24 May 2019
Calls Made to Withdraw Recycling Exemptions for Flame Retardants Found in Consumer Goods
The 9th Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was held in Geneva from 29 April to 10 May 2019. In the run-up to the conference, eight European Environmental NGOs jointly sent an open letter to the European Commission strongly encouraging the EU to withdraw the recycling exemptions for certain flame retardant chemicals. The NGOs found strong evidence that TetraBDE, PentaBDE, HexaBDE and HeptaBDE (collectively referred to as polybrominated diphenylethers – “PBDEs”) were present in commonly used products including toys, that are made from recycled materials, and warn of the ensuing effects on human health.
PBDEs are flame retardants widely present in electronic and electrical products, as well as in textiles, adhesives, sealants, coatings and inks. They have hazardous properties for human and animal health and for the environment, and their use is therefore subject to restrictions.
PBDEs are recognized as persistent organic pollutants (“POPs”). POPs are dangerous chemical substances that persist in the environment for long periods. They are transported through natural atmospheric and oceanic processes far from their actual sources. They bio-accumulate through the food chain in the bodies of wildlife and humans. In the international legal framework, the UNECE Protocol and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants seek to reduce and eliminate the production, use and releases of POPs.
Hong Kong traders of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) may be familiar with the prohibition of PBDEs under the EU’s RoHS Directive, beyond an allowed maximum concentration value of 0.1% in EEE placed on the EU market.
However, in 2009, governments agreed to an exemption that permits the recycling of materials such as foams and plastics containing PBDEs, until 2030.
On the occasion of the 9th Conference of the Parties to the Stockholm Convention held in early May this year, the eight Environmental NGOs advocated for the withdrawal of the recycling exemptions for PBDEs. This demand is based on a review process of the recycling exemptions, which revealed the presence of PBDEs in recycled products in alarming concentrations.
The issue is that while concentrations of POPs are being increasingly restricted in new products, there is evidence to support their being circulated back through recycled products, in much higher concentrations than would be acceptable in new products, and in products where they are unexpected, leading to continued PBDE emissions and exposure.
In 2018, three of the NGOs, i.e., Czech Arnika Association, the Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) and the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN) published a report (“Toxic Loophole: Recycling Hazardous Waste into New Products”). Its authors reported on the finding of concentrations of PBDEs, comparable to hazardous waste, in the surveyed consumer products such as toys, office supplies, kitchen utensils and hair accessories. According to the report, toxic chemicals were passed from discarded electronics into recycled consumer products which are on sale in the EU.
This study is part of long-term monitoring efforts by IPEN and Arnika that started in 2011. It focused on PBDEs due to the recycling exemption for these hazardous chemicals despite their well-known adverse environmental and human health effects. Health risks include, among others, the disruption of human hormone systems, cancer, infertility and adverse impacts on the development of children (affecting particularly their nervous system and intelligence).
Because PBDEs are additives that are not chemically bound to the plastic material, they are released during the lifecycle of the product. Thus, they can migrate easily out of treated or contaminated products and expose the human body through dermal contact, inhalation of dust, mouthing of children’s toys or the use of food contact materials or kitchen utensils.
Concerning the health risks, PBDEs should not, the NGOs argue, be present in any consumer product, and certainly not in children’s products. Moreover, they are unnecessary in such products since toys, office supplies and hair accessories do not pose a fire hazard.
Paradoxically, it is argued that the allegedly environmentally friendly practice of recycling actually results in causing a higher content of toxic substances in products. This continues the cycle of harm in new products, as they are not eliminated during the recycling process.
The NGOs blame legislative loopholes motivated by recycling targets which allegedly ignore the consequences of contaminating new products during recycling. The joint letter argues that the presence of toxic substances in recycled products leaves a gap in the circular economy, and in the long term destroys credibility and consumer trust in the practice of recycling.
The NGOs raise concerns about human and environmental contamination, and the dispersal of PBDEs into topsoil from which recovery is not feasible technically or economically. In their open letter, they underline that a circular economy free from toxic impacts on the environment and human health can only occur if toxic chemicals are definitely eliminated from recycling streams.