Management of Chemicals and Waste: a Two-Pronged Challenge to Sustainable Development

Chemicals and waste are elements of daily life, wellbeing, development and prosperity. Almost every aspect of progress and everyday living relies on chemicals, from medicine and agriculture, to consumer goods, industry and power. However, chemical use, manufacture and disposal, as well as waste or pollutants from chemical processes and products, can also negatively affect health and the environment. They can be a serious threat to sustainability, with the poor being the most vulnerable to contamination. This month’s GreenWatch explores chemical and waste risks and the indispensability of the responsible management of chemicals and waste (also called the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste, or SMCW) for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For the United Nations (UN), sustainable development means all-inclusive prosperity, a ‘leave-no-one-behind’ plan for growth and development. The internationally-agreed upon SDGs integrate economic development, natural resources management and protection, and social equity and inclusion. They also call on an alliance of all countries and stakeholders to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women; and to ensure lasting protection for the planet and its natural resources.

The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets form an integrated and indivisible balance of three priorities (economic, social and environmental) to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and continued economic growth, and address various aspects of human well-being.

Costs of Mismanagement

Human health and the environment (and therefore efforts in sustainable development) are compromised by the mismanagement of chemicals and waste, which form a fundamental obstacle to the achievement of the SDGs.

Following is a list of health and financial impacts taken from UNDP’s report, “Chemicals and Waste Management for Sustainable Development” and from the Geneva Environment Network’s conference “Integrating Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste in the Sustainable Development Goals” that further shed light on the urgency for SMCW:

  • The global chemicals output of developing countries has steadily risen above that of developed countries since 2000, and is expected to grow to an equivalent US $6,000 trillion by 2020.
  • A mother can pass as much as 33% of her chemical body burden to her child; 232 toxic chemicals were found in umbilical cord blood from US newborns
  • 4.9 million deaths were attributable to environmental exposure and inadequate management of selected chemicals in 2004
  • 54% of the global burden of disease due to chemicals is borne by children under the age of 15
  • Plastics weighing 191 times as much as the Titanic are dumped in the oceans every year
  • Costs of injury to pesticide users in sub-Saharan African countries were US $ 4.4 billion in 2005
  • 1.6% of deaths worldwide come from unintentional acute and occupational poisonings from selected industrial and agricultural chemicals
  • Costs from asbestos and contaminated drywall total US $125 billion worldwide
  • Health and environmental damage from mercury exposure is estimated at US $22 billion
  • Estimated costs of poisonings from pesticides in Sub-Saharan Africa exceed the total annual overseas development aid given to basic health services to that region

The UNEP identifies particular wastes that need urgent SMCW:

  • Mercury is identified as a global pollutant, a highly toxic heavy metal, with a range of severe health impacts including damage to the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs, immune system, eyes, gums and skin. It contaminates and persists in the environment, circulating between air, water, sediments, soil and biota. Mercury is used in many products and processes including gold mining, PVC production, polyurethane elastomers production, electrical switches, light bulbs, batteries, laboratories, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints and jewelry. It is also released in industrial processes.
  • Lead poses risks to health from poisoning and environmental contamination. It has been known to cause lifelong health impacts including learning disabilities, anemia, and other neurological, cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, hematological and reproductive disorders. It can be found in paint for various uses including interiors, exteriors, toys and furniture. Lead is also a main component of energy storage batteries. Other major sources of lead release into the environment are fuel additives, non-ferrous metal production and coal combustion.
  • Cadmium is another harmful chemical found in energy storage batteries. Production and use of batteries releases the chemical into the environment, thereby causing contamination. Other human activities such as mining, metal production and other industrial processes have led to greater concentrations of cadmium in the environment. Cadmium is a toxic element that mainly affects the kidneys and the skeleton. It is also a carcinogen.
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) are a group of chemicals that are carbon-based and highly toxic that persist in the environment for many years, bio-accumulate in the food chain, and travel over large distances through air and water. They are widely used in industrial and agricultural practices and released from many human activities to the environment.

SMCW in the World’s Sustainable Development Agenda

The world’s sustainable development agenda recognizes the importance of proper chemical and waste management. On the road to properly developing the SDGs after the Rio+20 decision, Franz Perrez, Head of the international affairs division of Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), highlighted the importance of the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste (SMCW). He said that SMCW needs to be understood and addressed to define SDGs in his opening remarks for a Geneva Environment Network Secretariat panel discussion on “integrating sound management of chemicals and waste in the Sustainable Development Goals,” attended by 70 participants from permanent missions to the UN in Geneva, as well as representatives of civil society and industry. The meeting concluded that the sound management of chemicals and waste clearly contributes positively to all three pillars of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental. This supports the UN’s own findings from many conferences, conventions and documents, found also in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As far back as 1992, Chapter 19 of Agenda 21—a UN Sustainable Development report and part of the UNDP’s Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform—warned that chemical safety and current practices are severely deficient for two reasons:

  • Lack of sufficient scientific information for their risk assessment
  • Lack of resources of assessment of chemicals for which data are at hand

Agenda 21 recommended targets that would achieve the effective control of the generation, storage, treatment, recycling and reuse, as well as the transport, recovery and disposal of hazardous waste. These targets included preventing or minimizing the generation of hazardous waste as part of an overall comprehensive, integrated and cleaner approach to production.

