22 Sep 2022

Venue: Centre Administratif de Varembé & Online | Webex

Organization: Earthjustice, Geneva Environment Network

On the sidelines of the 51st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, this year’s Geneva Toxic Free Talks took place over two days of conferences and discussions, celebrating 25 years of the mandate and the struggle for the right to live in a toxic free environment.

About the Geneva Toxic Free Talks

The Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights reports every Fall to the Council and to the UN General Assembly on issues related to his mandate. The Geneva Toxic Free Talks aim to harness the opportunity of this moment of the year to reflect on the challenges posed by the production, use and dissemination of toxics and on how Geneva contributes to bringing together the actors working in reversing the toxic tide.

On the sidelines of the 51st session of the Human Rights Council, this year’s Toxic Free Talks took place from 21-22 September — two days of conferences and discussions, celebrating 25 years of the mandate and the struggle for the right to live in a toxic free environment.

About this Session

It is not enough to stop exposing people and the environment to anthropogenic toxic substances. It is also necessary to get rid of those already produced and representing a constant risk of contamination. But this disposal may itself be dangerous, or it may only just displace the problem and not solve it. However, there are possibilities to solve this problem. But they generally suffer from little support and diffusion. How can we solve this difficulty?



UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

Guillaume SCHMIDT

Pharmacist, Médecin Sans Frontières


Mercury and POPs Policy Advisor, IPEN | Senior Researcher, National Toxics Network (Australia)


Representative of Earthjustice to the United Nations in Geneva | Co-moderator


Coordinator, Geneva Environment Network | Co-moderator


Key Messages



Yves LADOR, Geneva Representative, Earthjustice

During the last session, we discussed the idea of finding alternatives as well as the issue of creating other types of pollution. Medical operations and activities are major sources of toxic materials and waste. Therefore, it is imperative to address this issue. In emergency fieldwork, however, there is a distinct problem since recycling is not available in common structures.

Plastics and Aid: Tackling plastics and toxics in the humanitarian sector

Guillaume SCHMIDT | Pharmacist, Médecin Sans Frontières

The primary issue is the patient’s responsibility for plastic consumption. In order to ensure that the patient will comply with the prescribed treatment, it is important to define it clearly. Once the treatment is over, these plastic bags can be used at home. Physical contamination and biological effects of these plastics around the house are still not fully understood when they start to degrade and become micro and then nanoplastics. For humans. For the soil. At MSF, we decided to think about how we can change our way of doing things to be more planet friendly in our humanitarian activities, including finding alternatives to these distribution bags.

In order to move on to these more planet-friendly alternatives, it is therefore necessary to analyze both alternative biomaterials and existing and future companies. We came at the right time because the technology exists, we have solutions, but not the final solution that will be most appropriate. For example, the closure system is a problem to protect the drugs, because it is difficult for most companies to produce a home compostable closure system, today it is a plastic zipper system, and producing a biological zipper is still challenging. As a result, we are seeking alternative closure systems that are effective. 

It will be challenging to introduce the first samples we have obtained in a real-world context and get feedback from patients and distributors on their practicality, efficiency, robustness, etc. Getting these new materials into the markets will be another challenge after that. A two-step strategy might be to try to find the best product we can, and then start with these small distribution bags. Many international organizations also use these plastic distribution bags, and we need to ensure the sustainability of the industry by generating enough volume and market demand. Ultimately, we hope that the results of the tests we will reach will be shared with partner associations, organizations that can also participate in this huge supply of supplier volume, as well as all of the subsequent discussions about, for example, intellectual property rights that will come up soon.

Response | Marcos ORELLANA, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

The session highlights an important aspect of the mandate on Toxics and Human Rights. Indeed, the main objective is to document problems, abuses and violations of human rights and to make recommendations. Some examples in the report on mercury and small-scale gold mining presented to the Council include an analysis of potential mercury-free technologies and highlights that these technologies are in fact more effective than those that use mercury to extract gold from ore.

However, the costs involved mean that international cooperation comes into play and MSF’s position can also help in this regard. Regarding plastics in particular, my report on plastics and human rights last year contains a section on false solutions. In other words, questions about recycling or certain proposals, misleading misinformation. This report on plastics and human rights discusses toxics in bioplastics, for example, as possible false solution risks, because they seem harmless, but may actually lead to greater toxicity. It is then necessary to assess every material’s impact on the environment in a life cycle perspective. 

MSF focuses on finding a solution to single-use materials, not creating additional problems, whether toxic or not. Furthermore, it was mentioned that they should not compete with nutritional plants, which are the most misused, which of course was very prevalent a few years ago when biofuels and other technologies were competing with people’s food. The question there is, is single use still the best frame to think about this? Are we replacing one mode of delivery that’s problematic plastics for others that could be problematic on other grounds? Could we also consider or think about other modes of delivery that do not immediately convert themselves to waste that could become part of the circular economy in that sense?

