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interviews

Waste Is A Human Rights Issue

by Baskut Tuncak
January 18, 2019

Baskut Tuncak is the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and toxics, and a Senior Researcher at Raoul Wallenberg Institute.

What does your role at the UN entail?

The position I have, as Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council is one of an independent, outside voice, providing information and analysis free of political interference. The position was created almost 25 years ago by the former UN Commission on Human Rights to look at the human rights dimension of the issue of waste, in particular transboundary shipments of waste. Large volumes of waste were, and still continue to be, shipped to developing countries and disposed of in ways that are producing grave impacts on human rights.

The Human Rights Council expanded the scope of the mandate in 2011 to look not only at the issue of waste but also to look at the entire life cycle of hazardous substances waste. It vastly expanded the scope of the mandate and changed the title to explicitly include hazardous substances and waste. So, the full life cycle of consumption and production, and the pollution and contamination that results. Everything from the natural resources we extract to produce various chemicals, materials and energy, to emissions of energy generation, to toxics in the workplace and consumer products, and of course all forms of waste.

Basically what I do for the Human Rights Council, and I've had this position since 2014, is report to them every September on current issues and the UN General Assembly in October. I'm given a broad latitude in how I choose to report. I can focus on a particular set of rights, or even a particular right, a particular issue, whether it's environmental or occupational, or both. I present that report every year. Also, I present reports on visits to various countries to evaluate what different governments are doing in terms of protecting human rights from exposure to toxics.

As Special Rapporteurs we also have a mandate to send letters of allegation to national governments, businesses and other actors who are implicated in cases of alleged human rights violations and abuses relating to our mandate. In my case, these are cases of people who are harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals and wastes, poisoned in essence. It's a process by which we send a letter of allegation and then engage in a conversation with the relevant actors to understand the situation better. That can lead to public expressions or views on the case publicly, or actions by other authorities to end the violations, prevent future recurrence and provide remedies for those whose rights have been violated.

Big job.

It is. It is a pro-bono position. The UN Human Rights Council has Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and 5 member teams in Working Groups, the so-called “Special Procedures”. None of us are paid. We do this on a voluntary basis and we are given very limited, if any, financial support in terms of what we need to do to gather the information in order to prepare and present the reports. We're entitled to resources to travel to Geneva and New York to present reports or to undertake the country visits but outside of that, there are very little resources available to us. It's a big job, global in scope, and it's made more challenging by the financial constraints.

How often are you filing allegations?

It depends. Last year we sent quite a few letters of allegation. I would say on average we probably send six to eight per year. Sometimes we do that individually, and sometimes we do it in conjunction with other Special Rapporteurs.

These letters of allegation are publicly available after 60 days, although they're more difficult to find than I think they should be. They usually are the precursor to Special Rapporteurs expressing a view publicly, through a media statement or otherwise.

As an example, would the water crisis in Flint be something you’d write an allegation for?

Absolutely. That's exactly one that we did send. I don't know if you are asking that just by coincidence or because you saw it, but I did send a letter of allegation to the US about the water contamination in Flint, Michigan. That letter focused quite a bit the situation in Flint but also the broader context about minorities and their disproportionate exposure to toxic contaminants in the US. I sent that letter in January of 2016, if I'm not mistaken.

I should mention that the US has opposed this mandate since its inception, saying that the issue of toxic pollution is not a human rights issue. It has consistently voted against the extension of the mandate and was the only country to vote against the renewal of this mandate during the last renewal in 2017.

Are governments legally required to respond?

Legally, no, they are not. There's no requirement on a government to respond. In the case of the US, the US was quite responsive historically. They've been one of the better countries in terms of responding, at least sending a response to the letters that have been sent. However, sometimes substantively less than we would hope to have in order to have a meaningful conversation and understand the situation. But regardless, the US has stopped responding to letters of allegation from Special Rapporteurs, including myself. The most recent letter they did not respond to involved the terrible manner in which hazardous military waste has been disposed by the US armed forces in Puerto Rico. I think the lack of responsiveness to letters of allegations reflects the highly regrettable disengagement from the US from the Human Rights Council and from various other international processes.

