UN Basel Convention marks 30th anniversary with calls to better tackle plastic, electronic, and household waste

22nd March 2019 - With an estimated 12,000 million tonnes of plastic entering landfills or the natural environment by 2050 under current trends1, and with an estimated 50 million tonnes of electronic waste being generated every year - projected to triple by 20502 - the international community mobilised in Geneva today to renew calls for more comprehensive and effective approaches to waste management. The need for urgent action to achieve the sound management of wastes was a key concern at the recent Fourth UN Environment Assembly where States pledged to work towards defining national targets at the earliest opportunity for reducing waste generation and increasing the reuse of products and recycling of waste.

With public awareness focussing largely on marine plastic litter, “a upstream focus on tackling at source the problem of waste is required more than ever before”, said Rolph Payet, Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention,3 a nearly universal environmental treaty aimed at ensuring the prevention and minimization of the generation of hazardous wastes and other wastes as well as their environmentally sound management, in addition to provisions aimed at controlling their exports and imports.

The international community marked the Convention’s 30th anniversary at an event today in Geneva, Switzerland, during which the many implementation successes were presented and discussed. Commenting on these, Mr Payet noted that “the Basel Convention has an impressive record of continuous innovation and evolution: the waste management problems of 1989, when it was adopted, were very different to the challenges we face today, and I am proud that Parties continue to see it as the principal legally-binding instrument with which to tackle such urgent issues as electronic waste, and plastic waste, issues which were not on our radar thirty years ago. The proposal to amend the Convention to more comprehensively deal with plastic waste, for example, which will be considered next month here in Geneva, demonstrates the continued relevance of this process and the trust that Parties have in our collective ability to step up and find solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges, together.”

This evolution is marked by new priorities that have enriched this treaty and gradually complemented the core business of the Convention, which is the control of transboundary movement of wastes. In 1999, the importance of the environmentally sound management of wastes became a strengthened area of focus; in 2006, heightened attention was given to the sound management of the particular challenging waste stream of electrical and electronic wastes; in 2008, the protection of human health from the hazards of wastes gained increased momentum; and in 2010, setting yet a new chapter in the life of the Convention, prevention and minimization of wastes gained increased support as the importance of working “upstream” was acknowledged. The Convention thus perpetually remains modern and very close to the everyday lives of all citizens: we each have the responsibility and opportunity to contribute towards achieving its objectives.

Household Waste

Central to minimising waste, including plastics, is tackling waste generation at the household level. The environmentally sound management of household waste – a major challenge especially for developing countries – is particularly difficult since not only is the quantity of waste generated increasing rapidly, but the composition of that waste is changing rapidly as well. For that reason, a Basel Convention Partnership on Household Waste was initiated in 2017 to explore and disseminate innovative solutions, an integrated approach, avoidance and minimisation of waste at source as well as systems for the collection, separation, transport, storage, treatment, processing, recycling and where necessary, final disposal, of household waste. More information is available here: https://www.basel.int/?tabid=5082

Plastic Waste

Fortunately, world attention continues to be focussed on the problems associated with plastic waste. The Basel Convention offers avenues for all States to take collective action towards minimising plastic waste generation at source and promoting their environmentally sound management. The next Conference of the Parties (COP), 29 April to 10 May 2019, will consider a range of additional steps to better address the challenges of plastics wastes4 including proposed amendments to the Convention on plastic wastes5; and the establishment of a new Partnership on Plastic Waste. This Partnership is designed as an international vehicle for public-private cooperation, sharing of best practices, and technical assistance in the area of at-source measures to minimise and more effectively manage plastic waste, thus helping tackle the global environmental problem of marine plastic litter. More information on minimising plastic waste is available here:https://www.basel.int/?tabid=6068

Electronic Waste

Electronic waste – or E-waste – is one of the fastest growing streams of hazardous waste in the world and is fuelled by the rapid growth in computing and mobile phone equipment sales. E-waste is considered hazardous due to the presence of toxic substances such as mercury, lead, and brominated flame retardants which are harmful to both human health and the wider environment. E-waste may also include precious and economically valuable metals such as gold, copper and nickel as well as rare materials of strategic value such as indium and palladium. The Basel Convention established innovative public-private partnerships to develop and implement policy responses to these issues and to build capacity in developing countries to manage e-waste, including globally-agreed Technical Guidelines on the transboundary movements of E-waste, pilot projects, and a Massive, Open, Online Course (MOOC) on E-waste which was undertaken by approximately 1,000 participants. The next Basel Convention COP may consider a new Partnership to build on these successes. The technical guidelines are available here: https://www.basel.int/?tabid=6068  

Notes for editors:

The Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, or BRS Secretariat, supports Parties implement the three leading multilateral environment agreements governing chemicals and waste, in order to protect human health and the environment. See www.brsmeas.org for more info and follow @brsmeas twitter feed for daily news.

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1 UN Environment UNEP/AHEG/2018/1/INF/3: Combating marine plastic litter and microplastics: an assessment of the effectiveness of relevant international, regional and subregional governance strategies and approaches; p.9;  full report: https://papersmart.unon.org/resolution/uploads/unep_aheg_2018_inf3_full_assessment_en.pdf

2 Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy PACE, 2019, A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot full report: https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_A_New_Circular_Vision_for_Electronics.pdf

3 The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal is the most comprehensive international environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes and is almost universal, with 187 Parties. For more information, see www.basel.int