Chemicals and the circular economy

Around the world, millions of dollars worth of materials are dumped into landfill or burnt in incinerators. This makes no sense in a resource constrained world, yet it happens all over the place. Research I commissioned while at Friends of the Earth estimated that the EU throws away resources worth over €5bnevery year, and recycling this waste could create more than 500,000 jobs in the region.

The last European environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, worked hard to change this, eventually managing to get a set of policies on resource efficiency – or the ‘circular economy’- published, including a draft law with higher recycling targets. This finally emerged in July 2014, just as his Commission’s five-year term was coming to an end.

The package with its draft legislation was then all ready for discussion by the European Parliament and EU governments. However, a new European Commission team started work in late 2014, headed by Commission President Juncker. This new team includes Commissioner Timmermans, who focuses on ‘Better Regulation’ – and one of his first actions, in December 2014, was to try to withdraw the circular economy package.

Fortunately, a major backlash – which included some parts of industry – prevented this from happening. However, it was withdrawn – and will be re-tabled in a ‘more ambitious’ form by the end of 2015. It remains unclear what may change, particularly given that the originally expressed reasons for withdrawal were pretty vague.

What does the circular economy mean for chemicals regulation? It is clearly a good thing for the environment, for saving scarce resources such as rare metals – and for jobs.

But does it have any implications for chemical regulation? In my view, it does, and there are a number of aspects of EU chemicals regulation that are going to need to get a lot tougher and more future-focused to make it work. In particular, a true circular economy will require elimination of toxic chemicals at the beginning of the process.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Assume 100% recycling

When assessing the safety of chemicals in their different uses, REACH and other regulatory systems (such as chemicals in food packaging) should assume 100% recycling of final products, a fully circular system. Similarly, it should be assumed that all sewage sludge will be reused in agriculture.

Even where products are not widely recycled at the moment – for example carpets – the working assumption should be made that in the future they will be entirely reused or recycled. This will mean that any chemicals used in, for example, the carpet, must also be safe in the recycling process, and then in any future product.

Consider the real toxicity, not just the Currently Estimated Toxicity (CET)

A circular economy will mean that substances released into the ‘circle’ could continue to be used and reused for long periods of time, even more than is already the case.

This will be a particular issue if the chemicals are used in products with a long lifetime, like construction materials.

The reality is that our understanding of how toxic any particular substance is, improves over time – yet the regulatory systems do not take this into account. When we talk about ‘toxicity’ we should really say ‘currently estimated toxicity’ (CET). For many substances – for example, the hormone disruptor bisphenol A or perfluorochemicals – the CET increases year by year.

When dealing with long lifetime products in the circular economy, we must have systems that can (at least partly) cope with this changing understanding of toxicity. Regulators – and companies – must accept the limitations of CET, and work out methods to reduce the chance of incorporating chemicals into products which may later cause problems with recycling. This has been the case with many PVC additives, for example.

Options for improving the accuracy of the CET include the use of grouping (such as ChemSec’sSINimilarity tool). Companies would also be well advised to respond to early warnings of toxic properties, for example, by using ChemSec’s SIN list, rather than waiting for the fights around regulatory controls to finish.

Interim removal of products from the recycling stream

It may be necessary to remove certain products from the recycling stream, to avoid contamination, as an interim response prior to regulatory restrictions.

For example, should we really be recycling thermal paper such as till receipts containing bisphenol A or similar substitute chemicals, when this is liable to lead to contamination of recycled paper and card – including in food contact applications?

France has applied for this use of bisphenol A to be restricted – shouldn’t the recycling industry take action in advance of this? Shouldn’t consumers stop recycling till receipts?

Very tight controls on any re-incorporation of restricted substances in recycled products

As CHEM Trust laid out in our joint position paper with other environmental NGOs, it is vital that recycled products are fully compliant with chemical legislation. In general, our view is that there shouldn’t be special arrangements created to allow the continued presence of hazardous substances in products made from recycled material. However, if exemptions or authorisations are allowed then the resulting material must be labelled.

One current example is the attempt to authorise continued DEHP use in recycled PVC (and indeed the use of DEHP in a wide range of PVC applications). CHEM Trust has already expressed our strong opposition to this application for authorisation.

In my view, politicians and regulators need to be aware that much of the lobbying in this area is from quite narrowly focused vested interests, trying to get an economic advantage. This needs to be viewed in the broader circular economy context, including an awareness of the overall ease of recycling different materials.

It has even been suggested to me that one reason for the wish to authorise the use of DEHP in recycled PVC pellets is so that these pellets can be burnt in an industrial process.

If they are not defined as waste they can then be sold at a higher price, and can be burnt with fewer pollution controls. This can hardly be called recycling, even if some atoms from the PVC end up in the final product.

As soon as recycled material is no longer waste, there is no control on where it will end up. Will paper or card be used to package food? Or paper or plastic pipes be played with by children in a kindergarten?

A few scandals in this area could massively damage the cause of the circular economy.

The wider picture

It is essential that the circular economy is kept ‘clean’ of hazardous substances, as this is how we will safeguard the long term usability of our resources. This requires stronger enforcement of chemicals legislation – and a more forward-looking approach from companies making products.

It is worth noting that these recommendations – and, indeed, a circular economy – won’t by themselves be sufficient to ensure that we use a sustainable level of the world’s resources.

For that to happen, we also need to reduce Europe’s use of resources – including our global land and water footprints – but that’s another story.




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