Misguided shot

The Basel convention guidelines to manage plastic waste miss the point: reducing plastics is the real solution

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Thursday 28 February 2002

-- (Credit: Kumar)india has again shown its willingness to be led by the West to commit euthanasia. It has adopted the draft technical guidelines for managing plastic waste prepared by the technical working group of the Basel Convention on January 14-15, 2002, in Geneva. About 100 countries, all signatories to the Basel Convention have adopted the guidelines.

The 'Draft Technical Guidelines for the Identification and Environmentally Sound Management of Plastic Wastes and for their Disposal' will now set the mandate for the 6th Conference of the Parties (CoP-6) to the Basel Convention scheduled to be held in December 2002 at Geneva. The Basel Convention on the control of the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal came into being in March 1989 after a series of notorious 'toxic cargoes' from developed countries drew public attention to the dumping of hazardous waste in developing and East European countries. The Convention regulates the movement of these wastes and obliges its members to ensure that such wastes are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

The technical guidelines on plastics adopted by the convention's nineteenth technical working group (which are set up to draw up the agenda prior to the CoPs) aims to provide technological advice on how to handle safely, compact, store and transport plastic waste. It suggests what are the preferred technological options for environmentally sound recycling, recovery and final disposal of plastic waste.

But experts say the guidelines are too wishy-washy to help tackle the menace of plastic waste, especially in the South. The principal beneficiary of the draft guidelines, claim non-governmental organisations from the South, will be either the North or the mammoth plastic industry. Meant to provide understanding and providing management advice on the technical aspects of plastic waste, including recycling, the environmental and health impact of plastic waste has not remained central to the draft believe many.
The guidelines The guidelines lay stress on recycling of plastic waste and suggest energy recovery from the processes. According to the guidelines, research and practice developed over the last decade has indicated that under strict operating conditions, plastic waste, even if rich in poly vinyl chloride (pvc), can be incinerated safely and effectively. Sustained high temperature combustion recovers maximum energy from the fuel and ensures complete breakdown of toxic organic compounds. Landfills are the least preferred solution for plastic waste disposal. The guidelines also stress that the Stockholm Convention for Persistent Organic Pollutants (pops) must be kept in mind and pops from incineration operations be prevented.
Off mark Experts and civil society representatives from the South have grave doubts over the efficacy of the guidelines. They believe that the guidelines are drafted on the basis of experiences in the developed countries and do not look into the problems of the developing countries. "The guidelines favour the plastic industry," says Ravi Agarwal, coordinator of Srishti, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation (ngo), which was active in Geneva during the deliberations.

Adopting such guidelines will not help manage the over 100 million tonnes global annual consumption of plastics, believe experts, or ensure safe management of half of this plastic which each year ends up as waste. In fact some of the solutions the draft does suggests, put mildly, are controversial to the core.

Take the case of pvc . "The guidelines claim all plastic waste can be managed and make no distinction between the ecologically damaging pvc and other kinds of plastic waste," says Agarwal. Burning pvc is known to generate dioxins -- chemicals that cause cancer. The guidelines suggest that it can be burned. In India, at present, its burning is banned. But India seems to have capitulated. V Rajagopalan, joint secretary in the Union ministry of environment and forests says, "In India burning of pvc is banned under the Biomedical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 1998. We will look into it and consider the matter and try to reconcile." He insists that the guidelines are not legally binding. He forgets to qualify the statement -- they are not binding till India finally succumbs and ratifies these guidelines. India has already adopted them under the technical working group. Once they come up for CoP-6 they can be signed upon and finally ratified. The ratifying countries will then be bound to amend laws in tune with the convention. The non-committal Indian bureaucracy seems to have let the West and the industry -- which will gain the most out of this suggestion-- dictate terms. The West will gain as it will be able to export its pvc waste to developing nations to burn and the plastic industry will be able to merrily carry on business, say some ngos.

The draft guidelines' promotion of incineration is another controversial advice that the ngos in South remain vary of. Incineration of plastics with the consequent emissions has always been a burning issue with industry claiming that they are not toxic and environmentalists saying incineration either releases toxic gasses or generates hazardous waste. The guidelines insist that incineration with energy recovery remains a good option for waste management.

Observers also feel that the draft does not integrate market and economic realities of existing technologies and management practices. The Indian recycling trade is a case in point. It is predominantly small-scale and highly unregulated. The environmental monitoring of the trade is appalling. So while the guidelines support recycling of waste as a clean way of managing waste, they forget the cost intensive methods of the West cannot be replicated in South and countries like India need to find their own answers and techniques.

Big picture
What the draft does talk about is controversial but what it forgets to mention -- reducing plastic waste -- is criminal. "There are no guidelines for waste minimisation which should ideally form crux of any waste management policy. "We tried to fight for waste minimisation clause, but developed countries, which overshadow most of the international treaties, refused to acknowledge it," adds Agarwal. As a piecemeal approach, one sentence on waste minimisation was added in the guidelines without detailing how this can be acheived," says Agarwal.

"The guidelines provide a measured advice on plastic waste management. They are meant to show a direction and not question the existing materials like pvc," says an industry representative. Quite obviously the plastic industry is gleeful about the guidelines. The industry seems to have enjoyed support from countries like the us, where per capita consumption of polymers is about 50 times more than that in India. The us representative at the deliberations is reported to have said, 'Within the Stockholm Convention (governing pops), it is our understanding, there are no operational responsibilities and obligations regarding incineration, nor any responsibilities and obligations with regards to plastics specifically...it is important to bear in mind that the Stockholm Convention is not yet in force." In other words the us believes that it is free to promote incineration of plastic waste and sale of plastics in developing nations. A perfect example of this duplicitous behaviour by the North is seen in the export of plastic waste from the European Union (eu) ever since its directive asking member nations to produce only as much plastic as it can manage. Some eu countries such as Germany, to kill the spirit of the directive, have begun exporting their waste to countries such as India. Kisan Mehta, president of Save Bombay Committee, a Mumbai-based ngo, says, it is countries like these from the North which will benefit from the guidelines, legitimising the transfer of the highly polluting waste recycle business to developing nations, keeping their backyards clean.

The guidelines have done well by suggesting that landfilling is the least preferred option but, to the detriment of the environment, they have allowed the gist of the problem to leach out of the ambit. The developing nations may have to pay dearly if the guidelines become obligatory for the countries. And they will only have their own complacence to blame.

Basically amiss
What the guidelines say and what the South should read
Stresses on energy recovery by incineration and other means Burning some plastics makes the problem invisible — releases cancer causing dioxins

The developed countries gain by selling its obsolete and exorbitantly expensive incineration technology to the South

Will alter the balance of the trade against recycling
Advises burning of poly vinyl chloride (PVC) Skirts the controversy regarding deadly toxics that are emitted while burning PVC

Overlooks how polluting PVC production is
Promotes recycling The developed nations could ship their waste to the South under this pretext

Glosses over the need to manage the unorganised and polluting small-scale recycling industry

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