10+ takeaways from the Minamata Convention on Mercury COP4

Mercury is a dangerous substance and its use in products and processes can be a danger to human health and the environment. It is listed among the 10 chemicals of major public health concern by the World Health Organisation. The Minamata Convention on Mercury has been ratified by 137 Parties who make key decisions towards controlling the anthropogenic releases of mercury throughout its life cycle into the environment. The fourth Minamata Convention Conference of Parties (COP 4) was held on 21-25 March 2022, in Bali, Indonesia.

The EEB was an observer to the conference, as they are a founding member and co-coordinator of the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) since 2005. The ZMWG is an international coalition, comprised of 110 organisations from over 55 countries around the world.

Here are 10 takeaways from the COP and the ZMWG’s views on the decisions.

  1. Toxic Mercury Lights

The ZMWG holds the position that a timetable for phasing out the manufacturing and trade of fluorescent lights for general purposes should have been established during the COP 4. Currently there are ample LED alternatives available. The decision taken by the COP 4 left the working group with mixed emotions. On the one hand, a decision to phase out screw-in compact fluorescent lamps (CFLis) and cold cathode/external electrode fluorescent lamps (CCFL/EEFLs) by 2025 is admirable, progressing the Conventions objectives.  On the other hand, the date banning linear fluorescent lamps (LFLs) will be set only at COP 5, in November 2023. International Co-Coordinator Elena Lymberidi Settimo forewarns that the decision may lead to, “Un- and under-regulated markets becoming increasingly vulnerable to dumping of fluorescents, as many developed countries have already banned LFLs due to their toxicity and inefficiency”.

  1. Mercury in Dental Amalgam

COP 4 practically decided on phasing out dental amalgam for children under 15 years old, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, although the formulation is not straight forward. The ZMWG welcomes this decision, but further action is still needed. A date for the worldwide phase out of mercury dental amalgam should be established, as it has been proven that mercury-free dental fillings function as well or better than mercury dental amalgam, are cost effective and are widely available globally.

  1. Mercury Satellite fuel

Propellants in satellites and spacecrafts ended in 1970s, but private companies realised that they could potentially earn higher profits by reinvigorating their use. The use of mercury added propellants can cause significant mercury emissions during its launch. Moreover, the launch sites usually take place near the equator, resulting in the emissions having global reach. The COP came to an agreement to ban the manufacture and trade of mercury added propellant for satellites and spacecrafts by 2025.

  1. Mercury Added Cell Batteries

90% of button cells producers have confirmed that no mercury is used. While the COP agreed to phase out mercury added button cell batteries, the exact date will be decided at COP5.

  1. Mercury added Measuring devices, tire balancers, wheel weights, photographic film and paper

The COP came to agreement to be phase out as well from manufacture and trade all mercury contained within these products by 2025.

  1. On Polyurethane production using mercury containing catalysts

A decision could not be made as a few parties concerned appeared not to be ready to go forward with such measures. A decision was made to have a phase out of this category under processes rather than products, but the date will only be decided at COP 5.

Another important objective of COP4 was to adopt a framework to allow the start of the processes to evaluate the effectiveness of the Convention.

  1. Establishing the impacts of the Minamata Convention

The ZMWG pushed for the adoption of a timeframe based on the principles of having transparent data, methods and results. Their requirements include a full range of relevant information which is not limited to party submissions and scientific defensible mechanisms. Lastly, the evaluation should allow ongoing participation from civil society in the process.

The push led to rather successful results as the COP4 established, but did not yet launch, an Effectiveness Evaluation Group, as the number of experts comprising it could not be agreed upon. The COP agreed however to invite as observers, up to 5 participants from developed and developing countries, civil society, indigenous organisations, industry and the UNEP Global Mercury Partnerships with a timeline set for the COP 5. They also agreed to establish an Open-Ended Scientific Group (OESG), including its terms of reference. Further decisions are to be taken at COP5.   

Other decisions included:

  1. Limits to Mercury Waste contaminated with mercury

COP 4 decided that no threshold needs to be established for tailings from artisanal and small scale gold mining and that environmental sound management (ESM) practices for waste be managed by national action plans. It further decided to define two tier thresholds above which tailings from mining other than primary mercury mining would also need to be treated with ESM practices.  However, as a decision on a threshold for waste contaminated with mercury could not be established, the COP decided to allow the experts group to continue its work, proposing new recommendations for a decision to be taken by COP5.

  1. Transparent Reporting

The ZMWG highlighted several issues in the parties’ reporting cycle. In their statement they expressed that certain reporting clarifications need to be instilled to ensure that the information is consistent and useful. Concerns were expressed as there was virtually no information provided on mercury trading during the previous reporting cycle. Lastly, a harmonised process of reporting information is needed for an effective evaluation of the conventions impacts.

  1. Harmonisation Custom Codes

In COP 3, the ZMWG requested that a draft guidance document is needed to better identify mercury added products and harmonise custom codes. The current six-digit codes are not sufficient in distinguishing whether a product contains mercury or not. To that end COP 4 approved the draft guidance document developed. The ZMWG supports this decision, for Parties to voluntary set and utilize 8 or 10-digit customs codes and urge governments to implement the practice as it can be acted upon quickly, with little effort.

  1. Reporting the release of Mercury

In the previous COP, the ZMWG recommended that the Conventions draft’s guidance of inventories for mercury’s releases in land and water. The proposed draft included categories, point sources of its releases and creating a roadmap for the development of best available techniques and best environmental practices(BAT/BEP) to address the mercury released. The COP came to a consensus on the draft guidance and a roadmap for BATS and BEPs. The Convention also invited Parties to confirm their experts taking into account the expertise needed to develop guidance on BAT/BEP for controlling the releases of mercury from relevant sources.

During the COP, the ZMWG further highlighted their global skin lightening cream campaign. The campaign investigated skin lightening creams that were suspected to contain mercury. Out of 271 samples collected and analysed from 17 countries, from over 40 e-commerce platforms; 129 of those were found to be with mercury over 1 ppm from 30 e-platforms. As the report exposed the consistent practice of illegal levels of mercury added to skin lightening products, the ZMWG also stressed that the parties should take measures to establish  online liability reform and effective enforcement as a high priority.