Wednesday, January 18, 2012 - 00:01
Beyond Basel - is it time to emulate the Fairtrade movement?


Ray Georgeson


Context can be important, and so writing this still smarting from my beloved Manchester United’s unceremonious dumping out of the Champions League by FC Basel what else could I write about other than Basel? Not the football team of course (I have read enough about them thank you) but the Basel Convention and more topically the recent developments at the 10th Conference of the Parties of the Convention held in Colombia.
It may have passed many by, obsessed as we are by weekly bin collections and the state of the Eurozone –the two most important issues facing the country at the moment (in the eyes of some newspapers). However, it is worth a fresh look, as in October all 178 countries that are Parties to the Convention supported the early entry into national laws of the Basel Ban Amendment which prohibits all exports of hazardous wastes, including electronic wastes and old obsolete ships from developed to developing countries. 
Although this Amendment has been in existence for 16 years it has only just been decided that it will now come into force when 68 of the original 90 countries that ratified Basel in 1995 follow up with ratification of this proposal. So far 51 have done so and it is expected that the balance needed will do this in the next couple of years.
Probably the biggest absentee from the table on Basel remains the United States, which has still not ratified the Convention at all. Previous laggards (including Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Japan) have now signed up, and it is expected that there will be more diplomatic pressure upon the US and other absentees to ratify, especially as they will (in theory) find it hard to avoid the implications of the Amendment in terms of seeking to eliminate the export of hazardous wastes from developed to developing countries and driving the management of hazardous wastes in home nations.
Closer to home, the issue of the export of used electronic goods to developing countries especially in Africa was spotlighted in a recent meeting of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Waste Group. There was a mixed response to a call for a total ban on exports of used electronics for re-use until those countries had decent recycling infrastructure available for the reclamation of those products when finally at their end-of-life, somewhere in a developing country. In the eyes of some, this present practice of exporting electronic goods for re-use takes no responsibility for what happens to the items after their re-used life is expired and they become genuinely redundant. For others, a ban is a step too far because the items have a genuinely valuable second life in most developing countries which will be met by other exporters if we don’t fulfil the need from our product stream and we should work to assist in developing recycling infrastructure in parallel rather than place a blanket ban on product export for re-use.
Of course, the two elements to this conversation connect, as the Environment Agency said recently “many illegal exports are being made under the guise of fit for reuse”[1] and so inevitably the focus falls back on our regulators and enforcement regimes and the clear lack of priority we as a nation seem to give to resolving these issues of exporting waste masquerading as product for poorer people in developing countries to deal with. Ratifying a Convention is one thing, implementing the necessary measure to fulfil it are clearly another.
Of course, we should spotlight the shortcomings of the inspection and regulatory regime, but surely we should also be spotlighting the companies that ply this grubby trade? Now I know this is difficult, because by definition they are often hard to find, operating in an underworld of holding companies and offshore registrations. This probably has to be left to the regulators and the investigative journalists, but is there something more that should be done to promote the value of legitimate trade in second-life products, linked to support for the development of recycling infrastructure in developing countries?
It makes me think there is a parallel with the way that the Fairtrade movement has done so much to positively promote our trade with developing countries by building the relationships and the supply infrastructure that gives farmers and others in developing countries a fair price for their exports of product and their labour on a more sustainable basis.   Something similar could be valuable for product re-use through export and ultimate recycling – a FairRecycling initiative or something like that?
I shall ponder on this as I wend my weary way to Old Trafford on Thursday nights for the Europa League matches. Thank you, Basel...
With acknowledgement to the Basel Action Network
If any readers would like to talk more about this, I’d be happy to set up a discussion. Contact me through


previously published in Resource magazine, Jan/Feb 2012