The Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes, although initially meant to curb disposal options of hazardous waste in Eastern Europe and in developing countries, it recently adopted marine plastic litter and microplastic into its work programme. However, knowledge and data on microplastics is still lacking, with just global estimates, but no yearly global data yet. Reports on microplastics have focused on secondary sources, as well as waste management and reduction—which are key. Research has also focused on microplastics uptake in the food web—and its adverse implications not only on the environment, but on food security, food safety, and health. Barboza, et al. stresses that as global concentrations of microplastics increase, the importance and urgency of assessing its levels in food—fish and shellfish—and in the human body as well. As both human exposure levels and its effects are still unknown or not fully understood, these need to be further explored through research. Rockstrom, et. al, echo this, challenging the research community to first, develop the body of research to be able to conduct stringent screening of chemicals before they are released into the earth.
Agricultural Compounds. As unpacked in the planetary boundary on nutrient cycling, the agriculture sector is a major industry that involves release of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium), and agrochemicals that increase groundwater pollution and ocean eutrophication, affecting critical freshwater, coastal, and marine ecosystems worldwide. The world has experienced a paradigm shift—from agroecology and natural systems of pest control, intercropping, maintaining ecological diversity, to the modernization and mechanization of the agriculture sector, wherein chemical inputs—fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, have been developed, largely, promoted and used, to supposedly “feed the world.” The agricultural landscape was transformed by the Green Revolution “package” that offered newly developed high-yielding varieties, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and even irrigation worldwide. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 1962, was the first voice that called global attention to how massive use of agrochemicals was having serious impacts on the environment. This dominant mode of production, apart from damaging biodiversity, depleting soils, large-scale industrial agriculture and the proliferation of monocrop plantations further exacerbate the impacts of chemicals in the water runoff that reaches rivers, oceans, and the food that we eat. Pesticides like DDT remain in our waterways “decades after they have been banned, and residues are known to occur in most food we eat.” Growing global concern and regulation on agrochemicals and their effect on critical earth systems have led to global regulatory efforts such as the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty to protect against persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which was adopted in 2001. Twelve POPs (persistent organic pollutants) were agreed upon under the Stockholm Convention on POPs were agreed upon as detrimental to humans and ecosystems, and fall under three categories: “For elimination” including aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene—all pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)– industrial chemicals; “For restriction,” DDT, the pesticide that was used in the Vietnam War; and “For minimization, and reduction of unintentional release” By products such as exachlorobenzene; polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDD/PCDF), and PCBs. In 2017, 16 POPs were added by 181 Parties to the list.
What makes agrochemicals relevant in talking about novel entities is how, knowing its devastating effects to humans and ecosystems has not changed much. Agrochemical residue is consumed by most of the world’s population in small doses, daily, and carcinogenic effects have been acknowledged—especially by those who are regularly exposed to them. Despite this, as long as chemical inputs are applied within government safety regulations, they are allowed to persist in the agriculture system today. Glyphosate, for instance, is one of the most widely used chemical herbicides in the world, both in agriculture and non-agriculture settings such as parks, gardens, and is present in agricultural giant Monsanto’s Round-up Ready crops. Use of glyphosate was recently renewed for approval by the European Commission until 2022, despite the European Citizens’ Initiative’s “Stop Glyphosate” movement, which called on a ban on glyphosate, a reform of the pesticide approval procedure, and for the EU to set mandatory reduction targets for pesticide use.
Household and cosmetic products. In a study by Goel and Kaur (2012) on chemical contamination of water from household laundry detergents in India, they cite how powder detergents result in high pH levels, bicarbonate, chloride, sulphate, and bicarbonate levels in waste streams than from liquid detergents. They cite Xul, saying that 2,000 metric tons of washing powders drain into Dianchi lake each year, contributing to the urban effluent. Microplastics, as mentioned earlier, are present in personal care products and cosmetics (found in toothpastes, facial wash, shower gels, makeup)—and when washed down drains, do not decompose, nor can they be collected again for recycling. These are identified by IUCN as intentional losses, as they are purposely directed to wastewater stream—from households, hotels, hospitals, swimming pools and sport facilities, beaches and resorts—and make up 42 Ktons per year of plastic waste. The UN Environment Programme outlines multiple impacts of untreated wastewater on human health, the environment and productive activities. With only 28-38% percent of wastewater being treated in middle income countries, and 8% in low income countries, and globally, only 20% of all wastewater treated , and novel entities being discharged in waterways and into oceans worldwide, there should be cause for alarm. In terms of wastewater, the UN World Water Development Report cites the following mechanisms to prevent pollution in wastewater flows: monitoring and inspection, having a red list of contaminants, product formulation, product use, regulation, incentives and penalties.
