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Improving Alignment Between the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendment and the Harmonized System

Proposed recommendations for updating the Harmonized System Nomenclature with regards to Plastic Waste

Clinic: Graduate Institute, Fall 2021

Executive Summary

Read the full report here.

Plastic waste pollution, accelerated by international trade, is a growing global concern. Countries that import plastic waste – mostly countries in the Global South – often do not have sufficient recycling capacity in place, leading to the to improper disposal of harmful plastics which causing great damage to human health and the environment. Reflecting this crisis, several initiatives have been adopted both at national and international levels that seek to better regulate plastic waste trade. Most notably, effective from 1 January 2021, the Basel Convention Members adopted Plastic Waste Amendments, which specify new categories of plastic waste that will be subject to the Convention.

Against this backdrop, this report examines the interplay between the Basel Convention’s Plastic Waste Amendments and the international trading classification categories of the World Customs Organisation’s (WCO) Harmonized System (HS). It highlights the existence of a fundamental disconnect between these two regimes, which is rooted in their different functions. While the HS nomenclature provides a standardized classification system for traded products based on physical characteristics, the Basel Convention’s Plastic Waste Amendment distinguishes between different types of controlled and uncontrolled plastic waste on the basis of predominantly technical characteristics.

This report explains why the disconnect in plastic waste classification between the HS and the Basel Convention is problematic and proposes various solutions to address this misalignment. It does so by (i) analyzing the Basel Secretariat’s current draft proposal which seeks to amend the HS chapter 3915 (HS3915);* and (ii) by proposing an alternative approach to enhance alignment between the categorization of plastic waste under the HS and the Basel Convention.

Specifically, this report proposes an exclusionary list method of restructuring the HS codes to separate easy-to-recycle plastics from hazardous and hard-to-recycle plastics, which clearly distinguishes trade in easy-to-recycle plastic waste from hazardous and hard-to-recycle plastic wastes. The recommendations are as follows:

  • Expand current HS classifications for plastic wastes to include specific trading codes for easy-to-recycle plastics, while deeming all other plastics that fall under the “other” category controlled plastics by default.

  • Revise HS plastic waste guidelines used by customs officials, namely explanatory notes and HS plastics chapter definitions, to better define plastic waste and thresholds for mixed plastics.

  • Encourage countries to establish hazardousness thresholds as well as national licensing and certification standards that must be complied with for plastic waste to fall within the “easy-to-recycle” HS codes.

By using the technical and physical characteristics of easy-to-recycle plastics to develop specific HS codes, the Basel Convention’s categorization between plastic wastes is better reflected in product classifications used by customs officials across different countries.

This proposed method of categorizing plastic wastes in the international trading codes allows for hazardous and hard-to-recycle plastic wastes to be clearly distinguished from the easy-to-recycle and non-hazardous plastic wastes. This not only allows for easy identification of situations in which Basel Convention’s Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure must be applied, but also enables countries to adopt more targeted trade policies relevant to plastic waste management and a transition towards a circular economy.

* The Basel Secretariat proposes HS trading codes for plastic wastes of interest, but this approach has shortcomings which this report will later highlight, and address in the proposed recommendations.

Read the full report here.