Canada – U.S. plastic waste export deal violates international law

New legal analysis shows Canadian plan to export harmful plastic waste to the U.S. does not meet Basel Convention.

OTTAWA – A new legal analysis published by the Center for International Environmental Law highlights major inconsistencies between Canada’s legal obligations under the Basel Convention and an agreement the Canadian government has signed with the U.S. The agreement allows plastic waste trade to continue without the transparency and accountability Canada agreed to under the Basel Convention — a global treaty that aims to protect human health and the environment from hazardous wastes.

“The government has signalled it wants to tackle plastic pollution, spearheading the global Oceans Plastic Charter, ratifying recent amendments to the Basel Convention addressing plastic wastes, and proposing a ban on some non-essential single-use plastics,” said Sabaa Khan, the David Suzuki Foundation’s director general for Quebec and Atlantic Canada. “It must ensure Canada’s waste-export arrangements comply with Basel Convention requirements and do not provide backdoor pathways for harmful plastic wastes to enter the global environment.”

Recent amendments to the Basel Convention allow exports of clean, sorted, uncontaminated and unmixed plastic waste without prior notification or consent requirements. Enhanced controls are required for other plastic waste exports. But because the U.S. has never ratified the Basel Convention and does not regulate plastic waste exports, environmental groups are concerned that contaminated Canadian waste exported to the U.S. could be shipped to other countries without environmental controls — the type of scenario Basel is designed to prevent.

Environmental groups are also calling on the government to implement the proposed ban on non-essential single-use plastic items by end of year, as promised, and to move ahead with further measures to address plastic pollution in Canada.

“Canadians throw away three million tonnes of plastic waste annually,” said Karen Wirsig, plastics program manager with Environmental Defence. “Government must urgently address plastic waste at its source. It’s been more than a year since Environment and Climate Change Canada published its draft science assessment concluding that plastics are harming the environment. The longer we wait for regulation, the more plastic enters the environment.”

This week in the House of Commons, government MPs opposed a private member’s bill that would ban some plastic waste exports. Bill C-204 nevertheless survived an initial vote with the support of all four opposition parties and will now be reviewed by a parliamentary committee. The bill should be strengthened to fully implement Canada’s Basel Convention obligations, the groups say.

“Canadians want an end to the unfair dumping of our plastic waste into other communities. We need transparency and accountability so that we can have confidence about where our recycling is actually going,” said Emily Alfred, Waste Campaigner from the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

To bring Canada into compliance with its legal obligations under the Basel Convention and reduce plastic waste pollution, environmental groups are calling on the government to:

  • Amend its arrangement with the United States to specify that it exclusively applies to non-hazardous plastic waste as specified under Annex IX of the Basel Convention.
  • Ratify the Basel Ban amendment, to ensure that absolutely no plastic waste from Canada is exported to non-OECD countries.
  • Confirm listing of “manufactured plastics” on Schedule 1 of CEPA, as the government proposed in October 2020, to enable regulatory action, and ban non-essential single-use plastics.
  • Expand the proposed “integrated management approach to plastic products” to address plastic waste trade:
    • Restrict the export of plastic waste categorized under Annex II of the Basel Convention for recycling or recovery purposes.
    • Subject all exports of plastic waste categorized under Annex II of the Basel Convention to the procedure of prior informed consent.

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Basel Action Network, the Center for International Environmental Law, the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Friends of the Earth Canada,, Surfrider Foundation Canada and the Toronto Environment Alliance are calling on the Government of Canada to honour the Basel Convention and act quickly to curb plastic pollution.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is an environmental agreement that aims to protect human health and the environment from hazardous wastes. In May 2019, parties to the convention (including Canada) adopted amendments bringing most categories of plastic waste under the convention’s Prior Informed Consent controls. These amendments entered into force for Canada on December 29, 2020. Canada is therefore legally obligated to regulate trade in plastic waste according to the convention’s prior informed consent protocols. Only clean, sorted, uncontaminated and unmixed plastic waste should be exported from Canada without these controls. 

Feb. 4 CIEL analysis:

For more information, please contact:

Brendan Glauser, David Suzuki Foundation, [email protected], 604-356-8829

Emily Alfred, Toronto Environmental Alliance, [email protected], 416 543 1542

Jen Mayville, Environmental Defence Canada, [email protected], 905-330-0172