Nuclear power generation and radioactive waste. Nuclear power today provides 10.5% of global electricity generation, with the top ten nations with the highest power generation capacity being the United States, France, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, Canada, Ukraine, Germany, and the United Kingdom. However, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2018 has cited “man-made environmental damage and disasters (e.g. oil spills, radioactive contamination, etc.)” as one of the five major environmental risks faced by humanity today. Naturally occurring uranium ore is mined and processed into “enriched” uranium fuel, which then powers nuclear reactors. The emissions produced by nuclear power poses overwhelming risks, from low-level ionizing radiation, intermediate-level waste, and high level nuclear waste (HLW). Low-level and intermediate wastes are buried in the ground, similar to landfills. HLW, however, continues to be radioactive for thousands of years, and must be disposed of deep, deep, underground, in “facilities built in stable geological formations,” but no such facilities operate even today. According to Kyne and Bolin, issues of nuclear waste include not only selection of plant locations and sites, and potentially exposed populations, but also the deadlock of no sustainable, permanent disposal options for the toxic, high-level waste. Kyne & Boline analyse nuclear power not only in terms of health risks, but in light of social justice and power asymmetries—how are environmental burdens when it comes to nuclear risks socio-spatially distributed? How equitable or otherwise are processes that lead to decision-making on the risks nuclear power poses to people and places? And lastly, who is included and excluded in decision-making regarding the hazards of nuclear power?
With the documented nuclear disasters throughout history—from the Chernobyl nuclear radiation contamination in Russia in 1986 to, more recently, the Fukushima disaster after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011—the volatility of HLW, its risks to health, and its vulnerability to uncertain events, from human error to natural disasters, cannot be ignored. Today, Russia and Japan are still in the top five nations with the highest nuclear power capacity. Meanwhile, the United States’ largest Cold War-era nuclear warheads production site in Hanford, Washington State, contains at least 56 million gallons of highly radioactive material, more than twice what was leaked in Chernobyl. Again, the dilemma of how to dispose of the massive amount of radioactive waste persists. The United States’ Government Accountability Office claims that it has over 90,000 metric tons that has yet to be disposed, and that this is expected to increase to 140,000 metric tons. Permanent disposal sites have yet to be determined.
Multi-sectoral Responses: Corporate Transparency, Manufacturing Industries, Governments
How then can we move towards a response? In identifying ways forward, Diamond, et al. warn against working in silos, or a piecemeal approach, and reiterate the need for an integrated global approach given the global nature of the problem. And while Rockstrom, et al. did not define the scope of chemicals, they suggested possible mechanisms and variables to consider—emissions, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), plastics, endocrine disruptors, heavy metals, and nuclear wastes. The planetary boundaries framework proposes precautionary and preventive actions, from investing (or divesting in research that further novel entities, and instead reinvesting) in green chemistry, exploring coalitions and collaborations with fields like occupational health, as well as focusing on previous mistakes (like CFCs and the stratospheric ozone layer) and learning from them. Lastly, they propose to invest further in science, given its capacity to increase understanding of, and keep track of earth system processes to produce early warning systems that can identify the effects of novel entities before it is much too late.
Current international treaties on chemicals management are already in place for most, in varying levels of acceptance, legitimacy, and enforcement—the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), Montreal Protocol on CFCs, the Basel Convention on Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes (1989), Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Severely Hazardous Pesticide Formulations in International Trade, Minamata Convention on mercury-containing products (2013). There are, however, clear limitations on the extent of their effectiveness in curbing chemical pollution. On the part of governments, although these treaties seek to curb the spread of chemicals across national borders, transparency, accountability, and national policy challenges remain. To what extent are governments staying true to the conventions they are party to, considering national sovereignty and their own interests? Are national policies being crafted, enforced, and monitored? The case on HCFCs and the Montreal Protocol is a clear indication that steps are being taken, but implications of technological fixes need to be analyzed well to avoid false solutions. Diamond, et al. add that it will be challenge for most countries to measure exposure to chemical pollution, as well as enforce control mechanisms, as they have neither capacity nor resources to do so. Can we then promote sustainability in terms of environmental impact and social issues through cooperation among corporations, industries, governments, and global supply chains, even our own values and behavior?
