The Basel Convention: From Hazardous Waste to Plastic Pollution

With the rapid development of advanced economies and technologies, the amount of residual waste has also increased, leaving governments with the dilemma of how to manage it. In the 1980s, costs for toxic waste disposal began to skyrocket, and traders began searching for cheaper methods to eliminate harmful byproducts. The cheapest solution that emerged was to export the waste, particularly to African or Eastern European countries. There, however, imported waste was improperly managed and dumped indiscriminately, leading to poisoned land, polluted water, and dirty air, which resulted in severe health problems. In response to the outcry from the developing world, the Basel Convention was signed by 53 states and the European Economic Community (EEC) to help regulate the trade of hazardous waste and to mitigate the unwanted transport of toxic shipments that governments did not consent to receiving.

Q1: What is the Basel Convention?

A1: On March 22, 1989, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The Basel Convention is the first attempt to establish an agreement on global standards for hazardous waste, including the trade and disposal of toxic waste.

The Conference of the Parties (COP), a body that develops the convention’s guiding policies, established three goals: (1) to reduce hazardous waste generation and to promote proper disposal, (2) to restrict the trade of wastes across borders, and (3) to establish a regulatory system for cases where transboundary wastes are permitted.

The convention details the parties’ obligations covering many different forms of waste: toxic, poisonous, explosive, flammable, and others. The Basel Convention unifies the global management of toxic imports to establish a process that permits them to be disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. The Basel Convention attempts to regulate hazardous waste trade but not to halt the transboundary movement of toxic materials. As such, international critics have claimed the convention falls short. Nevertheless, the Basel Convention remains the only legally binding global instrument designed to protect human health and the environment through controlling the movement of toxic waste.

Q2: How does the Basel Convention work?

A2: Consisting of 188 parties (the United States signed the convention in 1990 but has not ratified the agreement), the treaty details the parties’ obligations and protocols to minimize transboundary waste transport and dispose of waste as close as possible to its origin. The main article, Article 4 on general obligations, details the requirements for parties to utilize a Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure. This procedure consists of four requirements: (1) notification from the exporting country, (2) consent and issuance of a movement document by both parties, (3) transboundary movement of the waste, and (4) confirmation of waste disposal. Both importers and exporters of the covered wastes must establish a communication to clarify the production and transfer process of toxic materials. Parties must consent to covered wastes (substances or articles designated under the annexes to be disposed or intended to be disposed) being imported into their country, and parties maintain the right to refuse imports of hazardous wastes. Furthermore, parties must ensure that wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner. Shipments to and from non-parties of covered wastes are deemed illegal under the treaty (Article 4.5). Additionally, each party must have legislation preventing and punishing illegal traffic of hazardous materials.

As for enforcement, the 11th meeting established the Environmental Network for Optimizing Regulatory Compliance on Illegal Traffic (ENFORCE) to encourage party members’ compliance with the convention. This network of experts attempts to coordinate and improve cooperation and to uphold the standards set to combat illegal trafficking of waste. ENFORCE achieves this goal through promoting dialogue between the members, improving the transparency of information pertaining to the stakeholders, and increasing support for prevention efforts. Additionally, ENFORCE produces roadmaps and training tools to aid parties in their initiatives. Each party is responsible for implementing the Basel Convention, as well as additional amendments.

To improve the effectiveness and accountability of the Basel Convention, the treaty established the COP under Article 15 and the secretariat under Article 16. The secretariat provides logistical support under the UNEP for implementing the Basel Convention. In addition to developing policy, the COP is also the convening body for meetings at which the parties review the implementation of the convention and introduce new amendments.

Q3: What are the impacts of the convention?

A3: The Basel Convention established a “soft” law procedure whereby enforcement relies on countries establishing their own measures to comply with the treaty. The aim of the convention is to regulate the trade and mitigate illegal trade of hazardous materials. As a result, stricter regulations have led to more trade enforcement. For example, Indonesia has returned nearly 250 shipping containers of waste, and investigated thousands more, to the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Australia. Indonesia has also increased its border controls to address imports of toxic and dangerous materials. As Indonesia illustrates, the Basel Convention provides standards and tools for countries to tackle the problem, but it is the job of member states to create their own legislation and regulatory authority to implement aspects of the convention.

