Countries must demand waste limit for persistent organic pollutants

Organic waste. [iStockphoto]

As delegates and country representatives converge in Geneva from June 6 for the two-week Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm (BRS) convention, the key question should be on limiting the use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in waste levels to protect human health and the environment.

The BRS convention seeks to promote the sound management of chemicals throughout their lifecycle. The Stockholm Treaty aims to protect human health and environment from POPs, industrial chemicals and their toxic byproducts; Basel Convention protects human health from toxic waste; and Rotterdam Convention is on international trade of hazardous chemicals. The conference happens one week after the Dakar Open Negotiations on the Global Treaty on plastics that put emphasis on phasing out toxic chemicals and additives used in plastics.

What are POPs and why should they be regulated?

POPs are the most toxic and persistent chemicals. They include dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and some brominated flame retardants. Even though the Stockholm Convention requires destruction of waste that exceeds POPs limit and bans recycling of waste contaminated with POPs, growing evidence indicates that a lot of waste is contaminated and ends up being recycled, hindering the dream for toxic-free materials.

A lab analysis for the world’s worst toxic chemicals reveals high levels of POPs such as dioxin in African communities where plastic waste is dumped. Africa is disproportionately impacted by exposure to plastic’s toxic chemicals and waste, which at the end contaminate the food chain, soil and communities.

The POPs persist for long periods in the environment and can pass from one species to the next through food chains. In people, POPs can be transferred through the placenta and breast milk and have been linked to reproductive, immunologic adverse health effects, endocrine disruptions and neurological damage. In wildlife species POPs exposures have been linked to diseases and abnormalities.

For a long period, countries have had a myth that POP waste needs to be destroyed with high-temperature incineration. However, burning POP waste creates a further cycle of dioxin emission to the air. When plastics are burnt in the open, incinerated or used as fuel, dioxins are released into the environment and begin to poison the food chain. Most of the persistent organic pollutants last for a long time in the environment and accumulate in animals and humans.

A study by International Pollutants Elimination Network  (IPEN) and Arnika shows that children’s toys, hair accessories and kitchen utensils and other products found in African and Arabic countries' markets are affected by unregulated recycling of waste plastics that carry brominated flame retardants into new products. Contamination of toys is worrying for children who often put things in their mouths, which could lead to ingesting of plastic pellets.

The ongoing Geneva conference must demand for stricter low POPs content levels applied in waste to stop the flow of toxins in new recycled products and stop illegal imports of POPs waste into Africa. According to Griffins Ochieng, the Executive Director at Cejad, "there is a need for the POPs treaty to stop recycling exemptions and establish strict hazardous waste limits to discontinue use and global distribution of POPs, especially in developing countries, in the name of reuse."

The export of electronic waste and plastics from developed countries in the name of repair, reuse or recycling has turned Africa to be a hazardous dumping site, and this needs to be controlled by international agreements like the Basel and Stockholm Convention.