By Sharon Khan
[Editor's note: Waterkeeper Alliance's International Director Sharon Khan is attending the mercury treaty negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, and is providing live updates from the conference. For information regarding the mercury treaty negotiations, read Mercury Rising, Political Will Falling by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Marc Yaggi, and the report Global Mercury Hotspots.]
When delegates broke for lunch, pubic interest groups greeted them with tuna appetizers and information about the unsafe levels of mercury in fish sampled from hotspots around the world.
A breakthrough occurred on Wednesday at the mercury treaty negotiations taking place this week in Geneva, Switzerland when the Kenyan Ambassador took to the floor to question the naming of the treaty as the ‘Minamata Convention.’ This proposed name is meant to honor the victims of the world’s most horrendous mercury poisoning disasters that has occurred in Minamata, Japan. But the current treaty text does not does not resolve Minamata victims claims nor does it look like it will prevent more mercury poisoning disasters from occurring around in the world. As a setback on Wednesday, Brazil prevailed in striking language that offered any idea of phasing out the trade in mercury used for artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Public interest groups are highly concerned that the treaty is still heading towards one that will not decrease global mercury emissions. The current treaty provisions offer only vague options for controlling mercury emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. Plus, provisions are not likely to reduce mercury emissions from individual plants on a scale sufficient to offset the new mercury emissions that are likely to result from the rapid growth of this sector. Moreover, some delegates including the U.S. are pushing hard to make mercury releases to water and land completely voluntary.
“We hope that many of the provisions in this treaty can still be improved, but as it stands now the treaty offers only vague or no options for controlling emissions from the world’s worst sources of mercury pollution. Without a more deliberate effort to curb these sources, we can anticipate that global mercury pollution will likely continue to increase,” said Dr. Joe DiGangi, International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) senior science and technical advisor.
When delegates broke for lunch on Wednesday, pubic interest groups greeted them with tuna appetizers and information about the unsafe levels of mercury in fish sampled from hotspots around the world. These hotspots include areas where mercury comes from chlor-alkali plants, artisanal and small-scale gold mining, and coal-fired power plants. Waterkeeper Alliance was there with the message that “Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie.” United Nations Environment Programme’s Coal Partnership that is led by the International Energy Agency Clean Coal Center is promoting "clean coal" technologies at the mercury treaty negotiations.
At a lunch-time event attended by delegates, David Evers, executive director of Biodiversity Research Institute presented the new IPEN and Biodiversity Research Institute Global Mercury Hotspots report. This report found that mercury levels in fish and hair samples taken from around the world exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for health and safety. NGOs and community members from countries around the world including Russia, the Czech Republic and Mexico, participated in the study offering their hair for testing and helping to get the local fish to the lab in Maine. “All thanks go to these community members," said IPEN co-chair Emmanuel Calonzo from an NGO in the Philippines. “We owe it to the grassroots to have a robust mercury treaty.”
Delegates are now heading into closed-door meetings that public interest groups have to wait out. But it is already clear that after this week, grassroots activists will return home to continue their battles to protect their communities from mercury poisoning. I'm already back in New York with newfound opportunities to strengthen and support Waterkeepers around the world. Stay tuned to learn more about the outcome of the negotiations.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
Here’s the current situation. Recycling rates in the U.S. are stagnant, and the nation’s waste is still being buried in the ground or burned in massive incinerators. State and local government’s coffers are tapped out to find a solution to increase recycling rates. National recycling rates have not exceeded 34 percent, while other industrialized countries recycle twice that percentage. Nonprofit organizations support recycling, and work hard to promote it, but to be really effective, we need to bring business on board to help support and drive the effort. We need the experience and leadership of the private sector to efficiently recycle more of our waste.
Bottom line—we need to improve the system and at Recycling Reinvented, we believe the extended producer responsibility (EPR) model is the best solution.
What is EPR? EPR for packaging and printed paper would require brand owners to pay for the cost of collecting and sorting household recyclables. Currently, consumers pay for this cost through taxes or utility bills. Under EPR, brand owners create one or more nonprofit organizations—a producer responsibility organization (PRO)—to calculate how to allocate the overall cost of recycling to each brand owner according to sales, recyclability of their products and other factors. Brand owners then internalize the cost of EPR fees into the price of new products. The PRO then contracts with waste haulers, recycling facilities and municipalities to cover their cost for collection.
Over time, the PRO can find efficiency in the recycling system to help reduce costs. It’s a radically different way of financing recycling than what we’re doing now, but we know there are many models around the world that work (and some that don’t). What we need to do is find a uniquely American model that works to bring industry the recycled materials they can use to make new products, and in the process up our national recycling rates while also making an efficient, cost-effective system.
A nonprofit organization, Recycling Reinvented, was created in January to introduce EPR to the U.S. Led by former Minnesota legislator and state recycling association director Paul Gardner, and recently joined by Maine State Representative Melissa Innes, the organization has partnered with the bottled water company Nestlé Waters North America and the San Francisco based organization Future 500 to promote EPR. During 2012, Recycling Reinvented staff and board members have drafted model state legislation, spoken to consumer packaging brand owners on the business case for EPR and researched states that would be the most receptive to the idea. Nestlé Waters North America has built bridges to peer companies in the beverage and consumer packaged goods industries, while Future 500 has convened dialogues among 30 companies, trade associations and non-governmental organizations on EPR.
Recycling Reinvented’s board includes noted environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Nestlé Waters North America’s President and CEO Kim Jeffery, Future 500 President and CEO Bill Shireman who specializes in uniting business and NGO leaders behind common ground solutions, and Conrad MacKerron of As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder advocacy organization.
EPR also raises plenty of questions from brand owners, packaging and paper manufacturers, state and local governments, haulers and retailers about how it is different from the status quo. The details can be complicated and can get worked out, but EPR offers a potentially game-changing solution to many different issues. The increase in recycled materials through EPR will provide new opportunities to create additional green jobs and reduce our demand for virgin raw materials in packaging as seen in a recent BlueGreen Alliance report.
More environmentally conscious consumers are demanding that companies share their values, too. Perhaps most important, companies are becoming more aware that resources are limited and what they’ve traditionally thrown away has much value. With EPR in place, the job of recycling paper and packaging in the U.S. can shift from local and state government control to the industry that creates the materials, running recycling like a business instead of running it like a government. That’s a concept we can all get behind.