Main Issue

Toxic chemicals are found in all ecosystems on Earth, including Antarctica and the most remote seas, affecting biodiversity, agricultural production, water quality, and human health. Over 100 million man-made chemicals and chemical formulations are used in every sector of the industrial economy. Many chemicals, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and mercury, travel over large distances through air, water currents and in migratory species. Some POPs can remain in the human body for more than 50 years. Mercury, an element, is infinitely persistent.

When used improperly or disposed of unsafely, chemicals pose significant risks for both the environment and human health: scientists estimate that just about every person on the planet carries within their body a large number of chemical contaminants that have an unknown impact on their well-being.

Due to the global impact on human health and the environment some of these highly dangerous chemicals are controlled by international law. Among the most significant agreements that cover the way chemicals are used and managed at the end of life are the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Despite the advances made under these agreements, the production, use, and disposal of chemicals are rapidly increasing in developing countries and countries in economic transition. These rapid changes increase economic opportunities, but they must be matched by enhanced programs and initiatives for sound chemicals and waste management. The cost to national economies of human and environmental exposure to harmful chemicals is often unrecognized, but can be substantial.

Complicating matters further, in the pursuit of new materials and chemicals many manufacturers do not always conduct sufficient analysis of the potential harmful impacts of their products before they are used commercially, which often results in significant harm to humans as well as wild species and terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. Neonicotinoid pesticides, for example, which are the most widely used insecticides in agriculture have now been linked to the current decline in bee populations.

Barriers in the private sector often hinder the possibility of change in the way chemicals are produced and managed. Small companies in particular find it difficult to afford ‘greener’ practices. Furthermore, scientists and regulatory agencies lack robust data and information on toxic chemicals, partly due to weak capacity in developing countries, which in turn affects the possibilities of bringing science-based reports to policy makers.

What We Do

The GEF is charged with eliminating the most harmful chemicals, which are covered by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the Minamata Convention on Mercury, and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The GEF also supports the achievement of broader sound management of chemicals and waste through its support to the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), the United Nation's policy framework to promote chemical safety around the world.

The GEF has developed two key strategic objectives regarding chemicals and waste:

  • Develop the enabling conditions, tools, and environment for the sound management of harmful chemicals and wastes;
  • Reduce the prevalence of harmful chemicals and waste and support the implementation of clean alternative technologies/substances.

The implementation support for the chemicals and waste conventions by the GEF provides both the opportunity for Parties to these conventions to meet their obligations under the Conventions and to use the entry point of the Conventions to transform their management of chemicals and ultimately use and produce chemicals without suffering their harmful impacts. The GEF’s work on chemicals and waste focuses on four main programs in GEF-7:

  • The Industrial Chemicals Program seeks to eliminate or significantly reduce chemicals subject to international agreements by supporting programs that address: chemicals and waste at the end of life; chemicals that are used or emitted from or in processes and products; and management of waste containing these chemicals.
  • The Agricultural Chemicals Program addresses the agricultural chemicals that are listed as persistent organic pollutants under the Stockholm Convention and agricultural chemicals that contain mercury or its compounds. Where the chemicals are in use, the GEF fosters efforts to introduce alternatives.
  • The Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States Program addresses the sound management of chemicals and waste through strengthening the capacity of sub- national, national, and regional institutions and strengthening the enabling policy and regulatory framework in these countries.
  • The Enabling Activities Program supports enabling activities under the Stockholm Convention and the Minamata Convention, and supports global monitoring of chemicals.


For the GEF-7 replenishment, donors pledged approximately $600 million as a commitment to ridding the world of the most harmful chemicals through the GEF's chemicals and waste programming, accounting for 15% of the total replenishment commitment.

As of June 30, 2018, the GEF has cumulatively programmed $1.2 billion in projects that support the Stockholm Convention since its adoption in 2001. This GEF investment has leveraged approximately $4.8 billion in co-financing to bring the total value of the GEF POPs portfolio to over $6 billion. 

Looking Ahead

More and more chemicals are being produced and put into everything people consume, from cell phones to food and drinking water. At the same time, however, industry itself is beginning to shift to more sustainable ‘green’ supply chains and manufacturing. How can the chemicals industry accelerate this switch? What are the challenges ahead, and what innovations and global coalitions are needed? The GEF is a catalyst for both governments and the private sector as they address these questions and work to eliminate or reduce harmful chemicals and waste.

GEF’s programming strategy for chemicals and waste builds on its past work in policy and priority setting, piloting technologies and techniques to build best practices, and progressively working with the private sector to help foster sound management of chemicals and waste. To achieve transformational change, GEF projects seek closer integration with the private sector and global supply chains. GEF’s Global Opportunities for Long-term Development in the Artisanal Scale Gold Mining sector (GOLD) program, for example, offers a new model for unlocking resources to address mercury pollution from gold mining and has strong private sector engagement, including major jewelers, electronics manufacturers, gold refiners, and commercial banks. The GEF can help to convene the relevant stakeholders and function as an honest broker in facilitating the work needed to help transform the chemicals industry and related products and materials streams. GEF-7 will explore the important synergies between the International Waters and the Chemicals and Waste focal areas to address specifically the challenge of marine litter and micro-plastics. Waste consisting of plastics can contribute to the POPs challenge as POPs contained in plastics can be released in the environment including oceans, if not properly managed. Marine litter in the form of micro-plastics to a significant extent derives from land-based activities and should also be seen in the context of waste management issues dealt with under this focal area. Recognizing the need to transform the entire life cycle of plastics to reduce marine plastic pollution, the GEF will invest in a few strategic Circular Economy initiatives to promote the adoption of closed loop production and consumption patterns instead of traditional linear take-make-waste approaches. Investments will be focusing on public/ private investments to transform the plastic life cycle.