GENEVA - Several notable decisions were adopted at the closing of two weeks of negotiations of the Joint Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm (BRS) Conventions on hazardous chemical management. PFAS compound PFHxS has been listed for the global ban with no exemptions; chemical recycling blocked over hazardous waste concerns; controls adopted on e-waste exports; and a proposal for burning PFAS in cement kilns stymied.
IPEN Co-chair Pamela Miller reflected on the meeting, saying that “IPEN brings civil society to these meetings to bear witness for the billions of people around the world who could not be here, but whose health, well-being, and human rights depend on the decisions that are being made.” She continued, “These Conventions were adopted to protect vulnerable communities of women, children, workers, and Indigenous communities. Still, governments and their powerful industry representatives put their own economic and trade interests before the health and well-being of the global environment and its inhabitants.”
Important measures are taken to control the export of e-waste
Massive amounts of electronic waste today are exported to developing countries and countries in transition. The Parties to the Basel Convent took a significant step during the COP towards controlling this highly polluting practice by listing e-waste under the convention, mandating a Prior Informed Consent procedure for transboundary movement of this type of waste.
Dr. Tadesse Amera, IPEN Co-chair commented “The export of electronic waste to developing countries leads to extensive pollution of the environment, poisoning of the food of local communities, and severe health impacts. We welcome this decision to control all e-waste exports. However, we are also concerned about the remaining loophole for exporting e-waste under the guise of repair. We urge governments to restrict all export of used electronics under the Basel Convention.”
Action on toxic PFAS “forever chemicals”
The toxic PFAS chemical PFHxS, together with its about 80 related substances, was listed under the Stockholm Convention for global elimination, with no exempted uses. These “forever chemicals” are used e.g. in stain-resistant fabrics, fire-fighting foams, food packaging, and as a surfactant in industrial processes.
Also, PFOA, another chemical in the PFAS family that was listed for global elimination under the Stockholm Convention in 2019 with a range of exemptions, was now adopted for listing under the Rotterdam Convention that controls the transboundary movement of hazardous chemicals.
IPEN Science Advisor Dr. Sara Brosché said “This is an important step towards banning more of these toxic ‘forever chemicals’ that pollute the environment and humans all over the world, threatening the health of millions of people. But the chemicals industry keeps replacing banned PFAS with different but equally harmful PFAS. That’s why there is an urgent need to ban all PFAS rather than addressing them one by one.”
Concerns about polluting approaches and technologies proposed for managing waste
In 2019, a historical decision was taken under the Basel Convention to control the transboundary movement of plastic waste. Since then, a guideline on how to manage plastic waste has been developed that was discussed during this year´s COP. Growing concerns among delegates were expressed over the inclusion of chemical recycling in the guidelines. Chemical recycling, usually involving pyrolysis and/or gasification, generates extensive hazardous waste streams and has not proven to be commercially viable or environmentally sustainable. In the end, this section in the guidelines was bracketed, signaling it is not agreed upon by parties for inclusion and could be deleted altogether in the continued revisions before the 2023 BRS COP.
Lee Bell, IPEN Mercury, and POPs Policy Advisor said, “The chemical recycling industry has been trying to hide the fact that it has low yields, massive hazardous waste streams, and generates highly toxic dioxin and PAHs in its emissions, waste streams, and outputs of oil, syngas, and char. This significantly hampers its commercial viability and contradicts claims that it is environmentally sound management of plastic waste. The industry boasts that it can solve the plastic waste crisis but this is a little more than a fairy tale and a public relations exercise to stop imposed cuts to plastic production under international law.”
In the work on technical guidelines for environmentally sound management of POPs waste, another highly contested practice was brought forward when a few parties proposed to include burning PFAS waste in cement kilns. Burning PFAS in kilns is known to produce dioxins and other toxic wastes, but one of the supportive Parties submitted a report produced by cement kiln owners purporting to show success in disposing of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. However, the kiln owner’s report showed the treatment was only successful for a few PFAS substances while significant amounts of other PFAS were released into the environment. Many delegates were also concerned that the documents on the trial burn were only made available at the last moment. Concerns about the lack of independent verification of the effectiveness of the destruction method and the late public availability of the report led to the bracketing of this text for further work.
Dr. Jindrich Petrlik, IPEN Co-Chair of Dioxin, PCBs and Waste Working Group, and Arnika Toxics and Waste Programme Director took part in negotiations and stated, “It was an ambush. Data was not made available until the last minute, negotiating processes were rushed through and delegates were expected to support the promotion of burning PFAS in cement kilns even though the data showed significant PFAS emissions. Fortunately, some governments recognized this was a dangerous proposal and blocked its inclusion by bracketing the text. Cement kilns are not designed to burn PFAS waste and should not be supported.”
Many communities and vulnerable groups are exposed to unacceptable levels of POPs. This is a consequence of the limits defining hazardous POPs waste not being strict enough and their flow in waste to properly be controlled.
“Strict so-called low POPs content levels could stop the flooding of the food chain and consumer products with toxic substances like dioxins. Unfortunately, a substantial number of governments and their economic unions blocked any stricter limits for POPs in waste. They did it despite the recent study that shows that almost 90% of surveyed areas around the world were unsafe for the production of free-range eggs, which remain an important part of locally produced food in many places worldwide. Instead, they allow amounts of dioxins to remain uncontrolled that are equal to the tolerable intake for the entire population of 133 planet Earths” stated IPEN Global Researcher, Jitka Strakova.
See more on IPEN’s work at the BRS COP at https://ipen.org/conferences/brs-cop-2022