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Governments agree landmark decisions on hazardous chemicals and plastic waste

Pollution from plastic waste acknowledged as a major environmental problem of global concern has reached epidemic proportions with an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic now found in the oceans, 80-90 percent of which comes from land-based sources. Decisions on plastic waste have been reached in Geneva, Switzerland as approximately 180 governments adopted a raft of decisions aimed at protecting human health and the environment from the harmful effects of hazardous chemicals and waste.

The Forsbacka municipal resource recovery and landfill site in Gävle, Sweden.

Pollution from plastic waste acknowledged as a major environmental problem of global concern has reached epidemic proportions with an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastic now found in the oceans, 80-90 percent of which comes from land-based sources. On May 11, 2019, governments adopted an amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal (Basel Convention) to include plastic waste in a legally-binding framework which will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, whilst also ensuring that its management is safer for human health and the environment.

On May 11, 2019, governments adopted an amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal (Basel Convention) to include plastic waste in a legally-binding framework which will make global trade in plastic waste more transparent and better regulated, whilst also ensuring that its management is safer for human health and the environment.

The Basel Convention is the most comprehensive international environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes and is almost universal, with 187 Parties. With an overarching objective of protecting human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes and other wastes, its scope covers a wide range of wastes defined as “hazardous” based on their origin and/or composition and characteristics, as well as two types of wastes defined as “other wastes” – household waste and incinerator ash.

At the same time, a new Partnership on Plastic Waste was established to mobilise business, government, academic and civil society resources, interests and expertise to assist in implementing the new measures, to provide a set of practical supports – including tools, best practices, technical and financial assistance – for this ground-breaking agreement.

 I’m proud that this week in Geneva, Parties to the Basel Convention have reached agreement on a legally-binding, globally-reaching mechanism for managing plastic waste. Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues, and the fact that this week close to 1 million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention Parties to take action here in Geneva at the COPs is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high, said Rolph Payet, UN Environment’s Executive Secretary of the three conventions – Basel Convention, Stockholm Convention and Rotterdam Convention.

Two new toxic chemical groups included in the Stockholm Convention

Other far-reaching decisions from the two weeks included the elimination of two toxic chemical groups, which together total about 4 000 chemicals, listed into Annex A of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (Stockholm Convention), namely Dicofol and Perfluorooctanoic Acid, and its salts and related compounds.

The latter has till now been used in a wide variety of industrial and domestic applications including non-stick cookware and food processing equipment, as well as a surfactant in textiles, carpets, paper, paints, and fire-fighting foams.

The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife, and have harmful impacts on human health or on the environment.

Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can lead to serious health effects including certain cancers, birth defects, dysfunctional immune and reproductive systems, greater susceptibility to disease and damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems.

The Convention requires its Parties to take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment. As of May 11, 2019, this legally-binding Convention has 182 Parties, giving it almost universal coverage and has 30 chemicals of global concern listed.

New chemicals added to the Rotterdam Convention

According to a statement, “important progress” was also made under the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade (Rotterdam Convention), which provides a legally-binding framework for information exchange and informed decision-making in the trade of certain hazardous pesticides and industrial chemicals.

The Rotterdam Convention is jointly administered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN Environment (UNEP). The 161 Parties to this legally-binding Convention share responsibility and cooperate to safely manage chemicals in international trade.

Two chemicals, the pesticide phorate, and the industrial chemical hexabromocyclododecane were added to Annex III of the convention, making them subject to the PIC Procedure, through which countries can decide on future imports of these chemicals. As of May 19, 2019, 52 chemicals and pesticides are listed in its Annex III.

A further decision, to approve procedures and mechanisms on compliance with the Rotterdam Convention – seen as a crucial step for further improving implementation of this key convention – was adopted “with great appreciation” by Parties.

We were able to list two out of 7 candidate chemicals and will continue working closely with parties to identify feasible alternative solutions to hazardous pesticides, taking due account of food security and market access aspects, said Hans Dreyer, UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Executive Secretary of the Rotterdam Convention.

The Convention does not introduce bans but facilitates the exchange of information among Parties on hazardous chemicals and pesticides, and their potential risks, to inform and improve national decision making. In addition, through the PIC Procedure, it provides a legally-binding mechanism to support national decisions on the import of selected chemicals and pesticides in order to minimize the risk they pose to human health and the environment

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