without proof that plastic is being properly recycled,” Garcia’s resolution states. Another California bill, AB 881,  would prohibit California from counting exported plastic scrap in its recycling rate calculations unless it is properly recycled overseas.

Part of why the material is getting exported from California at such high rates is because it can be cheaper to export than putting it on a truck to send to a processor somewhere within the U.S., Dell said. Landfill costs in California can also be more expensive than exporting it, Dell said.

Without the regulatory authority of the Basel Convention, the responsibility to curb exports of trash to developing countries falls to municipalities and private companies that have pledged not to export plastic waste outside the country, she added. 

Several U.S. recyclers previously announced they would no longer export lower-grade plastics. That group included Waste Management, Republic Services, Casella Waste Systems, Recology and some smaller companies. Dell believes the best way to ensure trash doesn’t pollute other countries is to not export it in the first place.

“The harms of this trash on other countries is well known. The solution shouldn’t be tracking these exports — it should be getting them not to send it in the first place,” she said.

Palo Alto drew controversy last week when it approved a new contract with its hauler, GreenWaste, Palo Alto Online reported. The city requires the hauler to track the trash in an effort to prevent it from being sent to developing countries that cannot properly manage it, a unique requirement for California cities to mandate, Dell said. Still, Palo Alto’s city council approved the contract renewal despite GreenWaste’s inability to clearly show where the material will end up. The hauler does provide annual traceability reports that show at least some of its material has been exported in the past — mostly HDPE and PET plastics. GreenWaste has not yet returned calls seeking comment.

“GreenWaste doesn’t currently provide us information and apparently doesn’t know details on their secondary processes,” said Vice Mayor Pat Burt during the May 24 council meeting. “They know where it gets shipped to and what is supposed to be done with it, but then once it’s overseas they really don’t have that reporting” to prove it is not irresponsibly managed, he said.

Despite the uncertainty, Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada said in a memo he “believes that GreenWaste is doing better than most vendors at finding domestic markets and avoiding the uncertainties in overseas markets,” and that the city wants to continue working with the company to improve traceability efforts. Councilmember Lydia Kou said the city should “revisit” the contract if it becomes apparent that the exports are negatively impacting another country. 

 “Waste companies kind of need to have more accountability and ensure that we’re not shipping all our troubles to some other place,” she said during the meeting.

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