The Basel Convention is an international treaty designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, particularly from developed to less developed countries, due to concerns regarding the public health consequences of dumping. Countries' adoption of laws implementing the Basel Convention serves as a critical check against problematic cross-border flows of waste. However, the convention can impede remanufacturing of post-use products and recovering secondary materials from manufacturing and used products. So, while electric vehicle lithium batteries can be repurposed, some countries treat them as hazardous waste, which has the effect of hindering circularity.
In this author's opinion, comprehensive reform of the Convention to incorporate circular principles is unlikely in the foreseeable future. But countries can accelerate circularity by streamlining implementing requirements with rigorous transparency to encourage remanufacturing and secondary materials use. France, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Flanders have established a cross-border framework to harmonize administrative requirements to recover materials from used electronics for use in new products while adhering to existing legal requirements and public oversight.
Similarly, as recommended by the IRP, governments can also reclassify certain eligible products for remanufacturing as "non-waste" while remaining vigilant against dumping.
4. Reform recycling regulations to promote closed-loop manufacturing
Reexamining existing national regulations for opportunities to promote closed-loop manufacturing and remanufacturing can result in environmental and economic benefits.
Governments should amend recycling regulations to incentivize comprehensive use of materials, helping manufacturers recognize how to minimize loss of materials and maximize value. The U.S. EPA enacted one such rule that removes from the "waste" category manufacturing residuals returned in a closed loop to production. The EPA also strengthened requirements on recyclers to safely manage against risk of fires, explosions, accidents and release of hazardous materials. The changes are projected to save $59 million in materials and reduce emissions by 344 kilotons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.
5. Incentivize design for circularity
Our current take-make-waste economy doesn't reward making products that last, or that are easily reused, repurposed, repaired or recycled.
Governments should nudge companies to design products that retain their value or that enable recovery of materials as secondary feedstock. This can be done through tax policies that favor remanufactured goods. Currently, such products are largely taxed as new, which effectively penalizes them since they were previously taxed during the original manufacturing. China, for example, has reduced taxes on products that include "waste resources," such as industrial metal waste.
Governments can also set goals for minimum recycled content. China's Producer Responsibility Extension System Implementation Program targets 20% recycled content in new products in electronics, batteries and automobiles by 2025. Similarly, the EU Commission is currently evaluating eco-design rules to foster circularity.
The promise of the circular economy
When carefully measured, designed, and integrated, the circular economy holds promise for the environment, consumers, businesses and governments, as it can:
- Reduce unnecessary waste
- Derive even more value from products
- Reduce damaging emissions
Currently the circular economy is generating considerable interest in many sectors. These are five concrete, near-term actions that governments and the private sector can take to realize reduced material intensity and improved GHG outcomes.
Author: Mathy Stanislaus