The circular economy – the concept of reducing the use of resources and waste and boosting recycling – promises much in terms of benefits to the environment and economy.
In fact, the European Commission says on its website that it “offers an opportunity to reinvent our economy”. It will bring benefits for European businesses, industries and citizens alike, it adds.
However, the circular economy poses challenges for the regulatory framework covering chemicals and vice versa. A debate has gained traction over the last few years on how to deal with chemicals of concern in products that could become part of the recycling stream.
The Commission is addressing the issue as part of its circular economy package, which includes proposals to revise the EU Directives on landfill, packaging and waste.
In 2017, it will issue policy options “to address the interface between chemicals, products and waste legislation”.
It says it will consider “how to reduce the presence, and improve the tracking of, chemicals of concern in products” and once agreed, the policy will feed into the future EU strategy for a non-toxic environment, which is planned for release the following year.
The moderator for the Helsinki Chemicals Forum’s panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities of the circular economy, Bjorn Hansen, head of the chemicals unit in the Commission’s environment directorate (DG Environment), says in a blog post that regulating chemicals has an objective of avoiding unacceptable risks from the chemical occurring at any stage of its use, including disposal, recovery or recycling.
“In doing so, the chemicals legislation either explicitly or implicitly puts pressures on the use of hazardous substances, by reducing risks or by substitution of particularly hazardous substances by less hazardous substances,” he explains.
Chemicals legislation thereby affects the material design, the product design, the manufacture, use and ultimately the waste, disposal and recycling of the material, he adds.
Mr Hansen says that synergies between waste and chemicals legislation can be obtained by:
- assessing, and if necessary adjusting, how the pressures from the chemicals legislation on the materials support or hinder obtaining recycled materials exiting the waste phase that are suitable for re-entering the product phase; and
- assessing, and if necessary adjusting, how the waste legislation enables recycled materials to exit the waste phase, while ensuring that the material can meet the requirements of the chemicals legislation.
The relationship between chemicals and waste legislation was brought up last year by a group of NGOs which wrote to the Commission, urging it to focus its strategy on removing hazardous substances from products and waste.
The main burden for recyclers, it says, is the presence of hazardous substances in material, and not REACH and chemical policy. This should be the focus, it explains.
It highlighted that, once something becomes waste it is exempt from REACH, while EU waste legislation controls who is responsible for the discarded material, who can deal with waste, how it should be processed and restricts its trade around Europe and beyond.
At the Helsinki Chemicals Forum, panelists from the Dutch Ministry of Infrastucture and Environment, industry and NGOs will delve deeper and deliver their conclusions and recommendations.
Another topic on the agenda focuses on perfluorinated chemicals and how almost all production has shifted outside the so-called industrialised countries. Concerns have been raised over the safety of production and of the products themselves. OECD principal administrator, Eeva Leinala, leads a multi-stakeholder debate on whether a global agreement for this chemical group should be initiated.
In another panel, the forum will take stock of the huge amounts of data generated by REACH and other regulations on chemicals, discussing how to better understand and use it.
Plant safety will be the subject of another, having re-emerged as a particular issue following a series of major chemical-related accidents in recent years.
And the final panel will focus on the problems and challenges of exposure to chemicals in building materials and in the construction sector, led by Cefic’s director of chemicals policy, Erwin Annys.
Chemical Watch is exclusive media associate for the Helsinki Chemicals Forum, which runs from 26 to 27 May after Echa’s Stakeholder Day.