A guide to your chemicals and waste conference

A farmer spraying herbicide on a rice field. (Pixabay/Zefe Wu)

Countries will converge in Geneva to discuss how to deal with harmful substances as the planet grapples with overwhelming levels of chemical pollution.

Like every two years and much under the media’s radar, a conference on chemicals and waste management will take place in Geneva. Environment ministers and officials from over 190 countries will gather to discuss how to address the dangers that toxic chemicals pose for humans and the environment.

Scientists have counted around 350,000 manufactured chemicals that make up a four-trillion-dollar industry, from pesticides to antibiotics to plastics, warning that we have breached the safe limit for humanity.

While most substances have not been tested for their toxicity, a few of them considered to be the most dangerous ones will be the focus of discussion over the next two weeks.

Initially planned to be held in the Bahamas, the meeting will take place at the International Conference Center Geneva from 1 to 12 May. It comes only a month before countries meet in Paris for another round of negotiations for a treaty to end plastic pollution.

What’s on the agenda

Forever chemicals. In force since 2004, the Stockholm Convention bans or restricts persistent organic pollutants (Pops). Also known as “forever chemicals”, these are substances that accumulate in living organisms, including humans, with severe health risks, such as cancer or liver failure or disrupting the endocrine system.

Read more: Catching sight of the invisible chemicals crisis

State parties will consider whether to add three more substances to their lists of worst offenders:

  • Methoxychlor, an insecticide used for crops and animal feed. It was developed to replace DDT, a pesticide known to cause cancer, seizures and other health problems after long exposure to it. While less persistent, Methoxychlor has also been shown to cause harm to human and animal health. Most countries have banned it or are in the process of phasing it out.

  • UV-328, a plastic stabiliser used to protect the polymer from UV sunlight. Found in toys, hair accessories and pellets, it is known to have travelled all the way to the Arctic, far from its sites of origin. The European Union is in the process of phasing out the toxic substance by November 2023. Campaigners are hoping that including the plastic additive in the Stockholm lists could open the door for plastic to be recognised as a vector of dangerous chemicals due to its capacity to travel long distances.

  • Dechlorane Plus or DP, a flame retardant used in plastics as a substitute for DecaBDE, which figures in the list of banned forever chemicals. Found mainly in cables and wires in the automotive industry, the substance is known to disrupt the endocrine and neurological systems. China is the sole remaining producer of DP and is planning to ban it by 2026.

The Convention can ban substances under higher or lower levels of restriction, giving countries the possibility to delay the phasing-out of a substance or continue to use it in specific circumstances.

Read more: Could an IPCC for chemicals save us from poisoning the planet?

The scientific committee tasked with examining substances has recommended a complete ban on methoxychlor without any exemptions. However, it has proposed a long list of exemptions to UV-238 and Dechlorane Plus, some of which go as far as 2044, according to the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), which gathers over 500 NGOs worldwide.

Campaigners have long rallied against most exemptions and exceptions, arguing that they allow dangerous substances to continue to circulate in the environment.

Dealing with waste. The 190 countries that are part of the Basel Convention are due to discuss updating guidelines on how to transport hazardous waste across borders safely. But the issue is a technical one, and countries have been dragging their feet.

Talks on how to handle plastic debris and products containing forever chemicals failed to reach a conclusion at last year’s conference in Geneva. E-waste, for which countries decided stricter regulations last year, will also be a hot topic as they negotiate the new rulebook.

When consensus makes no sense. The Rotterdam Convention, which deals with the trade of dangerous chemicals, gives countries the power to allow or ban the importation of certain substances and requires exporters to respect those decisions.

But its consensus-based approach has been paralysing discussions and being used as a veto power by certain countries, blocking the listing of certain substances against the wishes of the majority of countries for over a decade – most notably the herbicide paraquat and asbestos.

Switzerland, Australia, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali have tabled a proposal to circumvent that. They suggest creating a new list for chemicals that are not able to make it on the main list. Only countries that ratify the amendment would be required to request the importer’s consent.

African countries, which often lack the resources to control what chemicals are entering their territory, have been discreetly pushing for a change to the consensus rule. China, India and Russia, the world’s top asbestos exporters, have all objected to the proposal.