Thursday

27th Apr 2017

Opinion

Don't let circular economy become a health hazard

  • We risk recycling hazardous substances when we reuse materials, such as certain plastics, exposing consumers to potential health risks. (Photo: lwicks_2000)

The importance of the circular economy for the future of European countries cannot be overstated.

This is an economic concept which, if properly executed, not only has the potential for saving resources and energy, safeguarding existing jobs and creating new ones - it can also eliminate substances that are hazardous to health and the environment from material cycles.

  • In 2017, the EU chemical regulation, REACH, is up for review. (Photo: Kevin Dooley)

A recent report by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC) shows that consumers, as well as many companies, in ten countries around the world want stronger legislation governing the use of chemicals in products.

Today, however, control and regulation is not strong enough.

As a result, we risk recycling hazardous substances when we reuse materials, such as certain plastics, which exposes consumers to potential health risks.

One notable example of how hazardous substances appear where they shouldn’t be, was when the Czech environmental organisation Arnika traced hazardous and even banned flame retardants in children’s toys last year, such as the Rubik’s cube, made from plastics derived from e-waste or electronic waste.

For the circular model to work as intended, there is a clear need for full transparency in regard to the content of substances in all products. In addition, information regarding substances in products must be shared between all stakeholders in the supply chains.

This would enable companies to substitute hazardous substances for safe alternatives, exclude materials with hazardous substances from material cycles, and provide for the safe handling of terminal waste.

Ingredients lists

Many companies want to take full responsibility for the chemical safety of their products, but are unable to do so due to a lack of information on the chemical contents of the components supplied to them.

There are inspiring examples of industry actors establishing such information systems voluntarily, for example in the auto industry, but most companies will not accomplish this on their own.

Legal requirements on transparency and information sharing are necessary. Besides, ingredient lists already exist for items such as: cosmetics, personal hygiene products, and food.

Accordingly, the European Commission needs to propose how to design the corresponding legal requirements for all products, and the centralised systems for data handling and sharing.

In January, the commission published its so-called mini package for the circular economy. This included a proposal for how to adjust the RoHS Directive, which would restrict certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic appliances in the context of the circular economy.

The idea was to remove obstacles for companies to establish a secondary market for repaired electrical and electronic appliances. But, while doing so, the commission simultaneously opted to make exemptions from current regulations in the RoHS Directive, thus eliminating protections for human health and the environment.

Stop recycling hazardous substances

The promotion of a circular economy must guarantee European consumers that products made from recovered or recycled material, including plastics, do not also include recovered or recycled hazardous substances.

In February, the industry association Plastics Europe urged the commission to stimulate innovations in recovery and recycling technologies.

However, lowering the barriers for the recovery and recycling of plastics must be complemented with stricter requirements to ensure that hazardous substances in the plastics are not reused.

The commission was recently sued for approving the recycling of plastics that contain the restricted plasticiser, DEHP.

A report on the circular economy, released by the European Environmental Bureau in February, highlights similar issues.

It shows the current gaps in the EU chemicals, waste and products legislation.

The issues must be addressed to ensure that the necessary information - on the chemical contents of all constituent components of products - reaches the waste handling, recovery and recycling industries.

REACH up for review

The EU chemical regulation, REACH, is up for review in 2017.

Currently, there are concerns that some business interests will push for simplifications to REACH. It is of utmost importance that the commission does not further limit information on the environmental and health effects of currently-restricted substances.

In the context of a circular economy, we desperately need stronger chemical regulation - not weaker.

Information requirements for chemicals annually produced or imported in small amounts (less than a ton) are missing. Nanomaterials and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are still not properly addressed.

The same provisions governing the use of chemicals in manufacturing products in the EU must also apply to products manufactured outside the EU, which are then brought onto the EU market. This is currently not the case, which is why we frequently find regulated or banned substances in imported products.

A basic condition for a safe circular economy is transparency.

Transparency

Article 33 of REACH requires the declaration of a limited number of particularly hazardous chemicals in products.

There should be an expansion of article, or a new one added, to create full transparency of the chemical contents in all constituent components of products, and requirements to share this information with all stakeholders in the supply chains.

Furthermore, products also fall under different pieces of EU chemical, product and waste legislation in different phases of their life cycles.

Requirements in REACH, as well as other chemical-related EU legislation, must be passed for these products when they switch from the scope of one piece of EU legislation to another. This is currently not the case, as illustrated by the previously-stated EEB report.

The above-mentioned examples clearly illustrate the current challenges faced by the circular economy. If we are going to make the changes happen, as we should, it must be done in a way that thoroughly avoids hazardous substances.

The circular economy is globalised - spanning the continent of Europe, and the EU can act as a locomotive for regulatory change beyond its borders.

The commission has a unique possibility to influence the creation of a safe circular economy for all citizens of the EU.

As citizens of Europe, we expect the commission not to fail in achieving one of the most important developments in sustainability.

Johanna Sandahl is the President and Therese Jacobson PhD is the manager of the Department of Toxics at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

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