Is the EU lowering global standards for toxic and persistent substances?

In its quest to improve recycling rates and to waste less, the EU is losing its renown as a leader in global chemicals management.

In Europe, the phrase "circular economy" is a golden ticket – one of those hopeful-sounding, vaguely futuristic concepts bandied about in the Brussels bubble as a potential solution to the world's environmental problems.

But in the international sphere, it has more sinister implications. NGOs and some developing countries protest that in order to realise its idea of a circular economy, the EU is lowering international standards for some of the world's most toxic and persistent substances.

"The EU is using the circular economy to do all these terrible things," said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network (BAN). "It can't just be about recycling at all costs."

Europe's vision

In a perfectly circular economy, nothing would be wasted and everything would be reused – a closed loop system.

The idea was presented in its current form in 2015, when the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission, adopted an action plan which laid out how it would reduce waste, from slashing marine litter to halving food waste to reusing more water.

A key part of this plan was upping recycling targets. But trying to recycle everything means grappling with products that were made containing chemicals that have since been labelled hazardous. Regulators in Europe have been trying to strike a balance between chemical safety and recycling in their domestic legislation, and it's proved controversial.

The crux of the issue is whether standards for hazardous chemicals should be the same for recycled materials as for new materials. This debate provoked ire from both industry and NGOs in European legislative negotiations last year when the bloc was updating its domestic regulation on persistent organic pollutants, or POPs.

Laws on POPs originate at international level, with the UN's Stockholm Convention aiming to eliminate their use entirely. Each country or bloc that is party to the convention has to ratify decisions made internationally into its domestic laws.

POPs update

The EU began updating its domestic regulation on POPs in 2018, in what was meant to be an open-and-shut technical update. But it hit a snag when recyclers raised the alarm about a concentration limit agreed at UN level, which they said would render recycling of cars and electronics impossible.

Decabromodiphenyl ether, or decaBDE, is a brominated flame retardant widely used in plastic electronics and car parts. In 2017 the substance was set for elimination under the Stockholm Convention, and the amount allowed by the convention to be present in waste, as an unintentional trace contaminant, was 10 parts per million (ppm). 

The issue of whether to match the 10 ppm limit for waste in the EU's domestic regulation, or to add a "recycling exemption" that would raise the level to 1,000 ppm for mixtures and articles – something European recyclers pushed for strongly – delayed the EU's adoption of the legislative recast for months.

In February, the European Parliament and Council agreed to keep the 10ppm limit for new materials, and set a limit of 500 ppm in recycled materials, for a cumulative concentration of decaBDE and other polybrominated flame retardants listed under Stockholm.

International pushback

The EU's domestic law thus set less stringent levels for decaBDE than the Stockhom Convention – something campaign groups saw as a worrying precedent.

The issue came to a head at a meeting of the convention in Geneva in May, when NGOs and developing countries accused the EU of "seeking to globalise unacceptable concentration limits" for POPs.

They cited the bloc's recycling exemption for decaBDE, which it proposed to include in Stockholm as well. They also pointed to another proposal by the bloc on a newly-listed POP, short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs), for which the EU proposed a limit in waste of 10,000ppm.

The Commission said these limits reflect its domestic legislation, and it believes its system "is able to prevent pollution from this substance taking place".

But NGOs said approving the EU's proposed limits would amount to calling products safe that are in fact toxic, and would send a message to the public that recycled products aren't as safe as new products.

"They're basically discrediting the concept of circular economy by doing this," said David Azoulay, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law (Ciel).

Developing countries, led by the African Group representing all 54 countries on the continent, also refused to support the European proposals. They said the bloc was tacitly green-lighting dangerous recycling around the world, because products containing the higher levels of POPs could be exported to developing countries.

"They would send stuff to us that they know very well is highly toxic," said Noluzuko Gwayi, senior policy advisor on international chemicals and waste for South Africa's department of environmental affairs. "Instead of paying high prices in their countries for disposal, the latest emerging bad practice is to recycle."

