Governments urged to keep the promise and eliminate pollutants - and not allow hazardous waste to be burnt in cement kilns

05 May 2005 - This week marks the first Conference of Parties (COP1) meeting on the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) [1], which is being held from the 2 - 6 May 2005, at Punta del Este, Uruguay. Governments are meeting to discuss amongst other issues the constitution of the POPs Review Committee, the adoption of the Best Available Techniques (BAT) / Best Environmental Practice (BET) guidelines [2] and the adoption of the Dioxin Toolkit [3].

Environmental activists at COP 1 are calling on governments to "Keep the Promise" and take action to fulfil their obligations under the Stockholm Convention of eliminating POPs. The challenge for governments is to honour the Convention's goal of reducing toxic pollution and protecting public health and the environment.

In view of this, civil society in South Africa has been lobbying government to give consideration to alternative technologies. Of special concern at the moment is the continent wide push by the cement industries to burn hazardous wastes in cement kilns (incinerators).

Additionally, international civil society organisations have cautioned governments on the BAT/BEP adoption. Accordingly, Manny Calonzo of the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives (GAIA), the guidelines remain a work-in-progress since a reader of the guidelines could easily conclude that it is acceptable for any cement kiln, of any design, in any region of the world, to accept and burn POPs waste. Even if properly operated, a cement kiln would result in unintentional releases of POPs such as dioxins and furans [4].

According to Llewellyn Leonard of groundWork, the South African government has sent out varied signals on their position on burning of hazardous wastes. On the one hand we find that government officials have requested a local cement industry to burn agricultural waste such as obsolete pesticides and herbicides. While on the other hand we have DEAT holding workshops to establish national implementation plans for the management and strategies to clean up and prevent future accumulation of unwanted stocks of pesticides under the Africa stockpiles programme.

While acknowledging South Africa's ratification of the Stockholm Convention on POPs, which limits the use of incinerators and cement kilns in the disposal of halogenated materials particularly POPs waste, the Convention also gives preferential treatment for the use of non combustion-based approaches to the management of such waste, including the disposal of hazardous stockpiles. Burning hazardous waste has the potential to generate and release considerable quantities of unintentional POPs.

The likely adoption of the BAT/BEP guidelines at the COP as well as the apparent endorsement of the Dioxin Toolkit by the national department in South Africa seem indicative of the strong inclination for combustion-based disposal approaches. The national department has apparently endorsed the Dioxin Toolkit without input from civil society. This raises serious concern since Article 10 of the Stockholm Convention calls for openness, public participation and full access to information.

Civil society views the toolkit as posing serious limitations to implementing the Stockholm Convention. Environmentalists at COP1 are calling on parties to conduct substantial revisions to the current version of the toolkit including taking into account data and socio-economic realities of developing countries and countries with economies in transition. The current version of the toolkit is seen as largely modelled
around developed countries and would be more compatible for application in such countries. For example, it allows for emissions to be reported as single numbers when it would be more appropriate to reflect them as a range.

Civil society urges the South African government to "Keep the Promise" and protect people's health and the environment from harmful chemical resulting from unsustainable waste disposal practices like incineration. Furthermore, civil society calls on the South African government to put a stop to the use of dangerously polluting technology whose operations will virtually undermine the objectives of the POPS treaty.

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[1] The Stockholm Convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of living organisms and are toxic to humans and wildlife. In implementing the Convention, Governments will take measures to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment.

[2] BAT/BEP are waste guidelines that countries could use to phase in environment and public health compliant disposal measures and technology.

[3] Dioxin toolkit is a guideline document that countries could use to measure dioxin emissions with a view to manage and possibly eliminate the emissions. It is used to assist countries develop National Implementation Plans, which are plans to reduce and eventually eliminate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). However, civil society views it as posing serious limitations to implementing the Stockholm Convention.

[4] Stockholm Convention document, Annex C, Unintentional Production, part 2: Source categories