Safer use of chemicals can help protect biodiversity

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By UNEP, June 4, 2020

From the smallest parasitic bacterium living in the bladder of a primate to the blue whale - biodiversity refers to the vast variety of life on this planet.

Biodiversity can be felt everywhere – from the food we eat to the medicines we need. Eighty seven of the 115 leading global food crops depend on insect or animal pollination, a contribution to agriculture worth US$200 billion per year. Between 50,000 to 70,000 plant species are harvested for traditional or modern medicine. And biodiversity even helps to keep the effects of climate change at bay as trees and forests remove carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air we breathe, while cooling the planet.

But, we are currently in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. Last year, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), found that ‘one million species are threatened with extinction’.

Protecting biodiversity is vital for human health and well-being. So much so that biodiversity is the theme for World Environment Day 2020, hosted by Colombia - one of the world’s “megadiverse” countries, home to nearly ten percent of the planet’s biodiversity – in partnership with Germany.

With biodiversity giving us so much, what are some of the causes of nature loss?

Pollution, including from chemicals and waste, is one of the key drivers of global biodiversity loss, found IPBES. Although chemicals are an essential part of our daily life, we can limit the impact on biodiversity through legal frameworks that address the full life cycle of chemicals and waste. The Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM) promotes the development of legal and regulatory frameworks.

Established in 2006, SAICM promotes chemical safety around the world. It works with governments, industry, civil society and the UN system to manage chemicals soundly throughout their life cycle, so that by the year 2020, chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimize adverse impacts on the environment and human health. Colombia for example, recently implemented national laws which improve chemical handling and safety.

When it comes to the impact of specific chemicals on biodiversity, these tend to be more ‘invisible’ because the longer-term impacts of chemical exposure on different species are complex and difficult to study, so remain largely unknown.

But, as the world reconsiders its habits during the current pandemic, here are a few tips on how you can help protect biodiversity from chemicals and waste this World Environment Day.

  • Avoid single use plastics and try to limit your consumption and unnecessary waste
    Marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980 affecting at least 267 animal species, including 86 percent of marine turtles, 44 percent of seabirds and 43 percent of marine mammals.  
  • Properly dispose of chemicals and toxic waste
    Don’t flush pharmaceuticals or toxic substances, down the drain. Resist throwing toxic materials in the garbage, bring them to appropriate disposal facilities instead. Check out this factsheet from SAICM about the work the Secretariat does on safely managing chemicals.  
  • Resist using products with harmful chemicals that are toxic to pollinators Continuous use of pesticides can deplete insect and microorganism populations, generating pesticide-resistant pests and adversely affecting predator-prey relationships. Neonicotinoids, which are among the world’s most widely used insecticides, can affect the sperm count of male honeybees and reduce the number of queen bees. Learn more about chemicals in products from the knowledge platform Chemicals without Concern.  
  • Learn more about the Sustainable Development Goals Target 12.4 which focuses on the sound management of chemicals and waste by 2020, and can help achieve biodiversity related goals of SDG6 Clean Water and Sanitation,  SDG14 Life Below Water and SDG15 Life on Land.

Check out our infographic to see examples of where biodiversity is in danger from poor management of chemicals and waste: