A toxic issue: stepping up chemicals and waste management

UNEP's reports highlight the need for international action to achieve better chemical and waste management. [Photo: Keystone / Gaetan Bally]

Highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs), endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and environmentally persistent pharmaceutical pollutants (EPPPs): If remembering the names of hazardous chemicals is difficult, keeping track of new substances and enforcing regulations is also proving a tough task for governments.

In the past 30 years, over 10  international conventions have been adopted aimed at protecting people’s health and the environment from the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals and waste.

But progress remains uneven across countries and “limited attention has been paid or actions taken for these issues” the UN Environment programme (UNEP) concluded in one of two reports on chemical and waste management presented on Tuesday over a virtual briefing organised by the Geneva Environment Network.

The reports, which focus on issues of concern and options to strengthen science-policy platforms,  were requested by the UN Environment Assembly during its fourth session in 2016 and are intended to inform the international community about challenges and opportunities related to the regulation of these substances.

Why is it important? There is a vast wealth of scientific evidence on the health risks and environmental hazards that certain chemicals pose. In 2006, a global policy framework known as  the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) was adopted in Doha identifying eight areas of concern, such as the use of lead in paint and highly hazardous pesticides.

Yet concerted global action to reduce their impact leaves much to be desired. According to UNEP, in 2017 lead exposure accounted for 1.06 million deaths and 24.4 million years of life lost to disability and death due to long-term effects on health. Developing regions are burdened the most.

Implementing these instruments can be complicated. Some of these chemicals might be essential for the survival of an economic sector, said Rolph Payet executive secretary for the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, and one of the speakers at the virtual event. For example, farmers rely on pesticides to grow their crops and a ban could disproportionately affect them if they are not given an alternative.

Payot and the other panelists also discussed options on how to achieve sound chemical and waste management through well-informed policy-making.

Key takeaways:

  • Progress is not enough and is uneven across regions and countries. While certain countries have managed to successfully regulate some chemicals, developing countries are still struggling to meet standards. Rolph Payet, executive secretary for the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions highlighted that not all countries have the same socioeconomic specificities which must be taken into account. “Practical issues must be addressed, especially for long standing issues where developing countries might encounter financial and capacity limitations,” he said.

  • Assault on science and the right to benefit from scientific progress. In the era of fake news, not only are democracies under attack but the credibility of scientific evidence as well, said Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.. He stressed that the right to enjoy scientific progress is being undermined in the name of free markets, notably by big business.

  • Identifying future threats is a challenge. In addition to the toxic wastes and chemicals that are regulated by international conventions, the report identifies 11 more substances that pose a risk in the near future and that lack a policy framework. Among those are microplastics. A recent study found that there are up to 8-14 million tonnes of microplastics on the seafloor.

What can Switzerland do? As one of the event’s main sponsors, Switzerland gave input into the conversation. Recognising the gaps in policy and decision-making, Felix Wertli, head of the global affairs section at the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, highlighted the need “to define objectives and the steps that need to be taken”. He insisted on the importance of strengthening bridges between academia and policy-makers through science-policy platforms such as the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

No one-size fits all solution can tackle the all challenges surrounding chemicals and waste management, concluded the first UNEP report. However, it sets out some key recommendations, including strengthening leadership roles and building new legally binding mechanisms to ensure the international community steps up its efforts.

“Chemicals have brought many benefits to modern life, but often at high costs to the environment and human well-being. It is time for the international community to draw on lessons learned from past successes and failures, and together drive a transformative change of our global society for a sustainable future.”