Much has been made of the dramatic impacts that China’s “National Sword” (preceded by the more modest “Green Fence”) has had on the international movements of recyclable materials.

Specifically, China’s decision to curtail the types of recyclable plastics it would accept has had a trinity of detrimental effects upon many developed world recycling markets:

  • there has been a significant surplus of recyclables growing at collection points without a clear market;
  • much of the content is either difficult to decontaminate or lacks the necessary recycling infrastructure to handle the material types; and
  • there is a glut of resulting feedstock which has pushed the price down, financially impacting recyclers.

The long-term solution seems to involve merely moving the end-of-life materials to other countries, many also being in East Asia.

Basel Convention Re-emerges

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, or simply the Basel Convention, has long purported to ban the international movement of hazardous wastes – and by extension, hazardous recyclable materials.

After a number of years of international dispute over the scope and operational import of these bans, a “country-led initiative” appears finally positioned to soon obtain the requisite votes among the Convention parties to clarify and implement a meaningful set of rules banning the movement of these hazardous materials.

No Return to Government-run Recycling Programs

In many of the developed countries, landfill bans have become entrenched for many of the materials previously sent to China. Once Basel effectively closes the remaining developing world recycling markets for hazardous materials, a new strategy must emerge. In North America (somewhat unlike Europe), waste-to-energy has been politically fraught and, across the developed world, is now seen as acceptable for only a rapidly diminishing set of materials.

Further, there are simply no budgets in many of the developed countries to permit state parties to re-absorb the full financial costs of operating a comprehensive set of recycling programs which were quietly avoided through export to China.

Producer-driven Resource Recovery as Cost-avoidance

For many governments within the developed world, there is no appetite to directly incur the substantial costs associated with directly operating and/or managing their own recycling programs for the growing categories of materials now needing a new end-of-life solution. (National Sword has forced many a government admission that no other alternatives have been meaningfully developed).

Instead, National Sword and the looming Basel ban will serve as the impetus to impose these waste management costs directly upon the “producers” in the form of individual producer responsibility obligations to operate private reverse supply chains. Further, this cost transfer can be conveniently (if not conscientiously) done in the name of circular economy and producer sustainability.

Basel Convention and International Circular Economy Strategies?

The triggering of the Basel ban will, no doubt, be an impetus to clarify which materials would be caught by hazardous waste designations, consistent with emerging resource recovery standards. Producers across many industries will need to pay close attention to Basel as the decisions there will likely impact circular economy strategies, including international product design and content decisions.