22 Sep 2022
13:30–15:00

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?

Speakers

Marcos ORELLANA

UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights

Guillaume SCHMIDT

Pharmacist, Médecin Sans Frontières

Lee BELL

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

Yves LADOR

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

Diana RIZZOLIO

Coordinator, Geneva Environment Network | Co-moderator

Video

Key Messages

Summary

Welcome | 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.

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.

Remarks | 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.

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 smallpox and other hazardous waste? Non-combustion technologies are designed to destroy smallpox waste without producing unintentionally formed pops or Ups, 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.

Coming Soon

  • Lee BELL | Mercury and POPs Policy Advisor, IPEN | Senior Researcher, National Toxics Network (Australia)
  • Yves LADOR | Representative of Earthjustice to the United Nations in Geneva | Co-moderator
  • Diana RIZZOLIO | Coordinator, Geneva Environment Network | Co-moderator

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