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Understanding the EU’s failed bid to reduce toxins in waste

July 05, 2022
topics: Pollution
by: Katarina Panić
located in: Czech Republic, Switzerland
tags: EU, POPs, recycling, toxic chemicals, waste

The EU just gutted its own ambitious proposal to limit the presence of persistent organic pollutants in waste, all but guaranteeing that toxins from wealthy nations will continue to infect the Global South.

The European Parliament proposed last month a sharp reduction in the permitted concentration of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in waste in order to stop these toxins from spreading across the globe through recycled materials. 

The move could significantly help prevent the exports of waste from developed nations to Asia and Africa, where many countries have weaker waste-management legislation, and thus prevent toxic recycling.

Curbing these pollutants has been at the core of a long-term initiative by IPEN, an international network working to strengthen chemicals and waste policies, and the Czech environmental NGO Arnika.

Environmentalists from the initiative claim that the move by the EU is crucial in order to prevent the spread of banned substances that can negatively affect the body’s natural hormones, fertility, nervous and coronary systems and brain development and are linked to cancer. They went on to call it a ‘groundbreaking first step’ to reducing the spread of POPs from waste, but simultaneously expressed their concern about obstacles the proposal might face. 

“While this proposal from Parliament is welcome, unfortunately, some EU member states are proposing less protective limits, which is bad news for the health of Europeans and also the world,” said Jindřich Petrlík, advisor for dioxins and waste at IPEN and head of the Arnika Toxics and Waste Programme, in a press release on 4 May, a day after the European Parliament issued its proposal.

INDUSTRY OPPOSES STRICTER RULES 

Judging by what followed, the initial proposal did not persuade EU member states to prioritise health and environmental considerations over corporate interests. 

“The main opposition was raised by the industry. The European Electronics Recyclers Association (EERA) and the bromine industry mainly opposed more strict levels for brominated flame retardants with the argument that they will have trouble measuring lower levels and meeting more strict levels in recycled plastics and pellets,” Petrlík told FairPlanet. “However, the argument with measurement was found to be silly already in the consultant’s RPA report for the European Commission.”

According to the RPA report, sorting facilities and enterprises will need to adjust the total amount of bromine in plastics to meet the newly set limit. The change concerns a select number of sites and is manageable through the widespread X-ray spectrometer measurement method.

CHINA OBJECTS, EU REMAINS PASSIVE

It didn't take long for the good news to sour. 

The European Parliament, Council and Commission held their first inter-institutional negotiation session on 11 May. Following the meeting, the three bodies introduced limit values that were significantly higher than those originally proposed by the European Parliament and the ones advocated for by NGOs.

“The proposed extremely high standard for dioxin in waste would keep business as usual for waste incineration and other industries in Europe and worldwide,” Arnika stated during a press release on 23 May. 

The member states’ proposal came right before the meeting of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions, which took place between 6-17 June in Geneva, Switzerland. In a major blow to the campaign to restrict POPs, the parties to the conventions decided not to adopt stricter limits on hazardous substances in waste at this year’s conference. According to Arnika, this resulted from China’s resistance and the EU’s passivity. 

“China obstructed any progress in the decision about Low POPs Content Levels. They opposed even unbracketing text,” Petrlík told FairPlanet.

“Their central argument was that they didn't have enough time to prepare for stricter values and to study new reports from the EU. Well, these ‘new’ proposals have already been in the General Technical Guidelines in square brackets for three years. A new report from the EU was delivered at the last Open-Ended Working Group of Basel Convention held at the beginning of April this year in Nairobi. 

“The EU somehow welcomed and did not at all oppose China's proposals. The EU was not alone, and was also supported by the UK and Canada in some cases.”

TOXINS CONTINUE TO FLOW ACROSS BORDERS

“In order to reach a circular economy, where the waste will be increasingly used as a secondary raw material, limiting the presence of persistent organic pollutants in waste is crucial,” reads a press release by the EU Council from 21 June. “The Council and Parliament, therefore, agreed to introduce new chemicals on the list of persistent organic pollutants and to restrict their presence in waste by strengthening the concentration limit values.”

Two days later, Gilbert Kuepouo, IPEN’s Steering Committee member and Director of Centre de Recherche et d’Education pour le Développement in Cameroon, claimed that the proposed limits clearly indicate that the EU intends to continue exporting their hazardous waste to Africa and other regions in the Global South.

“It is troubling to see this approach put forward immediately after the recent Stockholm and Basel Convention meetings, where the EU had a chance to support the more protective standards put forward by the African region,” Kuepouo stated in Arnika’s press release from 23 June.

Earlier, Arnika documented some exports of waste incineration residues to third countries.

“In Belarus, a kind of binder made of waste incineration fly-ash was found. It was exported from Germany via Poland. A total amount of 5,000 tonnes were exported to Poland, Ukraine and Belarus,” Petrlík said.

“We need stronger limits for POPs in waste, but sadly, this week’s proposal will not get to the root of the problem. While the EU claims that their proposal will promote a circular economy, the reality is that under these weak limits, highly toxic POPs will continue to circulate in wastes, products and the environment.”

Image by Indrich Petrlik/Arnika Association.

Article written by:
Katarina Panić
Katarina Panić
Author
Czech Republic Switzerland
The EU\'s original plan could significantly help prevent the exports of waste from developed nations to Asia and Africa.
The EU's original plan could significantly help prevent the exports of waste from developed nations to Asia and Africa.
© Indrich Petrlik/Arnika Association
\'In order to reach a circular economy, where the waste will be increasingly used as a secondary raw material, limiting the presence of persistent organic pollutants in waste is crucial.\'
"In order to reach a circular economy, where the waste will be increasingly used as a secondary raw material, limiting the presence of persistent organic pollutants in waste is crucial."
© Indrich Petrlik/Arnika Association
\'While the EU claims that their proposal will promote a circular economy, the reality is that under these weak limits, highly toxic POPs will continue to circulate in wastes, products and the environment.”
"While the EU claims that their proposal will promote a circular economy, the reality is that under these weak limits, highly toxic POPs will continue to circulate in wastes, products and the environment.”
© Indrich Petrlik/Arnika Association
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