Bans on the export of plastic waste could have unintended consequences: stockpiling, illegal dumping and incineration, and more plastics being sent to landfill. It is therefore essential that export bans on plastics are strictly monitored and enforced, and that financial incentives such as rebates or levies are introduced to encourage businesses to recycle more.
Such bans are now in effect in the European Union, and are due to take effect in Australia next year. The bans are in response to an amendment to the Basel Convention, signed by more than 180 United Nations member states in 2019, to introduce a system of informed consent before shipping any plastics that are low quality or difficult to recycle. The UN hopes the bans will encourage sustainable disposal, persuade businesses and communities to use more recycled plastic and help countries in the global south to refuse to accept any waste they cannot process.
Environmentalists welcome these bans as a way to reduce pollution, improve recycling facilities and protect the oceans. But many warn that without strict enforcement, the bans will not have the desired effects. Many exporting countries lack the facilities they need to recycle plastics and are slow to build new ones, so could turn to more environmentally damaging solutions instead.
Nature 591, 34 (2021)