"POPs are not meant for recycling, they should be eliminated," she said. "That's in the convention."

Neither the European nor the African group backed down in their proposals for SCCPs and decaBDE. Both limit suggestions were left in brackets in the text, to be discussed again at the next conference in 2021.

Recycling benefits

Keith Freegard argues opposition to European proposals is a misunderstanding.

Mr Freegard is a consultant for electronics recycling companies, and he's worked in the industry for more than 15 years.

He said the expectation that recycled plastics contain less than 10 ppm for decaBDE, as an example, shows a lack of understanding about the recycling technology available.

"[A limit for decaBDE of] 10ppm would have rendered everyone's recycling process in Europe completely non-commercial, and probably impossible," he said.

Plastic appliances and electronics usually only have a few pieces that have been treated with brominated flame retardants – on a vacuum cleaner, for example, maybe just the cord plugging it into the wall has been treated. Up to 15%, or 150,000ppm, of this cord would be made up of brominated flame retardants.

When the whole appliance is recycled, it's essentially blended up with hundreds of other appliances into tiny plastic chips. These are then put through a density separation process that splits up the polymers that have been flame retarded from those without flame retardants.

"You can get nearly all of those [flame retarded] bits out," Mr Freegard said. "But there will always be a little bit of dust or a tiny chip which misreports to the wrong silo ... and that tiny trace of bromine will then spread itself through the new polymer that you've made."

Mr Freegard said that keeping the banned flame retardant levels below 1,000ppm is doable, but to get it down to 10 ppm, recyclers would have to adjust the density cut so much that they'd be throwing away much of the plastic they receive.

He thinks limits need to be different for recycled products and new products, in order to keep recycling industries viable.

"You need these limits to be safe, but also to be practical and pragmatic so you can still get a decent yield of what you want," he said.

Mr Freegard said many countries voting for lower limits at the Stockholm Convention don't have robust recycling industries, so they may not know what's feasible. He believes much of their opposition is due to "scaremongering" by NGOs about toxic recycling in other countries.

"The benefit to the global society of making a well-managed transition to a truly circular economy ... To me, that outstrips the risk of a relatively small amount of plastic finding its way to countries and then being disposed of in a really bad way," he said.

Domestic debate

The EU is still wrestling with the balance between chemical safety and recycling in its domestic sphere.

As part of its action plan on the circular economy, the bloc published a communication on "options to address the interface between chemical, product and waste legislation", which highlights four main issues in implementing a circular economy.

One of them is the issue of waste containing newly banned chemicals when it goes for recycling. "The issue ... will continue to constitute a barrier to the circular economy," the document concluded.

The bloc said that by mid-2020, it would create a "specific decision-making methodology to support decisions on the recyclability of waste containing substances of concern", taking into account the "overall cost-benefit of recycling a material compared to its disposal".

In an emailed statement, the Commission said that the "safety of products clearly has highest priority" in circular economy discussions.

"The EU has the ambition to take the appropriate measures to ensure that high level of safety, always based upon the best scientific information available, whilst also allowing recycling," the Commission said.

Basel Convention

The Commission said the "way ahead" to moving towards a global circular economy is using another UN convention: the Basel Convention, which regulates international waste trade.

"No circular economy will be possible unless it has a global dimension," according to the Commission. "To this end, appropriate measures for the environmentally sound management of waste and recycling processes and for the trade of recycled materials should be established and implemented at global level."

The Commission cited the recent decision under Basel to include plastic waste, which the EU supported in Geneva.

Both Mr Freegard and NGOs agree that this decision was an important step in moving towards better-regulated global recycling practices, and thus an international circular economy.

But NGOs said the EU risks turning other countries off to the concept by pushing for higher concentration limits for POPs in waste in order to facilitate recycling.

"The circular economy is still seen as a European thing," Mr Azoulay, from Ciel, said. "It's challenging for countries around the world to pick it up."