Corporate Transparency and Accountability
Although small-scale farmers have such a valuable role to play in feeding the world, Oxfam reports that only 500 global food and beverage corporations control 70% of the food the world eats. How then, can the given thresholds set by the planetary boundaries framework, which sets out a broad environmental context, be applied and tailored to the very specific characteristics yet diverse contexts of novel entities—not just agricultural compounds, but plastics and microplastics, household and cosmetic product wastes, CFCs and HCFCs, and radioactive wastes—to the corporations that dominate industries? Multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) are argued as key to sustainability governance issues, as starting points for stakeholders from different sectors of society to be able to converge and define ways forward. MSIs have aided in raising awareness, improving practices and product traceability, and discouraged unsustainable behaviors—depending on their legitimacy, level of influence, stringent guidelines, transparency and accountability mechanisms, and extent of monitoring or enforcement. Several MSIs that could apply to the abovementioned novel entities, include the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), Integrated Reporting, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the Principles for Responsible Investment, the Global Water Partnership, and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. Burritt and Schaltegger (2014) assert that although there is a growing pressure on corporations to become more transparent and accountable for corporate supply chains, there are complex issues associated with sustainability reporting. Although there has been an increase in literature on sustainability and corporations, Searcy identifies the still nebulous definition of sustainability at the level of the supply chain, and how to achieve this, as a fundamental challenge—how can one label a supply chain as sustainable, or unsustainable, and using what metrics? There has not been a mechanism that defines what is sustainable in the supply chain context yet. Searcy adds that the complexity of global supply chains require “long-term, coordinated action involving actors from both the public and private sectors.” The GRI, for instance, has recognized that “sustainability reports overall provide an incomplete picture of supply chain performance despite the importance of the issue,” and has thus convened a working group. It has, however, been applied on industries which bank on their legitimacy, as well as where globalization and branding are key. The GRI is, however, mired by issues of how much discretion is given to corporations in defining boundaries and notions of sustainability. The insights on radioactive waste in terms of justice and equity issues apply as well, to all other novel entities. A study on specific chemicals in various individuals of varying socio-economic statuses show that different chemicals are present in different individuals, depending on lifestyles, geographical location, among others. However, Bijlsma and Cohen (2016) argue that minority groups and sectors of society with lower socioeconomic status are likely to be more exposed to environmental toxins given their proximity to waste dump sites, lower air quality—signs of the earth becoming increasingly inhabitable are first felt by the most marginalized or excluded in society. Yet it is still a challenge for governments and decision-makers, even corporations to really consider—who are most at risk of the impending impacts of chemical pollution—from nuclear radioactive waste, to chemical agricultural inputs, to the plastic pollution choking our streams, rivers, and oceans? How are the burdens and responsibilities for these socio-spatially distributed, again, and who is included in decision-making regarding the hazards and risks associated with novel entities and chemical pollution? And what are we, as citizens doing to hold both governments and corporations accountable?
From awareness to action: Individual lifestyle and value shifts
Reflection on the novel entities has brought forth the realization that these are realities we individuals, as consumers, face today. Agricultural compounds concern the food we have access to and consume, the chemicals and CFCs/HCFCs are present in our household, and as chemical effluent or microplastics go into our waste streams, and into the environment. These are products that we have grown used to that power our daily lives. When it comes to agricultural compounds and how it links to our very food system, and the broader climate justice crises we face today, global network La Via Campesina describes it aptly: the “current, and linked food and environmental crises as in fact the direct result of decades of destructive economic policies based on the globalization of a neoliberal, industrial, capital-intensive, and corporate-led model of agriculture.” Although awareness of all these doesn’t end with mindful consumer choices,—it’s also about being mindful of the structural inequalities of the system we are enmeshed in—the choices do matter. In my context, what may need more reflection is, which groups of people have access to safe, healthy food—are the marginalized, the most vulnerable populations, children, the elderly, women given a choice on what to consume, and which chemical residues linger in their food?
Alongside efforts to analyse ways forward for governments and corporations, is to build a deliberative, civil society towards this global recognition of the planetary boundaries on novel entities and chemical pollution, our individual actions must not be underestimated. Miguel Clark Mallet, in a column for the OnBeing Blog, writes about his problem with the notion of simplicity, and how it has, at times, been thought of as synonymous to “efficient,” or convenient. How it’s easier to throw waste outside the window of a car, throwing away with it the thought of it going down a sewer that will most probably overflow with everyone else’s waste when the monsoon rains come. What kind of disaster, jolt in our system, a reawakening, would we need to push ourselves out of this current status quo? Is mindful consumption really possible for all? Mallet asserts that technology and convenience have made what was thought impossible, possible for people in need, such as people with disabilities, the elderly. The dominant mode of agriculture has similarly also allowed convenient access to affordable food. But he reiterates: “But I shouldn’t forget the impact my conveniences have on other people, close and distant, whether those conveniences are economic, material, social, or political.” Again it comes down to a question of ethics, and values. To what extent can we our daily actions move towards simplicity, from our varying contexts and starting points? To a simplicity that does not come at the expense of inequity, injustice, or contribute to environmental destruction? It is overwhelming to think and rethink about how our daily actions, how small they may seem, are tied to so much of what we, as humanity, have produced, in the name of progress, or technological advancements, and the impending havoc we are allowing it to wreak.
What brings me hope is are the food justice and food sovereignty movements who are “advocat(ing) greater control over food production and consumption by people who have been marginalized by mainstream agri-food regimes.” And in the conversation about agrochemicals and food, it’s not a fight simply for food security, but food sovereignty, as stated in the Nyeleni Declaration, or “all peoples, nations and states are able to determine their own food producing systems and policies that provide every one of us with good quality, adequate, affordable, healthy and culturally appropriate food.” To what extent can we allow our awareness of the dangers of novel entities, our own biases and starting points, and reflexivity to influence our consumer choices, give up the luxuries of convenience that we are so accustomed to, all depending on our diverse contexts, socio, economic, cultural backgrounds? To what extent have our actions and choices reinforced or perpetuated existing inequities, asymmetrical power relations, social, gender, ethnic differences? And can we allow change to happen in our own lifestyles, to choices in career, to the corporations and the local industries we support, to collaborations we pursue? We need to not only analyse, but organize, and walk the talk, before it’s too late.