Today, the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm United Nations Conventions concluded, with some major steps taken by parties to control the trade and management of certain toxic chemicals:
Basel Convention: Countries Take Major Step to Control Plastic Waste Dumping, Stop Major Loophole for Electronic Waste
Today, 187 countries took a major step forward in curbing the plastic waste crisis by adding plastic to the Basel Convention, a treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste from one country to another. The amendments, originally proposed by Norway, require exporters to obtain the consent of receiving countries before shipping most contaminated, mixed, or unrecyclable plastic waste, providing an important tool for countries in the Global South to stop the dumping of unwanted plastic waste into their country. The decision reflects a growing recognition around the world of the toxic impacts of plastic and the plastic waste trade.
Because the US is not a party to the Convention, the amendments adopted today also act as an export ban on unsorted, unclean, or contaminated plastic waste for the US towards developing countries who are parties to the Convention and not part of the OECD. The amendment will have a similar effect for the EU, a party to the Convention, whose own internal legislation bans exports of waste included under the Convention to developing countries.
“Today’s decision demonstrates that countries are finally catching up with the urgency and magnitude of the plastic pollution issue and shows what ambitious international leadership looks like,” says David Azoulay, Environmental Health Director at the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “Plastic pollution in general and plastic waste in particular remain a major threat to people and the planet, but we are encouraged by the decision of the Basel Convention as we look to the future bold decisions that will be needed to tackle plastic pollution at its roots, starting with reducing production.”
Countries halted a major loophole that would have allowed the continued export of electronic waste (e-waste), without proper controls. The proposed guidelines describing how e-waste is treated under the Basel Convention would have allowed countries to send equipment for repair without the prior informed consent procedure. The guidelines were ready for adoption, with wide support. The African region, India, and other countries, supported by civil society, raised a red flag about the inclusion of this loophole, and countries chose to continue negotiating the guidelines at the next COP, instead of adopting ineffective guidelines.
Countries established Low POPs Content Levels (LPCLs), which define the amount of POPs at which waste is considered hazardous waste. Under this designation, the waste must be disposed of in a way that destroys or irreversibly transforms its POPs content. LPCLs are key: Higher values mean that dangerous materials can, in practice, be recycled into everyday products, triggering further exposure to very toxic POPs. Mobilizing against very high values proposed by the EU, African countries and other recipient countries of waste managed to resist the extreme pressure from the EU and other developed countries, and obtained the inclusion of lower values together with the higher values proposed by the EU, opening the way for future work to lower the levels of POPs allowed in waste even further.
Parties considered a report on the role of the Basel Convention to regulate waste containing nanomaterials. It recommended the inclusion of certain nano-containing waste under the Basel Convention, and invited further work to identify those wastes that should be covered by the Convention. In a disappointing move, parties adopted a weak decision only requiring the collection of information on national initiatives to address nano-containing waste.
Stockholm Convention: Countries Pass Global Ban on Toxic PFOA
Parties to the Stockholm Convention passed a global ban of PFOA — a suspected carcinogen and endocrine disruptor that has contaminated drinking water in many parts of the world. The Stockholm Convention regulates persistent organic pollutants (POPs), some of the world’s worst chemicals that harm human health and build up in the environment and the body over time.
“While the global ban on PFOA marks an important step forward in protecting the environment and people’s health, we regret that countries undermined the scientific process of the Convention to include unjustified exemptions to the ban,” said Giulia Carlini, Staff Attorney at CIEL.
A number of wide-ranging five-year exemptions were included in the PFOA ban for firefighting foams, medical devices, and fluorinated polymers, among other uses. Though China, the European Union, and Iran participated in the scientific review process, they proposed exemptions that had not undergone scientific review or were reviewed and disqualified by the scientific committee.
“PFOA is one of the world’s worst chemicals, and yet countries have found ways to continue human exposure to its toxic harms. Tellingly, even some industry groups disagreed with some of the exemptions, as there are widely available alternatives to these chemicals,” says Carlini. “Countries’ insistence on including these exemptions — in spite of readily available alternatives and a lack of evidence — reveals a disrespect for the scientific review process at the heart of the Stockholm Convention.”
Rotterdam Convention: Countries Break 15 Years of Gridlock Using Voting Procedure for First Time Ever
In the first-ever vote taken under the Rotterdam Convention, 120 parties to the Stockholm Convention broke through gridlock and disagreement to establish a compliance mechanism for the Convention. The compliance mechanism will allow countries to be held accountable for not respecting their commitments under the Convention. After nearly 15 years of negotiations with little forward movement, countries decided that “all efforts to reach consensus had been exhausted” and opted instead to vote, for the first time in the history of the Convention. The adoption of the new mechanism through a vote means that only those parties in agreement to the provisions will be be subject to this mechanism. A total of 126 Parties voted, of which 120 agreed to the compliance mechanism and only six opposed.
Countries listed hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a toxic chemical used as a flame retardant, and phorate, a pesticide that is extremely toxic to humans, under the Rotterdam Convention’s Annex III, meaning that countries must get the prior informed consent of receiving countries in order to export these chemicals.
Unfortunately, countries failed to take action on the five other chemicals up for listing under Annex III of the Convention. In particular, chrysotile asbestos and paraquat, which have been reviewed and identified as chemicals of concerns by the Scientific Chemical Review Committee of the Convention, and have been on the agenda for years. A handful of countries repeatedly blocked the consensus required to list these chemicals under the Convention, undermining the scientific process underlying the Convention.
Jon L. Gelman of Wayne NJ is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise, Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (West-Thomson-Reuters). For over 4 decades the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman email@example.com has been representing injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.