Almost all the world’s nations have accepted on a deal aimed at restricting shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic waste to poorer countries, the United Nations announced on Friday.
Exporting countries – including the US – now will have to obtain permission from countries receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste. Currently, the US and other countries can send lower-quality plastic waste to private entities in developing countries without getting permission from their governments.
Since China stopped taking recycling from the US, activists say they have observed plastic waste piling up in developing countries. The Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (Gaia), a sponsor of the deal, says it found villages in Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia that had “turned into dumpsites over the course of a year”.
“We were finding that there was waste from the US that was just piled up in villages throughout these countries that had once been primarily agricultural communities,” said Claire Arkin, a spokeswoman for Gaia.
The legally binding framework developed at the end of a two-week meeting of UN-backed conventions on plastic waste and toxic, hazardous chemicals that threaten the planet’s seas and animals. The pact comes in an amendment to the Basel Convention. The US is not a party to that convention so it did not have a vote, but attendees at the meeting said the country argued against the change, saying officials didn’t understand the consequences it would have on the plastic waste trade.
Plastic debris clutters pristine land, floats in huge masses in oceans and traps and risks wildlife. Less valuable and harder to recycle plastic is likely to end up discarded rather than turned into new products. The deal affects products used in a broad array of industries, such as healthcare, technology, aerospace, fashion and food, and beverages.
Rolph Payet of the United Nations Environment Program called the contract – signed by 187 countries in Geneva, Switzerland, under the convention – “historic”, because countries will have to observe where plastic waste goes when it leaves their boundaries. Payet said the negotiations, which began 11 days ago and brought together 1,400 delegates, had gone much further than anticipated.
He compared plastic pollution to an “epidemic”, with “an estimated 100m tonnes of plastic [110m US tons] now found in the oceans, 80 to 90% of which comes from land-based sources”.