GENEVA • Around 180 countries have reached a deal that aims to sharply reduce the amount of plastic that gets washed into the world's oceans and clamp down on shipments of plastic waste to poorer countries, the United Nations said.
Imports of waste plastic from wealthier nations to South-east Asia, particularly Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, soared following a sweeping ban by China on many types of waste materials for recycling and disposal. In Malaysia, huge amounts of imported plastic waste have ended up being dumped in the countryside or burned, triggering a government crackdown on the polluting trade.
In Geneva, nations late on Friday agreed to amend the Basel Convention to make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, while also ensuring that its management is safer for human health and the environment.
Exporting countries - including the United States - will now have to obtain consent from countries receiving contaminated, mixed or unrecyclable plastic waste, The Guardian said.
"I'm proud that this week in Geneva, parties to the Basel Convention have reached agreement on a legally binding, globally reaching mechanism for managing plastic waste," Mr Rolph Payet, executive secretary at UN Environment for the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, said in a statement.
"Pollution from plastic waste, acknowledged as a major environmental problem of global concern, has reached epidemic proportions with an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic now found in the oceans, 80-90 per cent of which comes from land-based sources," the statement said.
In the ocean, plastic can hang around for decades, breaking down into small pieces that are eaten by birds, whales, turtles and other animals. The waste also accumulates in huge garbage patches, some the size of small countries.
The IPEN umbrella group seeking to eliminate hazardous, toxic chemicals said the amendment would empower developing countries to refuse plastic waste dumping.
"For far too long, developed countries like the US and Canada have been exporting their mixed toxic plastic wastes to developing Asian countries claiming it would be recycled in the receiving country.
"Instead, much of this contaminated mixed waste cannot be recycled and is instead dumped or burned, or finds its way into the ocean," said IPEN science adviser Sara Brosche.
Nearly half the plastic waste exported from the US for recycling in the first six months of 2018 was shipped to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, according to analysis of US Census Bureau data by Unearthed, Greenpeace's investigative arm, The Guardian reported.
"Instead of taking responsibility for their own waste, US companies are exploiting developing countries that lack the regulation to protect themselves," The Guardian quoted Mr John Hocevar, Oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA, as saying.
Last November, a separate Greenpeace investigation exposed huge imports of plastic waste into Malaysia. Greenpeace listed the top 10 plastic exporters to Malaysia between January and July last year, with the US topping the list at 195,444 tonnes, followed by Japan at 104,920 tonnes, Britain at 95,248 tonnes, Germany at 72,501 tonnes and Hong Kong at 42,398 tonnes.
"High-income countries tend to have waste management systems in place in varying degrees. In many households, waste is neatly separated into recyclables and non-recyclables. Most citizens from these countries are unaware that most of the so-called recyclables are being shipped abroad," Greenpeace said.
The surge in waste imports has overwhelmed South-east Asian nations, Greenpeace said.
But while Asia is a major recipient of waste, it is also a top polluter: 90 per cent of ocean plastics come from 10 rivers, eight of which are in Asia, studies have shown. The five most plastic-polluting countries are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
Poor waste collection and management and lack of education are major reasons. Recent efforts by regional governments are starting to tackle the crisis.
The Geneva meeting also undertook to eliminate two toxic chemical groups - dicofol and perfluorooctanoic acid - plus related compounds. Perfluorooctanoic acid has been used in a wide variety of industrial and domestic applications, including non-stick cookware, carpets, paper and paints.
Mr Payet said the negotiations, which began 11 days ago and brought together 1,400 delegates, had gone much further than anticipated.
Officials attributed the progress partly to growing public awareness worldwide - reinforced by documentary films by British naturalist David Attenborough and others - of the dangers of plastic pollution to marine life.
Mr Paul Rose, expedition leader for the National Geographic Pristine Seas Expeditions, said he believed changing public opinion worldwide about plastic pollution had played a positive role in the negotiations.
"It was those iconic images of the dead albatross chicks on the Pacific Islands with their stomachs open and all recognisable plastic items inside it, and most recently, it's when we discovered that nano-particles do cross the blood-brain barrier, and we were able to prove that plastic is in us," Mr Rose said.