There's a history of developed countries using developing countries as a dumping ground. Has that changed at all in the time since you've been working in this role? China's recycling ban has forced some change, but I wonder if you've seen real effort since you've held this position?

The reason the mandate was created in the mid-90s is because the Basel Convention, which is the treaty established in the 1980s to try to deal with the problem of waste being dumped in developing countries, and was viewed by a large number of developing countries, especially those in Africa, as grossly inadequate. Within the framework of the Basel Convention, there have been numerous efforts, many concerted efforts, to ban the export of hazardous waste to developing countries, the so-called “Ban Amendment” being the most notable. This amendment would prohibit the shipment of certain hazardous wastes from OECD members to non-OECD members for disposal, recycling or recovery. However the Ban Amendment has not been ratified by enough countries to enter into force.

The recent changes in China regarding waste imports have certainly forced changes, but there are concerns that the waste is not being recycled or disposed of properly in the countries that have taken up the slack.

The issue of China's waste import restrictions and where those plastics are now heading, largely in other countries in Asia, and how they're being disposed of is very much an open question and one that we need to answer quickly.

Waste movements can be traced, but unfortunately much of it lacks transparency regarding where it goes and how it is disposed, recycled or otherwise dealt with. Illegal movements remain a serious concern, as these things by definition not traceable, measured with the same unsatisfactory methods by which the drug trade is assessed. You can only gauge how well you're doing based on how much you're actually confiscating before it becomes a problem, and that's not a very reliable metric. It's in some ways like the drug trade, and unsurprisingly you do see organized criminal activities involved. Interpol has been working to tackle this problem. Certain states have been able to improve their work with customs agents and border controls to try to ensure that waste shipments are leaving for destinations where they'll be disposed of in dangerous manners, potentially dangerous manners. But let’s not forget that some large corporations are also implicated in scandalous cases of illegal waste dumping in Africa, such as the infamous case of the Probo Koala and Trafigura. There's still a lot of waste leaving countries without sufficient understanding where it’s going or how it will be disposed.

If the US were to decide to take full responsibility for their waste, what are the practical solutions?

In an ideal scenario, countries would manage their wastes within their borders, helping to advance sustainability and reducing the intensity with which we consume raw materials. The reality is, however, that we have legitimized the export of waste, building a global waste economy externalizing the health and environmental hazards of wastes to countries with weaker governance structures, corrupt regimes, or otherwise vulnerable, exploitable populations. Most people are unaware of where their waste goes, that the mountains of trash collapse and kill communities in developing countries, that toxic substances in waste contaminate water and food and circulates around the globe. We need systems in place to ensure a safe, circular economy is developed, including the ability trace what goes into materials that become waste and where the waste goes.

Who should be responsible for tracking the waste?

Governments have a duty to protect human rights and must ensure that the actions of companies within their jurisdiction are not resulting human rights impacts, at home or abroad. The relevant authority can vary from government to government.

However, businesses that produce products that become waste have a responsibility to build traceability systems to track their waste and ensure that human rights abuses do not result. Governments must compel businesses to do this. The limited implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights after 8 years for the implications of toxic substances and wastes clearly points to the need for governments to obligate businesses to conduct such due diligence through legally-binding obligations, rather that the simply an expectation. That said, the fact that many Governments are not compelling companies to conduct human rights due diligence for the risk of toxic exposures by children, consumers, workers and others, does not absolve companies from their responsibility.

Circular Economies come up in nearly every interview we’ve done this month. Can you break down what it means to you in theory, but also what it looks like in practice?

To me, a circular economy is one in which we have essentially a closed loop. Where the inputs and the outputs from the consumption and production cycle are limited. And so, when, say, a consumer product reaches the end of its lifespan, the materials that are contained in there would be recovered and then re-used in some fashion to feed back in, creating a cycle where we don't have the raw materials extracted at the rate that they are. Like I said, ideally it would be one where we're using the raw materials that we already have, the waste that we already have, but to get to that point it's a very long-term, aspirational and ambitious vision, I'd imagine, and one that requires a very holistic life cycle approach, one that includes eliminating toxic chemicals in products, in particular those that are persistent and toxic. To me, that's what a circular economy is. It's putting those systems in place so that we can reduce our reliance on raw materials, creating healthy, sustainable economies and living within planetary boundaries.