Other historical UN milestone agreements relating to SMCW include:

These conventions established international frameworks for the environmentally sound management of hazardous waste, chemicals and persistent organic pollutants (synonymous with SMCW). Only six UN member-states are not party to these conventions.

Following the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, Rio+20 and its outcome document, “The Future We Want,” re-affirm a commitment to the sound management of chemicals and waste for sustainable development. The document designates 2020 as the year for achieving the minimization of significant adverse effects of chemical use and production on human health and the environment. Achievement of this goal rests on the establishment of transparent, science-based procedures for risk assessment and management.  The commitment for SMCW is re-affirmed in the UN’s main document on the SDGs, “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

These conferences of world leaders and their documents and agreements stress the Sound Management of Chemicals and Waste as a foundation for sustainable development and a system underpinning the success of many SDGs.

SMCW is Vital to Several SDGs

In its report, “Chemicals and Waste Management for Sustainable Development,” the UNDP identifies the sound management of chemicals and waste as having a key role in achieving the following goals:

  • SDG 1 “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”—SMCW protects the poorest communities and those exposed to higher risks from chemical mismanagement of industries and human activities due to poverty-related circumstances.
  • SDG 2 “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition”—Agricultural chemicals for better yield can pose risks to human health and cause pollution and land degradation. Good management should address these dangers, maintaining sustainable agricultural health and boosting greater productivity.
  • SDG 3 “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”—On the one hand, chemical products can save lives. On the other, pollution has caused millions of deaths and disabilities each year. Through SMCW, we can ensure that chemical use and waste do not cause pollution and contamination.
  • SDG 6 “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”—Chemical by-products of production processes and waste disposal can severely impact water quality. SMCW can increase the availability of clean water by preventing hazardous chemical pollution of water sources and improving treatment of wastewater and drinking supplies.
  • SDG 9 “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”—SMCW introduces holistic, cleaner production approaches that use less or non-harmful chemicals, and sound technology and processes. This leads to sustainable industrialization, energy efficiency, reduced water and resource usage, and decreased waste production. Sustainable industrialization (paired with or resulting from SMCW) boosts innovation, opens up opportunities to new markets and value chains, and increases employment opportunities.
  • SDG 11 “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”—Cities are the biggest sources of pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. SMCW is instrumental to developing sustainable cities through less harmful products and construction materials, improved waste management practices and services, and a greener industry with reduced emissions.
  • SDG 12 “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”—Services and products for basic needs and quality of life often contain toxic materials. SMCW helps in redesigning these products and production processes, phasing out toxic materials, minimizing waste generation, and optimizing resource use.
  • SDG 13 “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”—SMCW offers several opportunities for GHG emission reductions through resource recovery and recycling, waste-to-energy processes, optimization of waste transportation, composting, and the use of newer and more efficient transformers and condensers.
  • SDG 14 “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”—Waste from industries, agriculture and mining that end up in water bodies leads to deaths of thousands of marine inhabitants and one million seabirds every year. SMCW helps protect these resources and vital systems.
  • SDG 15 “Protect, restore and promote the sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”—Chemical and waste mismanagement causes severe environmental degradation, including the contamination of water, soil, air, flora and fauna, and disrupts ecosystems. SMCW protects habitats and ecosystems, and reduces the need for difficult and costly remediation.

SMCW Is Underway and Improving

With so much at stake and so much potential, SMCW must become a bigger international environmental, public health and development priority. The path to better manage chemical and waste risks has been progressing with programs like the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), the result of international efforts in the public and private sphere for SMCW geared towards sustainability. A collaboration of the world’s biggest brands in the apparel, footwear and textile industries, ZDHC is a landmark program that advances better health and environment practices through SMCW, contributing to the SDGs. ZDHC states that its mission is “to advance towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile and footwear value chain to improve the environment and people's wellbeing. Our vision is for the widespread implementation of sustainable chemistry and best practices in the textile and footwear industries to protect consumers, workers and the environment.” More programs like this will better manage impact through sustainable chemistry in other spheres of production and consumption.


ADEC Innovations (ADEC) helps organizations recognize business drivers for sustainability practices and offers cost-effective sustainability management solutions, providing guidance on industry best practices and sustainability programs.