The global campaign for safe disposal of toxic materials has scored a major victory, with the latest treaty on indiscriminate dumping of plastics and lethal wastes across international borders. This victory was secured in Geneva, at the just concluded Convention tagged: ‘Clean Planet, Healthy People: Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste,’ with an impressive representation from 180 countries.
Given the international outrage against the alarming levels of toxicity from refuse dumps in the oceans, delegates amended the Basel Convention, to include plastic wastes in a legally-binding framework, under the auspices of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and sister agencies.
UNEP’s Acting Executive Director of U.N. Environment Joyce Msuya said ‘one-third of global plastic production is non-recyclable and at least eight million tonnes of plastic flows unabated into our oceans and water bodies each year. The world is choking on plastic.’ ‘The Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal is the most comprehensive international environmental agreement on hazardous wastes and is almost universal, with 180 parties.’
Unfortunately the United States (US), Canada and a few other nations are not party to the latest framework, which takes effect from next year. ‘With an overarching objective of protecting human health and the environment from hazardous products, its scope covers a wide range of wastes categorized as household waste and incinerator ash.’ The unanimous vote to include regulation of export of plastic waste became imperative, as unquantifiable tonnes of toxic elements flood oceans and seas annually. Many world environmentalists, including Dr. Sara Brosche of IPEN and Dr. Desmond Majekodumi hailed the decision, as historic and timely given the disastrous impact of toxic wastes, harmful chemicals and non-degradable plastics, on human life, ocean resources and the entire ecosystem. Nigeria’s ocean waters are severely threatened by poisonous industrial and human garbage, due to gross mismanagement of pollutants by the authorities, to the detriment of all life forms. Hence, it is doubtful if the country, with its poor commitment to environmental sustainability, can and will enforce these new restrictions, given its resource deficits, political instabilities and technological limitations.
However, experts believe that the new charter will benefit all developing nations, as the new restrictions would make ‘global trade in plastic waste more transparent, better regulated for human health and environmental sustainability.’ Pollution from plastic refuse, is obviously, ‘a major environmental problem of global concern, and has reached epidemic proportions with an estimated 100 million tonnes of plastics now found in the oceans, 80-90 percent of which comes from land-based sources,’ the agency said.
Participants at the event also considered the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, as part of a holistic review of pollutants endangering mankind and the ecosystem. UNEP’s Executive Secretary of the three Conventions Rolph Payet, said parties to the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions also highlighted alternatives to these harmful chemicals, as well as best practices.
His words: ‘approximately 1,400 delegates around the world converged for the meeting. I’m proud that this week in Geneva, parties to the Basel Convention reached agreement on a legally-binding, globally-reaching mechanism for managing plastics. Plastic waste is acknowledged as one of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. The fact that this week close to one million people around the world signed a petition urging Basel Convention parties to take action here in Geneva, is a sign that public awareness and desire for action is high.”
Payet announced the establishment of ‘a new partnership on plastic waste to mobilise business, government, academic and civil society expertise to assist in implementing the new measures, through providing supports, tools, best practices, technical and financial assistance – for this ground-breaking agreement.’ Other far-reaching decisions from the two-week event included ‘the elimination of two toxic chemical groups, totalling about 4,000 chemicals, listed in the Stockholm Convention, namely Dicofol and Perfluorooctanoic Acid. The latter has till now been used in 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 Rotterdam Convention also received a boost, ‘with the addition of two chemicals, the pesticide phorate and the industrial chemical hexabromocyclododecane, to the Prior Informed Consent Procedure, through which countries can decide on future imports of these chemicals,’ he added. Cheerily the decision to approve mechanisms to ensure compliance with this convention was also adopted,’ he noted. Similarly, his colleague in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Executive Secretary of the Rotterdam Convention, Hans Dreyer, said ‘we were able to list two out of seven 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.’
No doubt these reviews would satiate the agitation over transparency in trans-border movements of toxic wastes and industrial chemicals. Nevertheless, implementing these new protocols, may remain herculean for poor nations, who are dumping grounds for toxic products from developed nations.
Dr Brosche said ‘the new decision would empower developing countries to refuse plastic waste dumping. For too long developed countries like the US and Canada have been exporting their mixed toxic plastic wastes to developing Asian countries claiming it would be recycled in the receiving country.’
Ojukwu a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow and journalist writes from Lagos via [email protected]