The Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal, is a multilateral agreement that is at the heart of much of the waste shipment legislation globally, including the European Regulation on Shipment of Waste 1013/2006. This Regulation was incorporated into UK law after Brexit. Currently, baled recovered plastic packaging, which is not hazardous in nature, typically falls under the Basel code B3010. B3010 can be shipped to many destinations for recycling with limited controls so long as certain conditions are met, for example, in relation to levels of contamination. B3010 can also be shipped to non-OECD countries that have agreed to allow its import, so long as destination country controls are complied with.
Three new Basel waste codes for waste plastic
In May 2019, an amendment to the Basel Convention was agreed, which is known as the Norway amendment. This amendment comes into force at the start of 2021 and will see the removal of code B3010 for plastic waste and its replacement with three new codes. The first of these new codes is a non-hazardous category, B3011, which will replace B3010 in the applicable annex to the Convention. B3011 has a tighter definition than B3010 and waste plastics in this category must be almost free of contamination and other types of waste. B3011 also contains limits on what polymers of waste plastic can be mixed together and, where mixing is allowed, the polymers must be destined for separate recycling. The second code is a specific hazardous waste code for waste plastic, A3210, which is based on existing conditions in the Convention as to when a waste becomes hazardous. All waste plastic that does not fit under the first two codes falls under code Y48 and this is the most significant change. This code is shown under an annex in the Convention for wastes that require special consideration.
Introduction of waste notifications
This amendment has the potential to significantly change the requirements for waste shipping once it is in force. This is because recovered plastic exported from the UK and falling under the new code Y48 will require prior notification and consent procedures to be followed. Waste notifications require consent from competent authorities in dispatch and destination countries as well as transit countries. All before the waste can be shipped. The most significant impact is that the process can take some time. This is alongside financial costs and additional administration associated with notifications.
Under the changes coming in exports of Y48 are, in principle, still possible to non-OECD countries from the UK. However, this is subject to all of the relevant competent authorities giving their consent as part of the notification process. The situation is different in the EU, where exports of Y48 to non-OECD countries will be prohibited from the beginning of next year.
Potential disruption to exports of plastic waste
In terms of waste falling under B3011, a system is being put in place in the UK that asks non-OECD countries how they wish to control shipments of different green list wastes. A similar process exists in the EU which now no longer applies to the UK post Brexit. There is potential for disruption to exports of plastic waste under this category, also if destination countries have not made a decision on how B3011 will be controlled by the start of next year. Finally, it is worth noting that the UK Government previously stated an intention to stop exports of waste plastic to non-OECD countries and so the ability to export to them, even under notification, may change in the future.
New categories for plastic waste
A key question is, how much of the recovered plastic packaging falls under B3011 and how much will fall under Y48? At this stage it is uncertain. It will come down to the interpretation of the new waste category definitions by the competent authorities. This is not just dependent on the interpretation of the UK regulators. If the competent authority in the destination country takes a different view, it will be the stricter interpretation that must be followed in terms of the shipping controls. Key will be the interpretation of the sentence in B3011 that waste should be almost free of contamination and other types of waste. Indications are that almost certainly household derived mixed polymer grades, such as mixed bottles and PTT, will fall under the new Y48. For other grades, much will depend on the level of non-plastic contamination. In the EU, guidance is being developed which will cover how key phrases used in the definitions should be interpreted. Indications are that this should be ready later in the year or early next year. This may give a clearer picture of how recovered plastics must be shipped to the EU, an important UK export destination. However, it will leave little time to make any necessary changes to sorting processes.
How does this amendment affect the UK?
It is important as the UK currently still exports a considerable amount of plastic packaging for recycling both to the EU and further afield. Data from NPWD (National Packaging Waste Database) shows that, in 2019, 61% of recovered plastic packaging in the UK was exported for recycling. This includes to non OCED countries, although the percentage of shipments to these countries has been reducing in recent years with an increase of shipments to the EU and Turkey.
A note to those involved in export of recovered plastics
Whilst the practical interpretation of the text in the revised Basel waste codes for waste plastic is not yet fully understood, it is advisable for those involved in the export of recovered plastics to assess whether shipping conditions for the material they handle might change from the start of next year and get input and advice from the relevant competent authorities. It is important to be considering this now due to the length of time notifications can take to put in place.