Chemicals &

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Scope of the Chemicals and Waste Subprogramme

Both chemicals and waste play critical roles in today’s society and economy. At the same time they have major impacts on our environment and human health. De facto, many chemical substances are harmful to people and their environment while many forms of waste result hazardous and pose dangers to our lives and the nature surrounding us.

To address this urgent issue and provide mainstream solutions, UNEP - also as an implementing GEF agency - is working closely with governments, industries, and civil society organizations. In doing so, UNEP and its partners focus on achieving the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) goal that by 2020 chemicals are used and produced in ways that lead to the minimization of significant adverse effects on human health and the environment. In this way, countries, businesses and other stakeholders are supported improving their capacity to manage chemicals and waste soundly throughout their life-cycles. This is achieved by jointly developing policy instruments, including regulatory frameworks, and providing scientific and technical knowledge and tools needed to ensure a successful transition among countries towards sound management of chemicals and waste in order to minimize impact on the environment and human well-being.

To make this happen, UNEP’s Subprogramme on Chemicals and Waste* is implementing a threefold, results-based management strategy targeting the following Expected Accomplishments as part of its Programme Framework for 2014-2017 and Programme of Work for the biennium 2014-2015:

  1. Institutional Capacity and Policy Instruments: to increase the institutional capacity and policy instruments of countries to manage chemicals and waste soundly, including the implementation of related provisions in the MEAs;
  2. Scientific and Technical Knowledge and Tools for Sound Chemicals Management: to increase the use of scientific and technical knowledge and tools by countries, major groups and stakeholders, needed to implement sound chemicals management and the related MEAs;
  3. Scientific and Technical Knowledge and Tools for Sound Waste Management: to increase the use of scientific and technical knowledge and tools by countries, major groups and stakeholders, needed to implement sound waste management and the related MEAs;

*In previous years, the Subprogramme on Chemicals and Waste was known as the Subprogramme on Harmful Substances and Hazardous Waste.

Background on Chemicals and Waste

The Chemicals and Waste subprogramme assists countries and regions in managing, within a life-cycle approach, chemical substances and waste that have potential to cause adverse impact on environment and human health.  These include:

  • Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs);
  • Chemicals that are carcinogens or mutagens or that adversely affect the reproductive, endocrine, immune, or nervous systems;
  • Chemicals that have immediate hazards (acutely toxic, explosives, corrosives);
  • Chemicals of global concern such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances (ODS);
  • Healthcare wastes;
  • E-wastes.

Chemicals are an integral part of everyday life with over 100,000 different substances in use. Industries producing and using these substances have an enormous impact on employment, trade and economic growth worldwide. There is hardly any industry where chemical substances are not implicated and there is no single economic sector where chemicals do not play an important role.

However, besides the benefits from chemicals it is increasingly recognized that they also have the potential to adversely impact human health and the environment if not managed properly. The health related effects range from acute poisoning to long term effects, such as cancers, birth defects, neurological disorders, and hormone-disruption.

Environmental effects range from effects on sensitive species / ecosystems, to large scale issues such as eutrophication of water bodies and stratospheric ozone depletion. Chemicals contamination is wide spread both on land and in water. People are exposed through occupational activities as well as in daily life through intake of contaminated drinking water, ingestion of contaminated food (e.g. fish contaminated with mercury, DDT and/or PCBs), inhalation of polluted air (outdoor as well as indoor), and through direct skin contact.

Meanwhile, the continued growth pattern of global production, trade and use of chemicals exerts an increasing chemicals management burden on the developing countries and those with economies in transition that have the least capacities to deal with such complex challenges. By 2020, developing countries are expected to lead the world in growth rate for high volume industrial chemicals, increasing their share of world chemicals production to 31 %. Chemical consumption in developing countries is likewise growing much faster than in developed countries and could account for a third of global consumption by 2020. Sustainable use of chemicals is an issue that needs urgent attention in these countries not to endanger ecosystems, environmental resources, and the livelihoods and health of future generations.

While chemicals are major contributors to national economies, they require sound management throughout their life cycle. Otherwise, in addition to the benefits, they will pose significant risks to human health and the environment and result in significant costs to national economies. There is an established link between the condition of poverty and increased risks of exposure to toxic and hazardous chemicals, as they affect predominantly the poor who routinely face unacceptable high risk of poisoning because of their occupation, living location and lack of knowledge of proper chemicals management.

The global economy is also seeing a rapid increase in generation of hazardous wastes. Although most of the conventional hazardous wastes are produced in industrial and manufacturing operations, significant amounts are also generated in non-industrial sectors, including sludge from waste water treatment plants, waste oils, and waste batteries. Hazardous wastes not only pose risks and hazards because of their nature but also have the potential to contaminate large quantities of otherwise non-hazardous wastes if allowed to get mixed. Thus proper segregation, treatment and disposal of hazardous wastes are of paramount importance.