In 2018, a phrase that had not been used since the early 1980s was revived: “waste colonialism”.
It had been coined when developed countries began to adopt stringent regulations on toxic waste that made disposal within their own borders too expensive. Instead, they began to export waste to low-income countries that were eager to increase their foreign exchange earnings, even at the cost of their citizens’ well-being. By the late 1980s, there was growing recognition that this trade between unequal countries was but a form of colonialism. Soon after, in 1989, this led to the adoption of the ‘Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal’.
Global consumption patterns have changed significantly since 1989, and plastic has emerged as a ubiquitous commodity. Increasing incomes and a growing plastic industry, especially in developed countries, have led to society getting locked into a culture of high plastic consumption and waste generation. According to recent estimates, 55% of all plastic ever manufactured (~4.6 billion tonnes) was either dumped in landfills or entered the ecosystem.
In the environment, plastic affects all forms of life, including humans through pollution and disease. Developed countries have resorted to exporting their plastic waste to developing countries, while developing countries are increasingly suffering from the consequences of poor waste mismanagement, leading to calls for an international agreement against plastic waste trade.
The Basel Convention expressly recognised the environmental and human health risk of moving hazardous waste across borders. The convention is built on the understanding that waste should be disposed of responsibly, and its export to developing countries should only be done with the receiving country’s consent.
However, stakeholders in developed as well as developing countries (where some companies were making money from the imported waste at a cost to the environment) opposed the convention. The US is one of the biggest exporters of plastic waste and is not even party to the convention. India ratified it but never enforced it till the Supreme Court took cognisance of the issue in 1997.
Due to competing interests, the convention never banned transboundary waste movement outright. It simply stipulated that certain categories of waste could only be exported to a country after receiving the latter’s prior informed consent (PIC).
The post-Basel era
In 1989, plastic waste hadn’t been included within the Basel Convention as “hazardous waste”. This omission from its text, coinciding with the growing consumption of plastic, led to a global environmental crisis.
By the early 2000s, plastic waste had emerged as a major export good. Proponents sought to justify plastic waste as a source of employment and as a cheap raw material for developing countries. Within a decade, many developed countries no longer had sufficient recycling facilities and began to export the bulk of their waste to China. This easy solution – of exporting waste – also disincentivised developed countries from reducing their plastic consumption.
On January 1, 2018, the Chinese government imposed a blanket ban on the import of plastic and other wastes, citing the recycling industry’s adverse environmental impact. The ban brought the global recycling industry to its knees. The price of plastic waste collapsed, and most developed countries are yet to install any long-term plans for recycling their waste, rendering an estimated 37 million tonnes of plastic ‘homeless’. Exporting countries have since turned to other developing countries like Vietnam, Malaysia and India, which have reported enormous increases in imports.
In India, the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules of 2016, issued by the Union environment ministry, are based on the Basel Convention. However, the rules impose a higher standard in relation to plastic waste and prohibit its import. But soon after the rules came into effect, the environment ministry amended them to to permit the import of PET bottles into special economic zones (SEZ) notified by the Centre.
So plastic waste imports quadrupled in 2017-18, with about 120,000 tonnes imported in 2018, before the government plugged the loophole in March 2019. Opposition from SEZ-based recycling units, which claimed that domestic waste is insufficient for them to recycle, meant the ban was postponed till August 31, 2019. The recycling units have until then to honour their contracts.
Then, on May 10, 2019, parties to the Basel Convention agreed to an amendment that requires exporting countries to obtain PICs from importing countries that are receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste.
Multiple stakeholders have hailed this development as “historic”. It is expected to lead to better management of plastic waste and greater transparency in the process. However, the convention’s inherent issues warrant a closer examination.
First, the convention has had a negligible impact on waste trade, with companies resorting to illegal trade, thus circumventing the PIC requirement altogether.
Second, although exporting countries are required by the convention to only export to countries that have the “technical capacity and the necessary facilities” to manage waste, no such due diligence is undertaken in practice.
Third, the existing reporting framework under the convention has shown that the available data is not always transparent, particularly with industrialised countries under-reporting the amount of waste exported.
Fourth, the convention lacks punitive measures for violations, and relies on a non-confrontational and non-binding approach.
Fifth, the PIC requirement may be an inappropriate standard to adopt given the inherent power imbalance between developed and developing countries, which led to the convention being established in the first place.
Implications for India
Since India has banned nearly all categories of plastic waste, the Basel Convention amendment will not significantly affect domestic regulations. However, as the rules are delegated legislation, amending them does not require Parliamentary approval, leaving the door open for it to be diluted in the future.
This isn’t an unlikely scenario either given industry pressure and the government’s inconsistent stand in the past. If the rules were to be amended in line with the recent amendment to the Basel Convention and they adopt the PIC standard, it would be tantamount to a dilution of existing standards.
The primary opposition to banning plastic waste imports comes from industries that claim domestic waste is insufficient in quantity and/or quality for their recycling units. In a country where 40% of the 12 million tonnes of plastic waste generated annually goes uncollected, enforcing segregation at source and recycling is the only way forward. Cities like Alappuzha, Mysuru and Indore, which have successfully implemented segregation policies, are models for the rest of India.
Internationally, there is a need to strengthen the convention as well as make developed countries adequately accountable for managing their own waste. Countries must also address the inequality of the waste management infrastructure between developed and developing countries. Amending the convention to limit the quantum of developed countries’ waste exports would be more meaningful than the existing provisions.
Parul Kumar is a Delhi-based policy professional and lawyer. Lekha Sridhar is a climate policy advisor and lawyer. They tweet at @Theruleoftherul and @lekha_sridhar respectively.