Nicole Welle | March 15, 2021
Over 180 countries agreed last year to place strict limits on plastic waste exportation to poor countries, but new trade data from January shows that plastic exports from the United States have increased.
Participating nations met at Geneva in 2019 to add plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, a treaty that places restrictions on shipping hazardous waste. The new addition makes it illegal for most nations to accept plastic scrap shipments unless they are in their purest form. However, the U.S. has continued to send large shipments overseas to poor countries in the months since the addition took effect in January, according to a New York Times article.
The lack of compliance likely stems back to the United States’ refusal to ratify the global ban. The U.S. is one of the few countries that did not ratify the convention, but it is still subject to its laws since participating nations are banned from trading with non-participating nations. So far, this has not stopped American companies from exporting more scrap plastic than ever. January reports showed that the U.S. exported 48 million tons that month, a 3 million-ton increase from the previous January.
The convention’s main goal was to reduce the amount of plastic wealthier countries, like the U.S., were shipping over to poorer countries. The waste often ends up in landfills, oceans or other natural landscapes instead of being recycled, and poorer nations often can’t safely handle the amount of waste coming in from the U.S. Of the 25 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. sent to poorer countries in January, much of it went to Malaysia, one of the convention’s participating countries. Advocates worry that continued lack of compliance on this level will cause more problems in the future. Even if receiving countries refuse to accept American plastic at their ports, American companies could refuse to take it back and find a way to send it elsewhere.
The U.S. government would need to pass legislation to ratify the convention, and it will remain limited in its ability to stop the exports until that happens.