Basel Plastics Ban Generates e-Waste Recycling Infrastructure

The irony will not be lost on the electronics sector.  The Basel Ban Amendment, short a few remaining votes at the May meeting of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, ultimately failed to get the necessary support for passage in spite of much fanfare.  The Basel Ban Amendment would have meant a virtual halt in the continued export of e-waste internationally.  As of September 2019, it still needs one ratification vote to become international law, so e-waste exports can continue under the current legal ambiguities not yet addressed by the proposed amendment?

Basel Plastics Ban

The Basel Convention delegates did not, however, leave the May 2019 meeting empty-handed.  Norway’s long-shot proposal to designate most types of end-of-life plastics as regulated wastes under the Convention somehow caught fire in the wake of a flurry of media coverage over polluting plastic exports and received ratification from the membership.  The plastics ban amendments will become law as of January 1st, 2021 and will represent the end of an era for many nations which managed their plastics recycling programs through increasingly heavy reliance upon exports to developing nations.

E-Plastics Exports Prohibited by Basel

What would have been clear to the electronics industry during the heady days of May at Basel was that the scope of contaminated plastics caught by the Norway proposal would extend to virtually all the plastics casings (or “e-plastics”) used in electronic products.   And here is the irony – the electronics industry will be prohibited from exporting e-waste based upon what may be the least hazardous material in their products.

Domestic e-Waste Recycling Investments on the Rise

With or without the final Basel Ban Amendment vote, the electronics industry has already begun to seek new domestic e-Waste recycling infrastructure investment, some involving strategic partnerships between technology companies and e-waste recycling firms.  A corollary movement by electronics makers towards more third party repair rights may curiously also be a legacy of the Basel Plastics Ban.     In short, the structural changes occurring in the e-Waste sector will live on, long after the memory of its unlikely origins are well forgotten.

Jonathan D. Cocker heads Baker McKenzie’s Environmental Practice Group in Canada and is an active member of the firm's Global Consumer Goods & Retail and Energy, Mining and Infrastructure groups. Mr. Cocker provides advice and representation to multinational companies on a variety of environmental and product compliance matters, including extended producer responsibilities, dangerous goods transportation, GHS, regulated wastes, consumer product and food safety, and contaminated lands matters. He assisted in the founding of one of North America’s first Circular Economy Producer Responsibility Organizations and provides advice and representation to a number of domestic and international industry groups in respect of resource recovery obligations. Mr. Cocker was recently appointed the first Sustainability Officer of the International Bar Association Mr. Cocker is a frequent speaker and writer on environmental issues and has authored numerous publications including recent publications in the Environment and Climate Change Law Review, Detritus – the Official Journal of the International Waste Working Group, Chemical Watch, Circular Economy: Global Perspectives published by Springer, and in the upcoming Yale University Journal of Industrial Ecology’s special issue on Material Efficiency for Climate Change Mitigation. Mr. Cocker maintains a blog focused upon international resource recovery issues at environmentlawinsights.com.