Sims Recycling Solutions’ Community Spotlight: Katharina Kummer Peiry

Posted by on January 27, 2015


Sims Recycling Solutions provides a featured interview of a customer, partner or colleague within the field of recycling. These interviews provide an opportunity to learn about the different aspects of recycling from an economic, environmental or social perspective. This month’s profile features Katharina Kummer Peiry, the former executive secretary of the Basel Convention.

How did you get involved with international waste management policy and the Basel Convention?

In 1988, I was having lunch with some colleagues from the Swiss district court where I worked as a young lawyer. Someone mentioned an advertisement in the newspaper for a 6-month assignment with the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi (Kenya) to work on the negotiation of a new treaty on hazardous wastes. The post was advertised and funded by the Swiss government, a co-sponsor of the negotiation process (and later host to the conference that adopted the treaty in Basel). I applied and got the job! In those days, international environmental law was still pretty much in its infancy. I had no prior experience but neither did any of other the other applicants. I ended up staying in Nairobi for a year and a half and subsequently writing my PhD on the Basel Convention after its adoption. This set me on a lifelong path of working in international law and policy.

What are the greatest changes in the approach to waste management since your start in 1988?

In the 1980s many incidents of illicit dumping of toxic waste from developed to developing countries came to light. Notorious instances of toxic waste being imported from abroad to Koko, Nigeria and via the Khian Sea cargo ship to Haiti and other sites shocked the world. The natural reaction was to combat what was soon labeled “garbage imperialism” or “toxic terrorism” and to expose the “Not in my Backyard” (NIMBY) mentality of industrialized nations. The Basel Convention negotiations were initiated with this objective in mind. The Convention has been very successful both in establishing these practices as illegal and in creating the first international regulatory framework to curb them. But today, in a globalized world with almost unlimited mobility of persons and goods, increasing scarcity of raw materials, and a growing population, prohibition and control (while still needed) is no longer sufficient. In the last few years we have seen the emergence of concepts such as Green Economy and Green Growth. For waste management this means preventing waste generation, prolonging the life of products through repair and refurbishment, and extracting valuable resources from wastes through environmentally-sound recycling. This has been a win-win situation that creates global jobs and business opportunities while protecting worker health and the environment, especially within developing countries. Happily, policy is beginning to embrace this concept at all levels!

What are your most important accomplishments as Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention?

I like to think I was a catalyst for reviving the Convention and setting it on a new track! When I was appointed Executive Secretary in 2007 Basel was widely considered to be stagnating. Some saw it as an obstacle to trade and use of innovative technologies for recycling and resource recovery, while others believed it fell short of protecting vulnerable countries from unwanted waste imports. Accordingly, both sides felt the Convention was of little practical value. The discussion on entry into force of the Ban Amendment had been blocked for many years and this further weakened the Convention. By 2011 the win-win scenario described above had entered the debate and a solution to the Ban Amendment conundrum had been found. I “stage-managed” these developments by putting forward new ideas and approaches, exploring these in extensive consultations with parties and stakeholders, and adapting them constantly in accordance with the feedback received. As a result, parties assumed ownership of the ideas developing them further and putting them into action. Colombia, host of the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10), chose the conference theme of “Prevention, Minimization and Recovery of Wastes”, and sponsored the adoption of a Ministerial Declaration endorsing this concept. COP 10 also endorsed lifecycle management of materials and recognition of waste as a resource as guiding principles of the new 10-year strategic framework for the Convention. The Ban Amendment debate was also unblocked through the adoption of a proposal elaborated through the Indonesian-Swiss Country Led Initiative for over 18 months. I am very happy to see ongoing work under the Basel Convention to implement these decisions!

What are the main challenges for the Basel Convention in the future?

In short, I believe the main challenge for Basel will be to “prevent the illegal while promoting the desirable” in international waste management. In addition to following through on current work, this will require significant efforts of enforcement which the Basel Convention cannot do without the help of specialized organizations such as Interpol. Most importantly, it will require relevant efforts from each and every party, but I also think there is a broader and more complex challenge. This challenge will be to bring the Basel Convention and the other sectorial treaties on the management of potentially hazardous substances under a comprehensive and coherent global, legal and policy framework. This framework will ensure sustainability at all stages of materials management in a global context involving waste avoidance at the production stage, responsible use, extending product life, recycling, resource and energy recovery and final disposal of residues. The synergies process between the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions was a step in the right direction and it has shown that the international community is ready to seek new and unprecedented solutions. Of course creating an overarching materials management framework will be far from easy as it will require political will all around! I elaborated on this in an article published in the Review of European Community and International Law this past July.

You are currently co-editing a book entitled Waste Management and the Green Economy: Law and Policy. How are these two practices connected?

Achieving a Green Economy is a complex and often controversial task, and is viewed with skepticism by those who fear it might be just another way of impeding the economic development of poor countries. Much of the relevant discussion is currently focused on climate and energy which are at the top of the political agenda worldwide, but these are highly complex and controversial issues even without adding the Green Economy into the equation. Waste management is not as high-profile, raises less controversy and the problems it poses are less complex. On the basis of the recent achievements under the Basel Convention, turning wastes into valuable resources or energy might become a pilot area for greening the economy in a cost-effective manner. Industry can make a profit from environmentally-sound resource and energy recovery – provided that policy and law at all levels facilitate the necessary operations while providing safeguards against abuse (and thus also eliminating unfair competition from “dirty” operators). This could provide an incentive to invest in these operations and thus to create green jobs while protecting the environment, human health and livelihood. Through contributions from legal, economic and technical experts in the field, including views and experiences from China and Africa, the book will explore this hypothesis.

What do you think about the concepts of a circular economy and zero waste?

These concepts might be overly optimistic, at least at this point in time, but who is to say what technological progress will make possible in the future. In August, senior Indian researcher Professor Veena Sahajwalla received an Australian Laureate Fellowship for her groundbreaking work on transforming carbon dioxide into sustainable fuels. The notions of a circular economy and zero waste, which seemed unrealistic not all that long ago, are now very present in the international discussion. At the Brussels Green Week in June, European Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potocnik, stated that in a circular economy waste will not exist because resources can be renewed forever. He advocated this as the logical choice for Europe as a resource-poor, densely-populated part of the world with an ageing society. One can equally argue that achieving universal peace on Earth is overly optimistic. It might be today, but this does not prevent us from striving to achieve it by all possible means. We should not let “realism” stop us from pursuing ideals!

What are you working on now?

After the completion of the merger between the Secretariats of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions under new leadership, I reactivated my consulting firm, Kummer EcoConsult, which provides high-level advice on how to achieve the double objective of environmental protection and industrial development in accordance with applicable international law and policy. I also serve as an expert witness in court proceedings on Basel-related issues and am on the Board of Directors of Sustainable Electronics Recycling International (SERI), the host organization of the Responsible Recycling (R2) Standard. I am spearheading a policy initiative on used electronic products for SERI. At the moment, the book is also taking up a lot of my time.

What do you do in your free time?

I am an outdoors person and find physical activity refreshing for the mind and the spirit. I love sailing, jogging, swimming and biking with my husband. In my younger days I was an alpinist and I still occasionally climb a mountain together with friends. Classical singing for me is a different but equally fulfilling way of relaxing from the pressures of the working world. I have been taking singing lessons for several years and am a member of a Swiss symphonic choir.

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