The build-up of hazardous waste is a global crisis piling pressure on local authorities worldwide.
In Panama, a new initiative to address dangerous pollutants in landfills, hospitals, and hotels is offering hope to countries seeking ways to turn the tide on toxins.
The project funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the UN Development Programme will enable local municipalities to better address pollution challenges related to waste management, healthcare, and tourism through holistic solutions.
It is focused on plastics, mercury, and “forever chemicals” such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and the flame retardant Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), which can persist in the environment and in peoples’ bodies for the long term.
The goals are to identify problem contaminants and to segregate toxic waste before they reach landfills. Local authorities will also work to accelerate a shift to mercury-free technology in healthcare centers and to support nature-friendly waste disposal in hospitals and communities.
“This project will help address the important challenges that we face in controlling emissions of substances that are hazardous for human health and the environment, such as Persistent Organic Pollutants and mercury,” said Jose Luis Vasquez of Panama’s Ministry of Health. “These substances require immediate attention because of their adverse effects internationally. Panama is committed to take action through this project, in compliance with our national plans on chemicals and waste.”
Globally, according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, chemical production is 50 times higher than it was in 1950 and is set to triple again by 2050. The world also produces more than 11 billion tonnes of solid waste each year, which, if poorly managed, can contaminate air, water and soil.
Even in countries like Panama, which has ratified both the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, human and environmental health remain at risk from a range of agricultural pesticides, imported products, and emissions from the improper disposal of waste, including open burning in pit dumps and landfills.
The upward spiral of pollution and waste across the globe is deemed the third planetary crisis – one inseparable from the twin catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Recognizing this, the GEF increased funding for chemical and waste management projects in its eighth funding cycle, earmarking 15 percent of funds for such efforts, in addition to biodiversity, climate resilience, and other initiatives that also relate to chemicals and waste.
The Panama-led project “Environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes containing POPs and mercury” stands out as it engages private and public sector parties from multiple sectors – from construction to waste management – in setting goals and shaping plans for improved outcomes.
“We are aiming to raise awareness about hazardous chemicals across the board through these initiatives,” said Kasper Koefoed-Hansen, Program Advisor in the Chemicals and Waste unit of the UNDP’s Panama Regional Hub.
One of the pilot initiatives is focused on Pedasí, a tourist hotspot on Panama’s Pacific coast.
Like many coastal destinations around the world, local waste collection capacities in the seaside town have been strained by growing numbers of visitors and retirees.
The GEF-supported project will deploy local teams of waste-pickers who will work to collect, separate, and reprocess plastic, and raise community awareness about how to prevent fires in dump sites and landfills – creating green jobs while protecting the environment.
Hotels in the area will also play a major role. Pilot facilities will receive segregated waste containers and staff training on encouraging tourists to dispose of plastics properly.
For Pedasí, the stakes are high: the preservation of the beautiful landscapes for which the town is famous. Pilots such as these are expected to have knock-on benefits for the whole country, so visitors and residents alike can breathe a bit easier in the future.
“This project demonstrates how impactful it can be when multiple sectors come together to improve the ways chemicals and waste are managed. The results stretch far beyond one industry or field,” said Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the GEF’s CEO and Chairperson. “We are grateful for the leadership and strong support from the Government of Panama as well as the private sector in pursuit of long-lasting change.”