The European Union (EU) just took an important step towards cleaning up its recycling; it will no longer allow materials containing a class of toxic and globally banned flame retardants – known as PBDEs – to be recycled.
Last year, Arnika, IPEN, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) along with other public interest groups revealed widespread toxic recycling across Europe. Our research showed that alarming levels of banned flame retardants and related chemicals originating largely from discarded electronics equipment, were contaminating the recycling stream and new consumer goods made from recycled plastics. These included children’s toys, kitchen utensils, and other consumer products that were made of recycled plastic. The high visibility, rigorous, multi-country research made the recycling exemption indefensible.
Environmental health advocates therefore applaud the EU’s decision to put an end to the PBDE recycling exemption and encourage the six remaining countries with such exemptions to follow suit.
PBDE flame retardant chemicals, known to disrupt thyroid function and cause neurological and attention deficits in children, were banned globally via the Stockholm Convention a decade ago. However, the class of chemicals continues to contaminate consumer goods made from recycled plastics because the EU, along with Brazil, Canada, Cambodia, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey, took advantage of a loophole in the Stockholm Convention that allowed the banned chemicals in recycling and requested an exemption for prolonged use. The EU recently submitted a letter withdrawing its exemption. The decision by the EU to keep POPs flame retardants out of recycling will also reduce the prevalence of dioxins in products made from recycled materials.
“In closing this dangerous loophole, the EU has taken an important step for public health,” said Jitka Strakova, Arnika expert on toxic chemicals and Coordinator of IPEN’s Dioxin, PCBs and Waste Working Group. “Governments that claim to protect children and families from toxic banned chemicals cannot condone policies that allows hazardous substances in toys. That is what the recycling exemption does. The EU’s positive decision to withdraw the recycling exemption for PBDEs should serve as a global policy lesson and catalyze policy to put an end to POPs in recycling and waste.”
“Substances, such as PBDEs, that are identified as POPs are toxic for a long time. POPs materials should be identified and destroyed, not be allowed to circulate back into the economy to do further damage,” says Jindrich Petrlik, Head of Arnika’s Toxics and Waste Programme. “The EU should be applauded for this responsible decision on recycling. Next up, to be a true global leader for a clean circular economy, the EU should take commensurate steps to address POPs in waste policies that still permit banned chemicals in electronic waste for international transport and dumping. The EU should also address the very high threshold for the banned flame retardant decaBDE as a trace contaminant, which allows it to still enter the recycling chain and emerge in products.”
“Toxic recycling opens the door for hazardous chemicals to enter new products, including children’s toys,” said Joe DiGangi, IPEN Senior Science and Technical Advisor. “That’s simply not defensible and urgently needs to stop. We hope that Brazil, Canada, Cambodia, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey can withdraw their toxic recycling exemptions by the Stockholm Convention’s 10th Conference of the Parties in 2021.”
“Recycling toxic chemicals into new products undermines the entire concept of a truly circular economy, for which the European Commission is expected to propose an action plan in Spring,” comments Genon Jensen, Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL). “The removal of the PBDE recycling exemption is a step in the right direction to create non-toxic material cycles. It illustrates that delivering on the Green Deal will require close interlinkage between addressing toxic chemicals and circularity to deliver significant benefits for health.”