As part of its new circular economy action plan (CEAP) launched in March, the European Commission is aiming to address the problem of substances of concern in waste and recycled feedstock.
The Commission began discussing the problems associated with hazardous chemicals, waste and recycling back in 2018.
At that time, it said it wanted its CEAP to achieve two objectives:
enable recycling and improve the uptake of secondary raw materials; and
substitution of substances of concern, or where this is not possible, reducing their presence and improving their tracking.
While these objectives appear straightforward on their own, the fact that one stems from waste policy and the other from chemicals policy, means they are effectively misaligned and often perceived to be in opposition.
EU legislation differentiates between hazardous and nonhazardous waste through a series of criteria listed in Annex III of the waste framework Directive.
Hazardous waste is subject to specific obligations (such as labelling, controls, and bans on mixing and shipments to non-OECD countries).
However, once a recycled material has passed its end-of-waste status and become a secondary raw material, European regulations such as REACH and CLP apply.
The recycling and reuse of products can be hampered by the presence of certain chemicals, which may compromise the safety of secondary raw materials.
For instance, there can be ‘legacy’ substances such as brominated flame retardants in recycled plastic products, in toys and kitchen utensils, for example.
Another example is PVC, where several phthalate plasticisers originally added to soften the substance are now restricted or banned under REACH.
The latter is a prime example of where waste and chemical legislation differs.
The Commission says waste operators often (mis) classify flexible PVC waste as non-hazardous, although the resulting recovered product will be classified as a hazardous chemical mixture under CLP.
The European Recycling Industries’ Confederation (EuRIC) says it is becoming increasingly urgent to set a consistent approach for assessing the risk profile of substances found in waste.
“The current lack of interface between products, chemicals and waste legislation remains a stumbling block in many instances for the recycling industry,” says the confederation’s secretary general Emmanuel Katrakis.
“From a purely methodological viewpoint, it is instrumental that waste classification takes into account the intrinsic properties of waste whose composition is heterogeneous by nature.
Also the risks posed by substances depending on the matrices in which they are found, the exposure routes and the end uses of recycled materials.
“Solely relying that assessment on the potential hazards based on chemical composition is very likely to lead to misclassifications,” he adds.
With regards to ‘clean’ recycling streams, Germany’s BASF says clean can refer either to the input, output or the recycling process itself.
Here, it is essential, says BASF’s director of corporate sustainability Andreas Kicherer, that recycling companies and their customers achieve a common understanding of the quality required in each case, depending on the intended use of the final article.
“Along with reducing the volumes of hazardous waste or eliminating hazardous substances, we should aim at finding a balance with regards to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. A one-fits-all approach does appear to be neither effective nor efficient,” Dr Kicherer states.
Mr Katrakis says that connecting the dots between design and end-of-life stage to set long-term responsible and realistic phase-out strategies, while also considering the impact of reclassifications at waste or product stage on the entire value chain, is key to not working in silos and avoiding unnecessary obstacles to circular material streams.
The European Commission will assess if further legislative changes are needed to waste classification rules, including closer alignment with the CLP Regulation.
As part of the assessment, it will continue member state implementation of the 2017 revision to Annex III of the waste framework Directive and also the application of the Commission notice on classification of waste, published in April 2018.
The Commission will also work throughout 2020 to adapt its waste classification guidance to include the new classification for titanium dioxide.
It amended the CLP Regulation in October 2019 to include, among others, the pigment’s classification as a category two carcinogen by inhalation.
It tells Chemical Watch that it is also closely following developments in the use of bioavailability and bioelution approaches to classifying certain substances and mixtures in CLP – developments it expects will provide useful input into further considerations on waste classification.
It also envisages carrying out a study on any changes to the waste classification rules, beginning late 2021/2022.
A Commission objective under the CEAP is to work with industry to develop harmonised systems to track and manage information on substances of concern and identify those in waste.
To this end, it intends to publish a feasibilty study on establishing comprehensive tools, including software applications, to track and link information on products, in particular articles, at all stages of their lifecycle and to make relevant parts of that information available to downstream users, workers, consumers and recyclers.
The outcome of the study, it says, will also provide a basis for further cooperation with stakeholders for future actions regarding information on chemicals in products in the context of the chemicals strategy for sustainability (part of the European Green Deal launched in December 2019) and/or the legislative proposal on sustainable products.
The Commission is due to announce its chemicals strategy by June.
BASF’s Dr Kicherer says that tracking and managing data on substances of concern should be done in a value-chain specific manner.
“Certainly, we need to closely follow the effectiveness of the new Echa Scip database,” he says.
Echa released a prototype of the substances of concern in products (Scip) database in February this year, allowing companies to test data notifications ahead of an official launch in October.
