Chemicals are an integral part of our lives and are present in most of the products we use every day in our homes. In the bathroom for example, formaldehyde often sits in shampoo, microbeads in toothpaste, phthalates in nail polish and antimicrobials in soaps, while the medicine cabinet contains a myriad of synthetic pharmaceuticals. In the kitchen, a juicy strawberry may carry traces of up to 20 different pesticides. Perfumed bin-liners and air fresheners contain volatile organic compounds that can make you nauseous and give you a headache. And the list goes on…
While chemicals bring many benefits, the dramatic increase in both the variety and total number of manufactured chemicals means that it is crucial to manage their life cycles and ensure that they do not end up negatively impacting human health and the environment.
Urgent global action needed
According to the World Health Organization, 1.6 million people fell ill from exposure to hazardous chemicals in 2016. A 2015 study estimated the costs of neurobehavioral deficits caused by toxic chemicals to be more than US$170 billion per year in the European Union alone.
Chemical pollution also contributes to climate change, destroys the ozone layer and threatens our ecosystems: plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980; 300–400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters; and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean dead zones, totalling more than 245,000 square kilometres—a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
The main global framework to promote chemical safety around the world is the United Nations non-binding Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, adopted in 2006. Unfortunately, its objective of sound management of chemicals by 2020 will likely not be achieved and continued actions will be required.
“UN Environment’s second Global Chemicals Outlook shows that solutions do exist, but more ambitious worldwide action by all stakeholders is urgently required to reduce further damage to the planet, human health and economies,” says Jacob Duer, Chief of the Chemicals and Health Branch at UN Environment.
Sweden calls for more ambitious global framework on chemicals
Sweden, a country with extensive expertise on chemicals, is championing ambitious international commitments on chemicals and waste beyond 2020. In March 2018, the Swedish government hosted the second meeting of the so-called Beyond 2020 process, and in July 2018, Sweden and Uruguay launched a High-Ambition Alliance on Chemicals and Waste, consisting of countries and stakeholders that want to do more to tackle this challenge.
“Our ambition is to drive an ambitious global agenda on chemicals and waste for 2020 and beyond. The High-Ambition Alliance is open to everyone who would like to take the lead in this important work,” says Isabella Lövin, Minister for Environment and Climate, and deputy Prime Minister of Sweden.
As the world’s population approaches 8 billion, the sound management of chemicals and waste is becoming ever more important. By 2025, the world’s cities will produce 2.2 billion tonnes of waste every year, more than three times the amount produced in 2009. In 2018, 48.5 million tonnes of e-waste were produced—an amount bound to increase as well.
A limited number of chemicals are currently regulated at the global level, including through the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions; the Montreal Protocol; and the Minamata Convention. Lövin’s vision is for an ambitious new approach that eliminates the most hazardous chemicals. She also points out the importance of people receiving better information about which chemicals are in which products.
Leading by example
Sweden is well placed to lead this effort—the sound management of chemicals and waste is a long-standing national priority. Over the last decade, Sweden has played a strong role internationally, including within the European Union, to push for more legislation. The European Union already has one of the world’s strictest chemical safety laws, and during the period 2011–2018, the Swedish Chemicals Agency contributed data and proposals covering over 50 chemical substances which have subsequently been regulated in the European Union’s chemicals regulations. Relative to its population size, Sweden is one of the most active European Union member States when it comes to developing the European Union’s chemicals legislation.
National legislation on chemicals and hazardous substances in Sweden is even stricter than what is agreed at the European level. For example, since 2018 Sweden has banned the use of plastic microbeads—a major source of ocean plastic pollution—in personal care products. Sweden has also and imposed tougher restrictions and bans on substances such as mercury, bisphenol A, cadmium, etc.
Waste management and recycling is another Swedish success. In 2017, 93 per cent of glass containers used in households were recycled, as was 81 per cent of metal containers, and 80 per cent of paper and cardboard containers. Only 1 per cent of the household waste was landfilled, nearly 34 per cent was recycled, 15.5 per cent treated biologically and the remaining parts were energy-recovered.
The country also aims to become world leading in sustainable fashion. The fashion industry is the second-biggest consumer of water, generating around 20 per cent of the world’s wastewater and releasing half a million tons of synthetic microfibers into the ocean annually. The industry accounts for a staggering 8 to 10 per cent of global carbon emissions—more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.
To clean up the fashion industry, the government of Sweden is working with the University of Borås to establish and lead the Textile & Fashion 2030 national platform, to accelerate progress towards Agenda 2030 Goals.
“The global environmental impact of the fashion industry is huge. It is time to replace linear business models with circular ones: the use of harmful chemicals must be phased out and new initiatives for the reuse and recycling of textiles be taken,” says Lövin.
Sweden and UN Environment, natural partners on chemicals and waste
Sweden is a longstanding and important partner to UN Environment, including in the area of chemicals and waste. The country is a strong supporter of UN Environment’s core fund, the Environment Fund, with annual contributions since 1973, and in 2018, Sweden was the fifth largest donor to the Fund. In addition, Sweden recently decided to contribute an additional US$31 million for UN Environment’s programmes during four years, including for support to our work on chemicals and waste that aim to minimize the adverse effects of chemicals on human health and the environment. Finally, Sweden has provided US$3 million to the Special Programme (also known as the Chemicals and Waste Management Programme) for institutional strengthening of developing countries and countries with economies in transition, to increase their capacities in implementing the international conventions on chemicals and waste.
The world needs multilateralism more than ever, says Lövin. She adds, “UN Environment has a very important role to play when it comes to mobilizing the political will and bringing partners together in order to have a global framework on chemicals.” The Minamata Convention on Mercury, which entered into force 2017, is one successful example UN Environment’s support to countries.
“Thanks to Sweden’s global leadership role on sound chemicals and waste management, we are hopeful that the fifth session of the International Conference on Chemicals Management in Bonn, Germany in October 2020 will adopt a new global approach to the sound management of chemicals and waste, that will bring about the change needed for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals,” says Duer.