Australia: Murky waters: proposed amendments to Basel Convention on transboundary movements of hazardous waste

Last Updated: 7 January 2019
Article by Christine Covington and Tahnee De Souza

In June 2018 Norway proposed amendments to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (Convention). The amendments were intended to minimise marine pollution and the illegal dumping of plastic waste. They will be considered in April 2019, at the fourteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties.

The problem of plastic waste

The Convention supports the establishment and implementation of policies for the importation and exportation of waste. Australia signed the Convention on 22 March 1989 and it entered into force here on 5 May 1992.

The durable properties of plastic and the transboundary movement of plastic litter across the oceans pose a shared problem for the international community. Plastic is said to make up 80-85% of the total number of marine litter items, by beach count.

Disposal of plastic waste has a new prominence thanks to the China National Sword Policy, which has left Australia and a number of other countries in the developed world struggling to find alternative recycling and disposal options for their plastic waste.

The proposals and their rationale

On 2 June 2018 the Norwegian government proposed that the Convention be amended to include three new waste listings for waste plastic, under:

  1. Annex II – controlled as ‘waste requiring special consideration’;
  2. Annex VIII – controlled as ‘hazardous waste’; and
  3. Annex IX – classified as non-hazardous waste, outside of Basel control.

Norway proposes removing solid plastic from its current listing in Annex IX (outside the scope of Basel Convention) and instead moving it to the category of Annex II (waste requiring special consideration). Plastic wastes would therefore fall within the scope of the Convention. This would mean that exporting states would need to seek informed consent from the receiving country before shipping solid plastic waste. The new conditions would also impose very stringent requirements for plastics to be characterised as ‘non-hazardous’.

Norway’s proposals promote the trading of uncontaminated and sorted plastic waste streams and incentivise the sound management of plastic waste. The proposals should help curb the amount of plastic waste that finds its way to the ocean. The proposed amendments are grounded on a successful model which has been in practice between 32 European countries for a number of years.

The consequences for Australia

The Basel Convention is implemented in Australia through the Commonwealth's Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1989 (the Act), overseen by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Energy.

Norway’s proposals will be considered at the fourteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties which is scheduled to take place from 29 April to 10 May 2019. If the proposals are adopted, Australia will need to further amend the Act to meet its obligations under the Basel Convention. As a country which exports plastics, Australia would be obliged to seek the informed consent of the receiving party prior to exporting plastic waste and take more responsibility for environmentally sound disposal of waste.

Countries such as Malaysia will be pleased to see the proposals implemented, as importation of much greater amounts of plastic waste are proving to be an unwelcome consequence of the China National Sword policy.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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