“Where recycled products become very complex and consist of a large number of individual articles, which are still described by the safety data or product information sheets of the materials they are made of, tracking and marking seems difficult to achieve,” continues Dr Kircherer.
The Circular Plastics Alliance, he says, is “well positioned to develop tailor-made approaches to tracking and managing SVHCs. Digitalisation in industry might also contribute to solutions we might not yet anticipate.”
EuRIC’s Mr Katrakis says while the recycling confederation supports Echa’s aims for the Scip database, its current design requires substantial improvement to enable waste treatment operators to extract useful information for their purposes.
“Product passports seem to be a more practical solution that can contribute to the design and marketing of more sustainable products, providing useful information when they reach the end-of-life stage,” he says.
Product design will be critical for minimising hazardous content in the future. The Commission is already considering widening the scope of the Ecodesign Directive to address toxic chemicals in products as part of the CEAP.
The Directive in its current form sets out rules for improving the environmental performance of products and is implemented by EU member states through product-specific regulations.
The plan will see the Directive extended beyond energy-related products to make it applicable to the “broadest possible range”, prioritising key product value chains such as electronics, plastics, textiles and packaging. The Commission tells Chemical Watch it expects to submit a legislative proposal to the European Parliament and the Council next year.
However, the Commission is already facing legal action from a trade group for using Ecodesign to impose a ban on flame retardants.
Another area being addressed under the CEAP is persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The Commission is proposing to review existing limit values and establish new ones for waste under Annexes IV and V of the POPs Regulation, as required by both the Stockholm Convention and the Regulation.
Work is ongoing on a draft proposal and impact assessment, with the Commission hoping to submit a proposal to the European Parliament and Council in the first half of 2021.
It should be noted that the European Union’s recast of the POPs Regulation, which entered into force on 15 July 2019, sets tougher controls on flame retardants. Under the legislation, the concentration limit for the sum of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), including decaBDE, in waste is set at 1,000mg/kg. However, the text says the Commission should review the limit and, where appropriate, adopt a legislative proposal to lower that value to 500mg/kg. It must do this by 16 July 2021.
In response, Mr Katrakis says: “Disproportionately lower thresholds not based on any sound risk-based assessment for ‘low-POP content’ concentration considered within the framework of the Basel Convention would hamper high-quality recycling in Europe.” He adds: “This would open the door to treatment options lower in the waste hierarchy or the export of plastic waste containing PBDEs to countries with no infrastructure to properly treat it, with significant negative impacts on human health and the environment.”
Recyclers have developed technologies to separate POP-free plastics from fractions containing PBDE, he adds, pointing out that concentrations of PBDEs in plastic parts from used cathode-ray tube TVs can be about 150,000ppm, 300 times higher than the EU limit.
NGO ChemSec says it is very important to not lower the bar on the quality of recycled material just to increase its use. Theresa Kjell, ChemSec’s senior policy adviser, says: “We strongly support recycling but not at any cost. We need to stay with a high standard of material, making sure that it is safe and non-toxic.”
While she voices her support for the CEAP’s “good level of ambition”, Ms Kjell says it lacks the hard approach needed to bring about a structural change to the system and achieve a circular economy.
That said, there is one omission in the CEAP that both Ms Kjell and Mr Katrakis highlight – namely, requirements on imported articles. “There is a huge amount of material with unknown chemical content entering Europe, making safe recycling almost impossible. Yet there is no mention of this in the action plan. This is a loophole with REACH that needs to be closed,” Ms Kjell says.
This is not only crucial for ensuring a level playing field for the European chemical industry, observes Mr Katrakis, but also because non-compliant imported products will eventually end up in the region’s recycling facilities, causing additional problems at end of life.
The European Commission pledged a series of steps to combat the presence of REACH substances of concern in recycled materials and waste, as part of its new circular economy plan unveiled in March.
The initiative aims to accelerate the “transformational change” promised under the EU Green Deal, while building on the circular economy actions implemented since 2015.
The new plan directly addresses the issue of banned chemicals that persist in recycled feedstock and promises to “increase the confidence” for those using secondary raw materials. To do this, the Commission says it will:
develop methodologies to minimise substances of concern in recycled materials and articles;
cooperate with industry to develop harmonised systems to track and manage information on SVHCs and identify those in waste;
propose amending the annexes to the Regulation on persistent organic pollutants (POPs); and
improve the classification and management of hazardous waste to maintain clean recycling streams, including through further alignment with the classification of chemical substances and mixtures where necessary.
The commitments are a precursor to “further measures” to be set out in the forthcoming chemicals strategy for sustainability, expected in the summer.