Are you optimistic?

The idea of drastically reducing the extraction of non-renewable natural resources altogether, of oil and gas and metals, and minerals, and others, from energy to consumer products – we're not there yet. In fact, we're probably a long ways away from it unless we have the right leaders in industry, government, and the accumulated financial equity and wealth is redirected to the long-term sustainability of our planet and the human race. However, leaders in industry, government and philanthropy are all finally beginning to see the increasing toxification of our planet as one of major concern, distinct but indivisible from the impacts of climate change. This gives me optimism.

However, to have the entire global economy flip a switch and operate in a circular fashion, I'm not too optimistic. It will probably take time, requiring long-term committment on tha part of all, especially those proving the financial support to usher change. That said, there are huge gains to be had in the short term, particularly in the way that we're senselessly producing materials designed to be thrown away. Everything from single-use plastics to ultra cheap clothing material that's largely synthetic and with limited life spans. Yes, for certain consumer products segments, I am optimistic. But I also see risks. For example, if we move away from petrochemicals and move back toward the use of natural fibers for clothing, what I am afraid we will see is an increased reliance on pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemical pollutants, which will then likely also have a negative and environmental and human health impact.

So, I am optimistic and think it's the right direction to go in but I think it's going to take a lot of effort and care to avoid unintended consequences.

Yeah, not without some collateral consequences, I'm sure.

I'm trying my best to be sure that these potential collateral impacts are taken into account. For sure.

When you look at the breakdown of plastic waste, packaging is a huge portion of the problem. Amazon Prime has completely changed e-commerce. Do you look at, write about, or research the way that these companies should be responsible for their packaging systems?

Well, we could. There have been some efforts in terms of particular waste segments such as electronic waste and medical waste.

Any waste issue involving companies is fair game.

These companies like those that you're talking about are part of the massive e-commerce economy and creating a huge, huge problem for us in terms of the way that the products are packaged and how they arrive. The other day I ordered a microwave from a company and it arrived in at least three cardboard boxes that were nested inside each other like a Russian doll. It seemed to me highly inefficient and unnecessary. On top of all the styrofoam and the plastic in there, everything amounted to an enormous pile of waste that the retailer didn't have to deal with.

There needs to be attention to the way the economy is changing including through e-commerce and the waste implications.

What are some pieces of research you've worked on, or you work with, that need more attention?

One of the biggest and underrecognized issues in my view, when it comes to toxic exposures, is the exposure of children during critical periods of development to a complex mixture of toxic chemicals and pollutants, including waste. So much our health throughout our lives depends on what we are not exposed to as children. Children continue to be born pre-polluted exposed to dozens if not hundreds of different toxic chemicals and pollutants - that we are looking for. We don’t understand the implications of this as well as well should. We don’t have the information necessary on developmental effects of pre- and post-natal exposures to various toxic substances that children may be exposed. And we are procrastinating in understanding the implications of what exposure to a cocktail of substances during childhood can mean. Governments continue to rely on assessments of individual substances for health risk, but the reality is that the mixture of substances we are exposed to can interact and collectively produce grave adverse health outcomes that are not predicted by risk assessments of individual substances. We're deceiving ourselves and future generations if we continue to remain ignorant to the health risks of ongoing widespread exposure of children to toxic chemicals and pollutants and fail to do everything in our power to prevent childhood exposure.

Where can we find some of the UN work you described as difficult to find?

I have a website that also has these letters of allegation and the reports to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. The UN keeps websites for each mandate with their reports, and a database at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights where you can search by various mandates for the letters of allegation.

Public awareness of the reports and letters by Special Rapporteurs is unfortunately very limited. The UN needs to do more to make the work of Special Procedures visible. But, of course, there may be some invisible forces that keep that from happening, and from my mandate still not being referred to as focused on toxic waste, despite the changes made in 2011.