Last reviewed 11 July 2019

The principle of a circular economy has environmental NGOs lining up to offer recommendations to policy makers to help businesses become more resource efficient over time while at the same time being sensitive to the fact that products containing hazardous substances require particular attention before being recycled or re-used. Dr Lisa Bushby discusses.

The idea of a circular economy is to use resources in a more sustainable way, keeping them in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them while in use, then recovering and regenerating the materials at the end of their life.

A series of recommendations have been proposed in a new report to improve the current legal framework so that it can better protect human health and the environment in a circular economy and make the circular economy a reality for products containing hazardous substances.

The report from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) gives an overview of how chemical, product and waste regulations interact and offers some policy recommendations on how to limit hazardous chemicals from entering the economy, ensuring information on hazardous substances is passed along the entire material lifecycle and how to ensure the legal framework is not less protective for products made from recycled products.

At the end of 2015, the European Commission adopted a package of measures to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy that mainly focus on closing the loop of product lifecycles through increased recycling and re-use. For the chemicals sector, there are practical complications in relation to this intention, however.

According to the EEB, one of the most challenging aspects of applying the principle of a circular economy to chemicals is the constantly evolving knowledge of the properties of chemicals and their hazards. For instance, it is not possible to assume that any virgin material put on the market and considered safe at that time can still be considered safe later in its life cycle. However, the EEB says, this challenge needs to be overcome so that consumers can have confidence that products placed on the market at any given time are safe in light of the most up-to-date knowledge regarding hazardous chemicals, irrespective of whether they are made of recovered materials or virgin ones. This requires the restrictions on hazardous chemicals to be brought up to speed with the most recent scientific knowledge.

In addition, while the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) has increased the number of chemical substances that are identified as being of concern for health or the environment, questions remain over what should happen to those chemicals that are already circulating.

According to Bjørn Hansen, Head of Unit of Sustainable Chemicals in the Directorate-General for Environment at the European Commission, raw materials on the market today can be divided into three categories.

  1. Harmless material that is as good as new, can be recycled without restriction and used to produce new articles.

  2. “Dirty” that cannot be put back on the market, for example persistent organic pollutants.

  3. Materials in between. The material can be physically recycled, but may include harmful chemicals and, therefore, its use should be controlled and tracked.

It is mainly this third category that complicates the situation, Hansen says: “On one hand, you could say that there are so many unknowns in the future, that precaution tells us to get rid of as many substances as possible as soon as possible, to clean up the waste stream. This means that we would not let these substances be recycled and re-enter the production process. On the other hand, you could put more weight on the importance and value of the material and less on the potential dangerousness of the chemicals it contains.”

So what can be done to support the chemicals industry?

The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) points to a plethora of examples, including innovative de-inking chemicals allowing up to 100% of recovered pulp in final products at Kemira, recycling rare earths from waste fluorescent lamps where up to 90% of phosphorescent powders can be revalorised at Solvay and recovering hexabromocyclododecane in expanded polystyrene into bromine at Plasteurope.

Cefic also says that as part of its commitment to sustainable chemistry, it develops substances enabling high-performance products which are durable, easily recyclable and easily repairable even though there may be trade-offs in doing so. Recyclability could come at the expense of tensile strength, for example.

The overall balance of advantages in such cases should be assessed on the basis of a life-cycle analysis that considers the benefits of use as well as the ease of recycling. Promoting the consumption of products that involve high resource use or functionality losses in the use phase would be against the core principles of an innovative circular economy. Ultimately it will be consumers who decide which products to purchase.

Cefic calls on policy makers to:

  • apply the “safety first” principle and ensure that the high standards set by chemical legislation, eg REACH and CLP, are also applied to the circular economy

  • clarify the concept of waste and that of by-products under the Waste Framework Directive. The latter should not hinder further use of valuable materials

  • remove those barriers (eg custom duties and technical barriers) preventing European companies from having fair access to renewables on the international market.

The ChemTrust, meanwhile, has published a briefing summarising some of the key recommendations it made in response to the European Commission’s consultation on the circular economy to ensure the principle does not lead to a perpetuation in the continued use of hazardous chemicals.

  • A move to non-toxic products, thus removing problems in recycling.

  • Regulations, regulators and industry must ensure that all chemicals of very high concern are phased out of products as soon as possible. Faster, more precautionary, safety assessment of chemicals, assuming a circular economy. Industry should move away from problem chemicals.

  • Faster identification of chemicals of very high concern, with rapid action to ensure they are substituted with safer alternatives.

  • Safety assessments should assume that a circular economy is going to be in place, eg that 100% of sewage sludge will be used as fertiliser.

  • Companies should take a forward-looking approach when producing products, avoiding chemicals likely to be restricted in the future. Better information flow on hazardous materials in products, and controls on chemicals in imported products.

  • The supply chain, including consumers and recyclers, should have easy access to information on identity and properties of hazardous chemicals in products.

  • Imports should be subject to the same restrictions and information requirements. Some materials should not be recycled.

  • Assessments should balance the value of the resource and the hazard of the chemical, with a default of no recirculation of hazardous substances.

Finally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has published a new document in its series on risk management relating to the economic features of chemical leasing — developed within the framework of sustainable chemistry.

According to the report, chemical leasing is a service-oriented business model that aligns the interests of the chemical supplier with those of the chemical user by compensating the service of the chemical rather than the chemical volume sold and used. This creates a strategic partnership between the two parties, in which the common goal is the reduction of chemical consumption, thus achieving enhanced performances, chemical handling and waste management and, therefore, economic and environmental benefits.