Will Norwegian proposal help or hinder plastics recyclers?

Will Norwegian proposal help or hinder plastics recyclers?

Proposed amendment to Basel Convention would set strict quality standards on plastic scrap imports to combat ocean pollution.

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February 6, 2019

Norway’s proposal to rigorously reform and restrict imports of plastic scrap has been met with mixed emotions by governments, waste management companies and plastics recyclers.

In a bid to combat ocean plastics, Norway last year proposed to amend the Basel Convention— legislation signed by 187 countries governing the classifications and exports of hazardous waste around the world. Under the amendment, plastic scrap would classify as “wastes requiring special consideration” and be subject to strict quality specifications. Bales of low-grade mixed rigid plastics, for example, would no longer be acceptable for export to many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Mexico.

U.K.-based plastics recycling company Axion Polymers, which currently exports “significant quantities” of these materials, says the change would “force the U.K. to take responsibility for its own plastic waste” and lead to more investment in infrastructure.

“It will clean up waste packaging flows—a major cause of ocean plastics—by setting strict quality specifications for exports and clearly put pressure on the waste and recycling sector to raise processing standards,” says Axion’s associate consultant Keith Freegard.

The European Federation of Waste Management and Environmental Services (FEAD), which represents EU’s private waste management industry, says the proposal, similarly to China’s import ban, would impact the development of the EU market for plastic scrap, by banning different types of plastic scraps and raising shipping costs.

“To combat marine litter, countries need to work on preventing illegal waste dumping, improving and expanding their respective waste management and particularly collection and recycling capabilities," FEAD says. “To reduce the amounts of refuse going into the world’s oceans, we need an effective enforcement of waste management legislation, an expansion of waste treatment infrastructure, dissemination of information and best practice, as well as educational measures.”

While it would would take several years to build new infrastructure in the UK., Freegard says recyclers would need that time to “ramp-down” on the amounts of plastic scrap being sent overseas for recycling.

“The best place to get a sustainable, resource-efficient and low-risk material supply is from our own recycling infrastructure,” he says. “And that means delivering good quality material back to the packaging producers. Money raised from PRN system reforms should be invested in the recycling infrastructure to ensure it delivers the quality of material required.”

While Freegard admits a shift from an export-dependent position to a more "self-sufficient, technical-based" recycling system would be “painful for some,” he adds, “If we don’t have that push, we’re always going to be stuck where we are relying on cheap exports.”

The Basel Conference of the Parties (CoP), which considers and adopts amendments to the convention, will discuss the proposal at a meeting in April in Geneva, Switzerland. If the Norway proposal is adopted in April, the amendment will become law within six months and signatories will have to enact their own laws by the end of the year.