Guilbeault seeks to solve the problem of exporting plastic waste

OTTAWA – In the year since new rules took effect to slow global exports of plastic waste, shipments from Canada have increased by more than 13%, with the bulk going to the United States. United without knowing where they end up in the end.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said this kind of nonchalant approach to exporting plastic waste must stop.

“I’m very worried about this and I think we clearly have to do better,” Guilbeault said in an interview.

“If we’re shipping plastics for recycling, we better make sure that’s what’s happening. And frankly, at the moment, it’s not clear to me that’s always the case and in fact, there have been a number of instances where it is not.”

Guilbeault said he was talking with his officials about what could be done to fix the problem “because right now we’re not doing a very good job.”

Canada’s shaky history of exporting plastic waste drew international attention in 2019, when shipments of garbage falsely labeled as plastics for recycling led to a diplomatic standoff with the Philippines.

This has shed light on the global garbage trade, which has mainly seen wealthy countries put their rubbish on container ships bound for developing countries where it often ends up in landfills or burned, leading to a series of repercussions on the environment and human health.

Following this embarrassment, Canada said it would work with the Canada Border Services Agency to end exports of contaminated plastic and agreed to amendments to the United Nations Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes that added mixed plastic waste to the substances covered by the rules of the convention. .

On paper, this meant that after January 1, 2021, Canada should only be able to export waste to other convention members, and such exports would require the prior informed consent of the importing country and confirmation from how the waste was disposed of.

But a few months before the amendments took effect, Canada quietly signed an agreement with the United States allowing the free flow of plastic waste between the two, even though the United States is not a party to the Basel Convention. . The deal is allowed under the Basel rules, but because the US isn’t bound by the convention, it can do whatever it wants with the waste, including shipping it wherever it wants.

Trade data collected by the Basel Action Network shows that more than 340 million kilograms of plastic waste was exported by the United States to just four countries in 2021 – Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Vietnam.

Kathleen Ruff, director of Right On Canada, which lobbies against the export of all hazardous waste, called the Canada-US agreement “a colossal loophole that violates the Basel Convention by allowing us to export huge quantities of plastic and other waste to the United States without controls to prevent our waste from being shipped to developing countries. »

“It’s not the environmental leadership we were promised,” she said.

The plastic amendments to the Basel Convention were intended to begin to reduce total exports of plastic waste. But in the 12 months since the changes came into effect, affecting most waste shipments to Basel signatories, Canada’s plastic waste shipments increased by 13% to 170 million kilograms, or about the weight of 17 billion half-liter plastic bottles.

Its shipments to the United States totaled 158 million kilograms, an increase of 16% over 2020 and 92% of total exports.

The 2021 total is the highest since 2017, when almost 200 kilograms were exported, less than 60% of which went to the United States.

Vancouver Island NDP MP Gord Johns, who successfully passed a motion to create a national plastic pollution strategy, said Canada’s record on plastic pollution “is appalling.”

He said if Guilbeault was serious about plastic waste, he would get Canada to sign on to the comprehensive Basel Convention amendment that would ban the export of hazardous waste, including most plastics, with or without consent. an importing country.

One hundred of the 188 parties to the Basel Convention have ratified this amendment, but Canada is not a party.

“Until Canada joins the 100 countries that accept this amendment, they are not bound by it,” he said. “And the amendment makes it illegal to export hazardous waste from Canada to developing countries. So I guess the question is why is Canada refusing to join the rest of the world.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 4, 2022.