The question is there, and the final feedback is that your work, although focused on MSF’s activities, may have implications for pharmacies around the world. Medicines can be delivered in a variety of ways, and there are some very interesting programs to deal with outdated or expired medicines. As we think about how to address these issues, your leadership on this initiative may have an impact on the entire field and beyond.

Non-Polluting Alternatives: Non-combustion technology and toxic waste

Lee BELL | Mercury and POPs Policy Advisor, IPEN | Senior Researcher, National Toxics Network

The International Pollutant Elimination Network was formed early on around the work of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. There are 30 of the most dangerous chemicals listed by the Stockholm Convention. 

Non-combustion technology is a non-polluting technology for destroying pops waste. This technology also has other applications for some of the major pollution problems of our time. So we’re talking about toxic damage remediation and a non-polluting approach. There is nothing worse than peaceful organic pollutants. The non-combustion technology is really designed to deal with very high concentrations of toxic wastes and old chemicals, which need to be destroyed to decontaminate the environment and bring chemical contamination problems within planetary assimilation limits. Unfortunately, burning waste in incinerators, cement kilns, and dumping it in landfills just continues a polluting cycle that is corrosive to human rights in many cases, and especially to marginalized low-income communities or ethnic minorities who tend to bear the brunt of these facilities that destroy or attempt to destroy this waste. 

Due to the toxic chemical additives in plastics, the recent debate on plastic waste has revealed that in many cases we are dealing with toxic waste. So why should we use non-combustion technologies to destroy POPs and other hazardous waste? Non-combustion technologies are designed to destroy POPs waste without producing unintentionally formed pops or UPOPs, which include dioxins and furans, as well as PCBs and other chemicals. Incinerators and cement kilns typically produce these substances during combustion. A lot of people claim these technologies have overcome the problem of dioxin formation. In reality, they have been applying more and more filtration and scrubbing techniques to their stacks over the last 30 or 40 years to capture dioxins and other pollutants. Often, contaminated ash from incinerators is used in building materials as a base for roads, paving, aggregate, or in cement blocks. Finally, all of these materials are demolished when buildings become old and roads are destroyed. As a result, we cannot control the dioxin in these materials.

When it comes to environmental justice and human rights, many communities have protested against the moving of incinerators into their areas, which are often populated with people with low-income, come from ethnic minorities, or don’t have political power. Policy remedies at the moment are on the basis of environmental distributive justice (EJD), which is intended to distribute the risks and the benefits from polluting activities, such as incinerators. However, this often translates to rich neighborhoods not having the incinerators, while socially-disadvantaged communities take the burden of environmental hazards.

Some examples of non-combustion technologies are the following:

  • Gas Phase Chemical Reduction (Hydrogen Reduction). Considered to be the “Rolls Royce” of the non-combustion tech, the technology was able to destroy PCB stockpiles in Perth, Australia, allowing them to dismantle it for usage elsewhere. It uses hydrogen under higher temperatures to destroy toxics and hazardous wastes, and is a great alternative to incinerators.
  • Base Catalyzed Decomposition. Successful in different countries in destroying dioxins in soils.
  • Ball milling (or mechanical destruction). No emissions and no residues in the process. An example of where this was used is in the destruction of “Agent Orange” stockpile contamination in the soil from the Vietnam War.
  • Industrial supercritical water oxidation. Destroys POPs waste, chemical warfare agents and industrial hazardous waste. US Defense Force has been developing it for its chemicals weapons destruction program. Water, heat and pressure at supercritical point can destroy organic materials. It is now being modified to be containerized, mobile, modular, and can be transported to different locations.
  • ecoSPEARS and RIDS. Using a proprietary solvent, the technology uses POPs against themselves as the spears attracts the POPs to the plastic in the spears. 

More information in the video, the presentation, and the report by IPEN, Non-Combustion Technology for POPs waste destruction: Replacing incineration with clean technology.

Response | Marcos ORELLANA, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

We need to pick up on a couple of points where the mandate has been acting, for example, the issue of coal ash, fly ash and bottom ash. Of course, this is an environmental crime, and it’s part of the DNA of the mandate, of the transfer of hazardous wastes from the north to the south.

