07 Feb 2019 Story Chemicals & waste

Chemicals and waste: bringing about change in Argentina

Photo by UN Environment

It is a humid and somewhat hot morning in the city of Zárate, located 85 km away from the capital, Buenos Aires. The industrial park emerges from the landscape. Stunning masses of concrete standing out between large green spaces, nourished by vegetation and bathed by the waters of the Paraná River. Nature and industry have coexisted for decades, when the land was, mostly, a sparsely populated area of ​​quintas, small farms, squares and dirt roads.

Given the fast pace of industrial growth, the city and its surroundings became increasingly populated. Factories in the chemical sector played a significant role in this development, particularly since the 1960s. In the imposing plant, which has a long history in the region, the daily working methods show how chemicals management can be ecologically sustainable and socially responsible, at a time when this issue is at the heart of the international agenda.

“It is vital for us to consolidate our environmental programme,” says Chemical Engineer Diego Yeste, Safety and Environment Manager of Alpek Polyester Group. “That is why we constantly renew our sustainability goals.”

“In our plant, all the risks associated with chemicals that are used here are included in their safety data sheets, as outlined in the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) already in force in our country.” In Argentina, the Globally Harmonized System has been mandatory in the workplace since 2015.

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Photo by UN Environment

The Argentine chemical industry, the second most important industry in South America after Brazil, contributes 12.3 per cent of the gross domestic product of the local manufacturing industry, employing 110,000 people directly in over 70 per cent of small and medium-sized companies of the sector. Upon consultation on the importance of the discussion concerning chemicals and waste management, Rolando García Valverde, Manager of the Responsible Care and Sustainable Development at the Chamber of the Chemical and Petrochemical Industry, stated that: “Chemical companies work hard to manage their products in order to sustainably preserve human health and the environment, with a strong local, regional and global commitment, supporting the initiatives that make up the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM).”

The company in which Yeste works is an emblematic case not only for its sustainable programme but also because in its manufacturing plants there are other waste management-related variables. The headquarters, located in Zárate, on the banks of the Paraná River, is a manufacturing plant for virgin polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic derived from petroleum, while in the city of General Pacheco, district of Tigre, the company has a recycling plant, unique in Argentina in for its focus on bottle-to-bottle manufacturing process.

The plant processes up to 80 tonnes of reused bottles received from different municipalities through cooperatives that bring together urban recyclers and informal workers. This is highly important at the national level since it prevents a large number of bottles from ending up in a sanitary landfill, while at the same time it cooperates in the task of acknowledging and turning informal labour practices into a professional activity. In this respect, it should be borne in mind that in Latin America and the Caribbean, waste generation is constantly increasing: the region produces 541,000 tonnes of garbage per day, a figure that is expected to increase by at least 25 per cent by 2050, according to UN Environment reports.

“Although Argentina has a law on hazardous waste,” says Guillermo Lucovich, Chemical Engineer and Collaborator of the non-governmental organization Taller Ecologista. “The fact is that today, wastes do not have a special treatment. It is therefore crucial for us to work together to achieve results that have a positive impact on community and the environment.” In this respect, Lucovich considers it essential to consolidate the notion of circular economy, also called “from cradle to cradle”: produce, use, reuse, recycle, recover and again complete the circle.

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Photo by UN Environment

A breakthrough in the dialogue for a national law on chemicals

At the end of 2017, Argentina was selected by UN Environment to execute a project under the Special Programme on Institutional Strengthening for Chemicals and Waste Management. The Directorate of Chemicals, belonging to the Secretariat of Environmental Control and Monitoring is in charge of leading this project. “The activities of the Special Programme project closely follows the line of work by Argentina’s Secretariat of Control and Environmental Monitoring,” explains Thierry Decoud, who is in charge of the Secretariat. “the project aims to set the national standard and consolidate governmental capabilities, highlighting the role and the responsibility of each of the actors involved in the life cycle of chemicals.”

The agency that manages the project in Argentina is the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). María Eugenia Di Paola, Environment and Sustainable Development Coordinator of UNDP in Argentina, agrees that the joint articulation and coordination among the different actors involved is critical to the project’s success. “The participation of the private sector, non-governmental organizations, universities and other scientific institutions builds a relationship of trust that strengthens the actions carried out,” sustains Di Paola.

As the result of the work performed within the framework of the Special Programme. An Inter-Ministerial Working Group on Chemicals Management was created, with the coordination of the National Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development. The group was able to develop a draft proposal for the first National Chemicals Law, which will give the government the tools to have sufficient information to evaluate and manage the risks of the chemicals used in Argentina.  

In addition, the outcome is being submitted to roundtables where the scientific-academic field, civil society and the private sector participate and with which preliminary meetings have been held to jointly outline the workplan. Promoted by the Government Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development, the implementation of a law governing the handling of this type of substances will allow optimizing governmental and citizen actions, at the same time it will put an end to the information gaps on the issue. 

In addition to creating the Office of Substances and Chemical Products in March 2018, within the Secretariat of Control and Environmental Monitoring, the Programme is proposing to establish a National Inventory of Chemical Substances and set up methods to ensure that sound risk assessment and management practices are in place. “The objective is to have the necessary information to classify substances (according to their hazard and probability of exposure) in order to set management measures to mitigate or eliminate them,” explains Elisa Coghlan, Project Coordinator of the Special Programme.

The programme also promotes the effective implementation of the chemicals and waste related multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) specifically the Basel (Argentina’s National Institute of Industrial Technology hosts the Basel Regional Centre for South America), Rotterdam Stockholm, and the Minamata Convention. The priority is to improve the implementation of the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management according to Argentina’s needs and priorities. In recent years, the chemicals and waste related multilateral environmental agreements have been executed by different officials in an uncoordinated manner and it was not possible to achieve a unified national scope with their works. For this reason, the Special Programme emphasizes the importance of developing solid inter-sectorial mechanisms of communication addressing government, private sector and civil society organizations in particular.

The implementation of regional policies and multilateral agreements is an essential tool to promote good environmental practices and consolidate commercial achievements. This is in line, for instance, with the signing of a bilateral agreement between Argentina and Brazil aimed at facilitating cooperation between the two countries for the sound management of chemicals. This alliance will allow for the joint enhancement of the sound management of these types of products, while strengthening both national economies.

Decoud, the Head of the Secretariat of Control and Environmental Monitoring, concluded that the challenge is clear. “We are focused on making sound management of chemicals part of our society, to promote sustainable development to care for the environment, health and future generations.”