Differing views about recent updates to the Basel Convention and other export-related policies were shared with recyclers at the recent 2022 E-Scrap Conference and Trade Show in New Orleans. Fred Fischer, ISRI’s assistant vice president of international trade, joined a Sept. 21 panel to discuss the subject with Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), and Lisbeth Yohannes, international policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Basel Convention is an international treaty that controls international trade in hazardous wastes and certain other wastes, including certain recyclable commodities. There are currently 190 parties to the convention. The United States is not a party to the agreement but participates as an observer. U.S. and international recyclers are potentially impacted by the rules of the Basel Convention and recent amendments to the treaty, as well as by substantive changes in interpretation and procedures under the treaty.
Starting Jan. 1, 2025, exports and imports of all electrical and electronic materials will be subject to the agreement’s prior-informed-consent procedures. These procedures involve adhering to several pre-clearance and reporting protocols, namely that the country or economy receiving the materials must agree to accept them as well as countries through which the materials pass. Importers need to notify what is being shipped and confirm that the country receiving the materials can process the materials. It will be considered illegal for developing countries—those not belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) —to trade with the U.S. because of the convention’s non-party trade prohibition.
“Certainly, one of the key benefits of these amendments is reduced environmental impacts stemming from unsafe recycling and imported e-waste, so we’re happy to see them passed to try to address this problem,” Yohannes says. “Countries will have the opportunity to consent to imports and ensure facilities are equipped to manage waste around the sound manner and track and monitor shipments. But we are likely to see very significant disruptions in trade and the scrapping base, especially with non-OECD countries.”
Under the Convention, these materials are considered “e-waste”, although final definitions are still to be agreed:
- Any waste electrical and electronic equipment that includes an electrical or electronic component (e.g., circuit boards, batteries, display devices).
- Waste components of electrical and electronic equipment, unless covered by another Basel listing.
- Waste arising from the processing of waste electrical and electronic equipment or components (e.g., fractions arising from shredding or dismantling), unless covered by another Basel listing.
“Basel controls on such goods would likely overwhelm customs and environmental officials and the logistics infrastructure, especially in smaller economies with fewer resources to dedicate to customs and environmental enforcement,” Fischer says. “A risk-based ‘trusted trader’ system would be more manageable and likely result in stronger overall enforcement without substantially diminishing legitimate environmentally responsible trade.”
BAN, which supports the informed-consent requirements and the United States becoming a party to the Basel Convention, argues that the change would not only prevent hazardous materials going from the United States to developing countries, but should the United States join the treaty, the Convention would also allow U.S. recyclers to import hazardous materials from markets like the Caribbean. “Also, the U.S. could begin to prosecute illegal exporters,” Puckett says. “Non-exporting companies will be more competitive. We will be on a level playing field.”
Fischer notes ISRI continues to promote language in federal and state law and in international agreements that differentiates recyclables from waste and recycling from disposal. Under Basel, materials shipped to final disposal operations (e.g., landfilling) or recovery operations (like metals recycling) are all defined as wastes. The Basel Convention’s mission statement is to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects that may result from the generation and management of hazardous wastes and other wastes. ISRI would like all actions under the Convention to be viewed and measured by this primary mission and not by ancillary goals.
ISRI would also like to see quantifiable metrics developed and deployed to assess past and future success and failure and to guide reforms and future actions related to the Convention. The association seeks to have international trade experts and customs officials more involved in Basel negotiations, and definitions and significant details should all be agreed prior to approval of major amendments. Prior-informed-consent (PIC) procedures should balance effective enforcement with certified responsible behavior.
According to ISRI, nearly one-fourth of all recyclable materials consumed globally are traded internationally. In 2021, approximately 927 million tons of recyclable materials worth $191 billion were traded around the world. The next Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention will be held May 1–12, 2023, in Geneva. ISRI continues to work with the international recycling community to ensure recycling’s voice is heard.
Basel Action Network’s Jim Puckett and ISRI’s Fred Fischer onstage Sept. 21 at the E-Scrap Conference 2022 in New Orleans.