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.


For further information, please contact Jonathan Cocker:

[email protected]



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