The mandate is no longer only about toxic waste, but these issues were already there, and there are massive legacy issues that haven’t been resolved, and now we have new issues, so we’re not in a good place. But the kind of technologies that you put on the table are very important. On Tuesday, I presented my country visit reports to Mauritius in Italy. I did visit an incinerator. I asked, could it destroy 100% of dioxins? And the technicians there kind of laughed at me and said, the technology doesn’t exist for that. Well, but that’s exactly the point. 99.9%, maybe 99.8%, we could debate the figures. But going to a point that you put at the very beginning, that 0.1% the amount is extremely toxic. These are some of the most dangerous substances known to human out there in the environment and in Mauritius. Going back to your point about funding from the Global Environmental Facility, one of the problems identified in that country visit was the lack of capacity to deal with medical waste and other waste. 

There were several incinerators that were operating, but for various reasons, they had been out of order, out of line, decommissioned, abandoned, condemned. They were no longer functional. There was only one working, not even at full capacity. This put a lot of strain on the only landfill in the country. This is a small island state, and one of the advice and answers of the United Nations Development Programme was providing support to Mauritius to look into incineration alternatives.


Marcos ORELLANA: When you spoke about unintended POPs in the Stockholm convention and the design of that convention resting on national action plans, including best available technologies, what are the obstacles that you see in understanding that best available technology can be a sufficiently flexible concept to encompass non polluting, toxic free alternatives? Can we move there with the current design or do we need a different design?

Lee BELL: I think the major part of the issue is that the incineration industry is so well established and has such a market share and is so heavily subsidized in so many ways that it’s very difficult for competition to break through and have their waste treated in other technologies, to have their treatment technologies rolled out in a larger commercial sense. Because not only do the costs associated with incineration on a mass scale mean lower waste treatment costs for the waste generators, but at the same time there’s a lot of political lobbying that goes on that ensures that the market share of incineration remains very high. As we become much better at recycling in terms of individuals and on a community social scale, there’s less and less material that is being sent to incinerators all of the time it’s declining. They have to maintain their waste streams to maintain their capacities and maintain their profits.

There are too many incinerators operating to deal with the amount of waste that’s around. And that means that they can offer very low rates to treat the waste. It’s difficult for other alternative technologies to break into the market. One of the problems, particularly relating to the issue of best available technology is the maintenance, in particular, technical guidelines, in the Basel Convention. They maintain that incineration is the best available technology and they have guidance documents that essentially become something like the guidance documents end up not being let’s look at alternatives to technology, but how do we run a better incinerator? They don’t say what’s the best way to deal with the waste. We’ve got this unusual situation in the POPs waste technical guidelines. About half of the table is full of noncombustion technology and half of the table is full of cement kilns and incineration technologies.

We’re giving mixed messages to the global community in terms of the guidance about what should really be adopted as best available technology. What’s not being said is that there are legacy issues associated with the combustion technologies. So, they’re all presented as being on a sort of even playing field in terms of their environmental impact, but that’s just not the case. Economic issues, political issues and technical issues have combined in the past to thwart other alternative technologies from being widely adopted and commercialized even though they’re very successful at what they do.

Closing Remarks

Marcos ORELLANA, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

I want to pick up on something that Lee Bell put on the table about the legacy issues that we’re using. The technologies of today seem to solve the problem, yet they pose legacy issues that will impact future generations for decades, if not centuries. At the same time we have new chemicals, synthetic chemicals, chemicals that do not exist in nature. We’re faced with dilemmas. Technology, innovation can be a promise, can offer opportunities, it can present problems as well. Now, that’s not a new issue, but at this time, it appears that we do need to look at it squarely in the face, because for many years, chemical policy has been largely driven by a quest for innovation at any cost, in the underlying assumption that more innovation and more technology is good.

And that is not always the case, as these situations demonstrate. When it comes to the work of the mandate, these situations, again, are not abstractions. They concern individuals, groups, communities, peoples that are impacted in their enjoyment of fundamental rights by the harmful effects of chemicals and wastes. This rethinking of the relationship between technology risk, innovation hazard should lead us to begin reconsidering existing default positions and underlying paradigms and begin questioning whether our direction is the right one. It’s rhetorical, since the situation we’re in is not good. Therefore, we need to change direction. One element in that debate concerns essential uses. There is much debate about whether some contamination, some chemical pollution is acceptable due to essential uses. But essential for whom? Is it essential for industry to continue making money? Is it essential for society? So what’s essential for society is that agriculture, what’s essential, and if I could argue in these terms, is clean water, clean air. That’s what makes life possible. That’s what makes healthy lives a life of dignity. Contaminants do not have a place in that.

We do need to move to a toxic free environment and prevent the exposure. This is what we were talking about yesterday in the 25 years reflections of what have been some of the achievements of the mandate. In terms of essential uses, there’s a lot to be discussed. This discussion provides insights into alternative technologies, non-polluting substitutes that are key to thinking about a nontoxic toxic-free environment.

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