Last reviewed 5 December 2017

Caroline Hand explores the problem of hazardous chemicals finding their way into recycled products, and the serious implications this has for the circular economy.

Toxic recycling

Does your takeaway pizza box or plastic fork contain chemicals which could harm a child’s developing brain? The charity CHEMTrust has recently drawn attention to the problem of hazardous chemicals finding their way into recycled products. For example, till receipts are likely to have been treated with the heat-resistant chemical Bisphenol A. If these receipts are recycled, the resulting paper or card could contain harmful levels of the chemical. Similarly, recycled plastic from waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), containing potentially harmful flame retardant chemicals, has been used to make black plastic cutlery and even toys.

This has serious implications for the circular economy. CHEMTrust comments that “The circular economy will only be successful in the long term if customers — including the public — are confident in the quality of recycled material. If this confidence is removed, then the market will demand virgin materials, and the attempt to create a circular economy will fail.”

What are the chemicals of concern?

Concerns centre around Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which accumulate in living organisms and do not easily break down in the environment. Several of these have only recently been recognised as hazardous or been made subject to controls. Some are feared to have a harmful effect on children’s brain development (developmental neurotoxicity), while endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect the body’s hormonal systems.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

This chemical is used to give heat-resistant properties to paper and is also added to plastic products. It is found in credit card slips, bank receipts, logistics labels, cash register receipts and fax paper. Due to its effects on the developing brain, it is now banned from use in baby bottles and is being phased out from use in till receipts, but is still used in food can linings and many polycarbonate plastics.

Brominated flame retardants (BFRs)

These chemicals are added to furniture, electronics and building materials to make them fire resistant. Brominated flame-retarding chemicals have been associated with lower mental, psychomotor and IQ development, poorer attention spans and decreases in memory and processing speed. The evidence for neurodevelopmental effects is strongest for the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) group of BFRs: most of these are already banned in the EU, though they are still found in older furniture in our homes, and in dust.

Phthalates

A group of chemicals used as plasticisers in PVC and in other products. Some chemicals in this group are now banned in the EU, but many others are still in use.

Per- and poly- fluorocarbons (PFCs) and other fluorinated compounds

These are used as non-stick coatings or breathable coatings. There is evidence that some PFCs can disrupt the action of the thyroid hormone. Other PFCs are feared to be hepatotoxic, toxic to reproduction and carcinogenic.

A range of fluorinated compounds are used in firefighting foams and food packaging. Fluorine compounds have been linked to miscarriage.

The recommendations

CHEMTrust has drawn up a list of recommendations to tackle this problem: some are addressed to Government and others to industry.

For manufacturers:

  • Design out hazardous substances. Manufacturers should look for opportunities to substitute POPs with non-hazardous alternatives (see case studies below).

  • Ensure that all chemicals of very high concern are phased out of products as soon as possible.

  • Take a forward-looking approach when formulating products, avoiding chemicals likely to be restricted in the future.

For regulators:

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

  • Speed up the safety assessment procedure for chemicals. 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.

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

For the whole supply chain:

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

  • Imports should be subject to the same restrictions and information requirements as materials recycled in Europe. China, for example, does not have the same high safety standards as the EU and some of the highest concentrations of PBDE chemicals ever recorded in the food chain were found near Chinese WEEE recycling plants.

  • Some materials should just not be recycled.

Although much remains to be done, forward-looking businesses and institutions have already taken steps to phase out some of these hazardous substances.

Current initiatives

Regulatory

INERIS, the French national competence centre for industrial safety and environmental protection, created a website on BPA in 2012 in response to the likelihood of this substance being restricted by the French Government. The site provides operational support — in French and English — for companies looking for ways to substitute bisphenols (BPA, BPS and BPF) in thermal paper, polycarbonate, epoxy resins, food containers and several other applications. Users of the webpage can exchange ideas and information. INERIS is now introducing a similar site for phthalates.

The European Environmental Bureau has published a report offering policy recommendations on:

  • limiting hazardous chemicals from entering the economy

  • ensuring that information on hazardous substances is passed through the entire material lifecycle

  • ensuring the legal framework is not less protective for products made from recycled materials.

Business case studies

Co-Op Denmark

Food retailer Co-Op Denmark has banned fluorinated compounds in its food packaging. The compounds of concern have been replaced with silicone layers in greaseproof paper and baking cases. Alternatively, a mechanical treatment can be used. Co-Op tries to keep abreast of chemicals which may be banned in the near future. Their main challenge has been to justify the increased costs of the safer products to their customers.

Adidas

The Adidas Group has committed to being at least 99% PFC-free by 31 December 2017. By working closely with their suppliers, they have been identifying alternative formulations and processes to eliminate the use of PFCs.

PFCs were detected in two major areas.

  1. Manufacturing of some polyurethane synthetics which are used in a wide range of footwear materials.

  2. Water-resistant finishes.

As well as testing alternatives already on the market, Adidas explored formulations that are still in the research and development phase.

Bio-Ex

The French company Bio-Ex manufactures and sells firefighting foams, and has now created a new generation of products which do not contain fluorinated surfactants. Its first fluorine-free foam, ECOPOL, was launched in 2002. Bio-Ex’s fluorine-free foams do not persist in the environment, bio-accumulate or cause toxic effects. The company commented that “We haven’t just made a simple substitution of the fluorinated surfactant, but have worked with all the constituents of the formula to develop the best product.”

Both Adidas and Bio-Ex found that substitution of certain substances or groups of chemicals can be very complex and needs a strong team of experts from diverse backgrounds. For Adidas, these included textile engineers, environmental and chemical engineers, chemists and finishing experts.

The process also requires manufacturers to thoroughly investigate their supply chain. New products need to be rigorously tested, particularly where safety is at stake, as in the case of firefighting foams.

As awareness of POPs and their hazards grows, more substances are likely to be banned or restricted. Manufacturers must meet the challenge of working with their suppliers, researchers and designers to ensure that products are safe throughout their lifecycle.