Chemicals conference in Geneva: what’s on the agenda?

A demolition site in Detroit, Michigan, USA, in 2014. Asbestos is used as insulation in the building industry. When breathed in, it can cause lung cancer. (Credit: Keystone/Science photo library/Jim West)

E-waste, plastics and harmful chemicals will be top of the agenda, as countries gather in Geneva to discuss the road towards a toxic-free planet.

Environment ministers will meet in Geneva over the next two weeks to negotiate how to safely manage chemical substances and waste. The conference, held from 6 to 17 June at the International Conference Center Geneva, will attract over 160 state members, parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions.

Held every two years, the triple session was postponed last year due to Covid-19. It comes as countries gear up to adopt a new biodiversity deal in the last quarter of 2022 in Kunming, China – postponed four times already.

Pollution has been called by the UN one of the triple planetary crises – alongside climate change and biodiversity loss. It is said to be responsible for one in six deaths worldwide. A scientific study from February found that the amount of chemicals released into nature have breached a so-called planetary boundary, threatening to disrupt the Earth’s systems just like climate change is doing.

Ministers, gathered in Stockholm last week to celebrate the 50 years since the first UN conference to place the environment at the top of the global agenda, stressed the importance of sound chemical and waste management to tackle these threats.

New ‘forever chemicals’ on the dock

One of the three major agreements convening the talks is the Stockholm Convention, which bans or restricts persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – also known as “forever chemicals” that build up inside living organisms, potentially causing health problems. Countries will consider adding one new substance to the list of 29 POPs currently under regulation.

Perfluorohexane sulfonic acids (PFHxS), commonly used in textiles, leather, firefighting foam, printing inks and non-stick cookware, has been found to accumulate in humans and other living organisms, taking up to eight years to degrade.

The convention’s scientific committee has recommended its ban without exemption, but, as per usual, countries are likely to disregard the advice and ask to be allowed to continue to use PFHxS in specific circumstances.

“It creates a serious loophole on the scientific basis of the Convention,” David Azoulay, managing attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Geneva, told Geneva Solutions.

Countries will also discuss actions needed to eliminate polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly carcinogenic compound and one of the first POPs to be listed by the convention. All countries, except North Korea, have phased out its production but some are poorly managing remaining stocks, putting them off track to meet the goal of eliminating the toxic pollutant by 2028.

Plastics and e-waste on the agenda

The Basel Convention, which regulates the movement of hazardous waste across borders, is set to put the spotlight on plastic and electronic waste. Guidelines on how countries should manage plastic debris will be discussed. But environmentalists are wary of some of the methods cited in the text, Azoulay noted, one of them being refuse derived fuel (RDF), a fuel produced from burning waste materials, including plastics.

Ghana and Switzerland will be battling to make it harder for countries to dump their e-waste – 53.6 million metric tonnes of which are produced every year. The Agbogbloshie dump in Accra, Ghana, is infamously known for being one of the last stops to a lot of wealthy countries’ electronic garbage, exposing inhabitants to fatal pollution levels. The proposal would have exporters obtain prior and informed consent of destination countries before shipping abroad their waste.

While a positive step, it will hardly solve the problem, Azoulay warned. “Most of electric and electronic products are being shipped abroad under the guise of not being waste, so this informed consent [would not apply to these],” he said, while pointing out that the proposal could nonetheless help to get a “a better sense of the flows and possibly provide some mechanism for countries to be able to be more selective” on their waste imports.

Another technical discussion campaigners are looking forward to will revolve around low POP content levels. These refer to the limits on the amount of POPs a product can contain before being considered hazardous waste.

“Once it's considered hazardous waste, it's more expensive and you have to pay much more attention to how you deal with it and even more importantly, everything that is above this limit cannot be recycled,” said Azoulay.

The European Union proposed last year setting new limits, which campaigners consider to be too weak. Azoulay attributes this move to the EU wanting to meet their recycling targets and avoiding an ambitious threshold that would in effect reduce available recyclable waste.

“The trouble is it artificially moves products that contain toxic POPs back into the market through recycling,” he said.

Proposal to amend the convention

Parties to the Rotterdam Convention, which requires those exporting hazardous chemicals and pesticides to inform the importer of any bans or restrictions, will also  decide whether to add eight new chemicals to the list of controlled substances. But not many positive decisions are expected, according to Azoulay.

Because of a consensus rule, some of the chemicals up for review, such as asbestos or paraquat herbicides, have been on the table for over a decade – revived at every Cop meeting, with delegations failing to reach a decision every time.

A proposal by African countries to amend the treaty and introduce the possibility to vote will be discussed but it is unlikely to be resolved during this session, according to Azoulay.