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European Consumer Organisation Calls for Ambitious EU Rules to Prevent Toxic Chemicals Entering the Circular Economy

Hong Kong traders may be interested to learn that, on 7 August 2017, the Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs (“BEUC”), a leading EU consumer group, issued its response to a European Commission consultation paper on chemicals in the circular economy, as part of the Commission’s EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy. While BEUC welcomed the Commission’s decision to address the interface between chemicals, products and waste legislation, it pointed out that the current EU chemicals legislation is inadequately suited to facilitating a successful circular economy.

In its response, BEUC noted that robust protection against harmful chemicals is lacking in many consumer products and, if they do exist, they are often improperly applied or checked. BEUC’s comparative tests showed that hazardous chemicals are often present in products which consumers come into close, regular and prolonged contact with. In this sense, Hong Kong traders should pay particular attention to products such as textiles, footwear and toys. One recent illustration of this is Czech environmental NGO Arnika finding hazardous and even banned flame retardants in children’s toys made from recovered plastics.

However, BEUC stated that much of the consumer exposure may be avoided, since such chemicals are found in some, but not all tested products. According to BEUC, this means that since some products can function with fewer chemicals, others may do so too. In particular, BEUC insisted that ‘fit-for-purpose’ products, whether made from virgin or recycled materials, must be products in a way that they are safe for consumers. BEUC’s suggestion was the introduction of a framework that would prevent toxic chemicals from being re-injected into the economy, which would entail effective controls on secondary raw materials. An example would be ensuring that recycled food contact materials do not contaminate food products.

BEUC’s response provided detail on a number of issues with current EU legislation, namely:

Insufficient information about substances of concern in products and waste: It stated that consumers “should receive accurate, easy to understand and reliable information about the products they purchase, through clear and coherent labelling, including in relation to environmental claims”. BEUC highlighted the ongoing REACH review as an obvious opportunity to strengthen the consumer’s right to know what is in their products.

Presence of substances of concern in recycled materials: Legacy substances were named as some of the greatest obstacles to transiting to a cost effective, resource efficient circular economy. Many products contain chemicals of concern that were legal when first manufactured but are now either restricted or banned, such as lead, PCBs or DecaBDE. BEUC called for a precautionary approach to prevent recycling which would re-inject toxic substances into the production cycle. This means accepting that some materials and products should not – and cannot – be recycled.

In a circular economy, it becomes difficult to control and limit combined exposure, which is why BEUC asked the EU to develop a more coherent approach to risk assessment and management to achieve a successful circular economy. This might include targeted strategies for all product categories where recycled materials will be used. For Hong Kong traders, sectors of interest might include food contact materials, textile products and toys.

Uncertainties about how materials can cease to be waste: BEUC does not regard ‘tacit’ end-of-waste status feasible. Rather, it would require an administrative decision by Member State authorities based on active monitoring and control.

Difficulties in the application of EU waste classification methodologies and impacts on the recyclability of materials: BEUC has urged the Commission to clarify the correct interpretation of the CLP Regulation to prevent misclassification of waste containing chemicals of concern.

BEUC strongly encouraged EU decision makers to pursue a clear circular economy through policies that respect the fundamental commitments of EU chemicals policy, including the European Parliament resolution of 9 July 2015 on resource efficiency and the June 2016 Council Conclusions on the EU action plan for the circular economy.

Such changes will most likely also affect Hong Kong companies selling products to EU customers. BEUC emphasised the fact that the REACH authorisation regime exists to ensure that the use of substances of very high concern (“SVHCs”) are controlled, and eventually phased out, by creating incentives for the European industry to switch to safer alternatives. Importantly for Hong Kong companies, BEUC suggested that the REACH authorisation provision be extended to also regulate the presence of SVHCs in imported articles. In BEUC’s view, the EU’s failure to do this for articles imported into the EU is “a clear regulatory gap” with possibly significant adverse effects for human health and the environment. According to BEUC, this regulatory gap is potentially misleading consumers, and risks undermining confidence in the efficacy of EU chemicals legislation. BEUC noted that consumers expect that the same protections should apply whether the product is produced in the EU or abroad.

The consultation ended on 7 July 2017. After analysing all feedback received from stakeholders, the Commission will decide whether the initiative will be pursued, and on its final content.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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