E-waste—discarded electronics (for example old phones, computers, fax machines) or electronic devices nearing the end of their “useful life”—has been another area of focus covered in the Basel Convention. However, according to a report released by the Basel Action Network (BAN), a nongovernmental organization advocating for Basel compliance, “scam recycling” still occurs when e-waste is illegally sent to developing countries. In most cases, importing countries do not have sufficient recycling technological capabilities, resulting in the dumping of refuse in fields and wastelands. Because the United States does not have sufficient domestic statutory authority to implement all provisions of the Basel Convention, the United States is not a party to the convention. However, the United States is one of the world’s largest producers of e-waste, which means that its absence undermines the overall effectiveness of the treaty.

Despite the fact the United States has not ratified the agreement, the Basel Convention has influenced other members to institute new policies. One such policy is China’s National Sword Policy. This initiative banned waste, pairings, and scraps of plastic from being imported into the country. While effective for reducing waste imports into China, trade flows have increased to other Southeast Asian countries as a result. Furthermore, the continued lack of transparency regarding waste trade has led to an increase of illegal waste trafficking under the guise of recycling. Some methods of circumvention include the mislabeling of shipments as recyclable and the mixing of recyclables and hazardous waste.

The Basel Convention depends on countries’ policy alignment with broader goals of the convention, as well as countries’ abilities to carry out relevant policies that would help them meet Basel Convention objectives. While the Basel Convention is a step in the right direction, particularly in terms of coordination among signatories, that member states are left to implement elements of the convention on their own reduces its overall efficacy. Furthermore, there are stark differences among parties when it comes to regulation requirements, standards, and labeling procedures, which continue to reduce the effectiveness of the treaty.

Q4: What are the new plastic amendments? What is their impact?

A4: With over 300 million tons of plastic produced annually and a predicted accumulated amount increasing to 33 billion tons by 2050, plastic debris management has become a pressing global issue. However, plastic waste was not clearly defined and covered under the original classification of hazardous substances. To rectify this gap in coverage, the COP voted to amend the treaty to include plastic within the covered wastes. Amendments to Annexes II (this annex now covers all plastic waste, specifically mixed plastics), VIII (including hazardous plastic waste), and IX (non-hazardous plastic waste destined for recycling) were implemented on January 1, 2021, to address trade in plastic waste.

With this series of amendments, the parties have established the first regulation that specifically addresses plastic waste. However, the most drastic change brought on by the amendments are trade restrictions for non-party members. Under the previous provisions of the convention, parties were able to conduct plastic waste transactions with non-parties. The new amendment prohibits parties to the convention from trading certain plastic waste and scraps (subject to the PIC procedure) with non-parties. The only exception to this rule is under Article XI, which allows members to conclude agreements with non-parties.  

While this change will affect parties to the convention, its biggest impact will be on non-parties. For example, the United States remains one of the largest plastic waste exporters, sending most of its waste to Canada and Mexico. However, as the United States has not ratified the convention, it is a non-party. Canada and Mexico are parties to the Basel Convention. Therefore, these transactions are prohibited under this new amendment. With this expansion, the goal of these changes is to reduce plastic waste trade by 53 million metric tons by 2030.

Q5: What comes next?

A5: The Basel Convention has given each party the responsibility to enact its own regulations and standards for the transboundary movement of wastes. Furthermore, the initial Basel framework has created a launching point to address the consistent disposal of waste. However, the Basel Convention only offers part of the solution as the most comprehensive agreement for waste transfer. With the increase of items covered, countries must now turn toward building a circular economy to dispose of the wastes in an environmentally sound manner, which will require new policies from national governments and multilateral institutions alike.

Recently, the U.S. Congress has developed proposals that attempt to reduce plastic usage. In March 2021, Senator Merkley (D-OR) proposed the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act to phase out single-use products. In September 2021, Representative Suozzi (D-NY) proposed an amendment to the tax code, which would establish an excise tax on plastics. While these are laudable efforts to combat plastic waste, the first priority for the United States should be to ratify the Basel Convention to demonstrate its commitment to the multilateral initiatives and to provide leverage at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). While conversations will likely focus on global decarbonization, COP26 represents a forum where countries can align their regulations on hazardous and plastic wastes. With the continued issue of waste production, countries should focus on integrating circularity into their economies rather than relying on exporting waste abroad. Since climate change is a global commons problem, “out of sight, out of mind” will not be possible, particularly because a decline in plastics production is unlikely in the near future. This global challenge requires everyone to unite against plastics and simply say, “You can’t sit with us.”

Emily Benson is an associate fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sarah Mortensen is a research intern with the CSIS Scholl Chair in International Business.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Emily Benson
Director, Project on Trade and Technology and Senior Fellow, Scholl Chair in International Business

Sarah Mortensen

Intern, Scholl Chair in International Business