An article published on June 2, 2016 in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International reports on the presence of brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in recyclable plastics and products made from recycled plastics.

Heather Leslie and colleagues from the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands, used a novel fast screening ‘direct probe’ method to screen for a selection of BFRs in a variety of end-of-life vehicle (ELV) and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) plastic waste materials, as well as new products made from recycled plastics. The analyzed chemicals included several brominated diphenyl ether flame retardants that have been banned as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) under the Stockholm Convention (POP-BDEs).

A mass flow analysis showed that, from the initial content of POP-BDEs in the products destined for recycling, around one-fifth can be transferred to the new products made from recycled plastics. Indeed, these BFRs were found in various new products, including children’s toys. Of note, BFRs originating from illicit recycling practices have also been found in food contact materials, for example, in some polystyrene-based materials bought in South Korea (FPF reported). Unauthorized BFRs were also found in food contact articles present on the European market, notably those of a black color, including thermocups and kitchen utensils (FPF reported), and several other products analyzed in a 2015 study (Puype et al. 2015).

The authors emphasize that their findings “raise the issue of delicate trade-offs between consumer safety/cleaner production and resource efficiency.” They suggest that this problem can only be tackled if the products are handled according to the principles of a ‘circular economy,’ which necessitates that a “product is sustainably designed with proven non-toxic chemicals.”

An alternative point of view, however, maintains that toxic chemicals can also be managed within the circular economy. An article by Leigh Stringer, published on June 2, 2016 in Chemical Watch, reports on a speech given by Joanna Drake, deputy director general of the European Commission’s (EC) Environment Directorate, at Helsinki Chemicals Forum in May 2016. According to Drake, not only primary products, but also secondary raw materials should be incorporated in the discussion on circular economy. With this goal in mind, the EC is developing a strategic approach to improving the tracking and risk management of hazardous chemicals in the recycling streams.

This view was also supported by Geert Dancet, the executive director of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), who “agreed that chemicals of concern must not create a barrier to achieving a circular economy.” According to Dancet, in the future ECHA could share with the recyclers the information on products containing “any significant volumes” of substances of very high concern (SVHCs), thus enabling the recyclers to “eliminate these chemicals from the recycled materials or eventually not recycle articles containing SVHCs.”

However, tracking and eliminating hazardous chemicals from recycling streams has proven to be the toughest challenge that has not been overcome so far, as the article by Leslie et al. highlights. The argument is going circular.

Read more

Leigh Stringer (June 2, 2016). “Chemicals must take ‘centre stage’ in circular economy discussions.Chemical Watch


Leslie, H. et al. (2016). “Propelling plastics into the circular economy – weeding out the toxics first.Environment International 94: 230-234.

Puype, F. et al. (2015). “Evidence of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) relevant substances in polymeric food-contact articles sold on the European market.Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A 32: 410-426.

Rani, M. et al. (2014). “Hexabromocyclododecane in polystyrene based consumer products: An evidence of unregulated use.Chemosphere 110: 111-119.

Samsonek, J. and Puype, F. (2013). “Occurrence of brominated flame retardants in black thermos cups and selected kitchen utensils purchased on the European market.Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A 30: 1976-1986.