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REACH helps the circular economy clean up, facilitating sustainable recycling

On 24th March I took part in an event in Brussels, organised by EurActiv, discussing the relationship between the REACH chemicals regulations and the Circular Economy, in particular the interaction between REACH & recycling. The other panelists included representatives of the European Commission (both DG Environment and DG Growth), the plastic pipe industry and an MEP, Paul Rübig.

The event came amid the ongoing debate on the Circular Economy package, which was tabled by the previous Commission, was earmarked for withdrawal by the current, Juncker, Commission, but was then saved at the last minute by a campaign involving industry, environmental groups, Member States and MEPs. The Commission is now working on a revision of this package, which is due to be tabled by the end of the year, and will be ‘more ambitious‘ according to the Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans.

I emphasised the importance of the circular economy proposal, and that the best way to deal with hazardous chemicals is to get them out of products in the first place – my speaking notes are copied below.

The plastic pipe industry speaker highlighted concerns regarding recycling of old PVC water pipes, with high lead levels. However, the officials from DG Environment and DG Growth pointed out that solutions had already been found for similar issues. For example, the EU has a restriction on cadmium in products, but there are special exemptions  for specific uses of recycled PVC in windows & other building products and as a middle plastic layer in low pressure water pipes – but not for all potential uses.

It’s also important to note that anything classified as ‘waste’ is actually exempt from the REACH legislation – it’s only if recycled materials are to be reclassified as no longer waste (= “end of waste”) that the REACH provisions come into effect.

The event also provided more evidence that REACH is working, with a comment from a Dutch participant that they had been in a workshop the previous week where companies were talking about how they were phasing out substances of very high concern – ‘every black list has a white shadow‘.

Euractiv have posted a video with interviews with the panellists and participants of the event.

Since the event, initial documents have been leaking out of the European Commission; for example in this ENDS Report story on 8th April it is reported that a scoping note puts the interaction with REACH as one of the main barriers to putting secondary raw materials on the EU market:

“the commission will seek to reconcile plans for greater resource efficiency with increasingly tough chemicals regulation, saying there is a contradiction between the aim of the REACH regime and the aim of increasing recycling.

It notes that the number of chemicals restricted in EU products “keeps on growing” and compliance with chemical rules can be more difficult for recycled products.”

CHEM Trust would argue that there is no contradiction between the aim of REACH and the aim of increased recycling – in order to do the latter in a sustainable way you have to ensure that you aren’t recirculating hazardous substances.

We do not want to be in situation where harmful chemicals are coming into our homes from recycled materials. One worrying example of this is the presence of the globally-restricted flame retardant penta-HBDE in recycled carpet underlay in the USA.

It’s true that new chemicals are being restricted all the time (at least in countries where chemical regulations are reasonably effective) – this is because new science identifies hazards and risks that weren’t fully understood in the past. However, it’s worth noting that there are often clear indications that chemicals are a problem well before regulatory measures are taken. This is one reason why manufacturers and retailers should be aware of chemicals in their products, and check with, for example, the SIN List to see if they are problematic.

Manufacturers and retailers should move rapidly out of the worst chemicals, to save themselves problems in the future. They shouldn’t listen to the lobbying from the producers of individual problem chemicals –  the producers are trying to retain their sales and postpone restrictions for as long as possible.

My speaking notes from the 24th March event

  • Withdrawal of package:
    • Circular economy package important, had a long gestation – I was involved in it for years when working for Friends of the Earth
    • Completely unclear why withdrawal needed when modifications could have been made during legislative process
    • If there is a wish to add new elements, there is no reason why this can’t just be done through a new legislative proposal. There’s no obligation to put product policy in the same piece of legislation
  • Inherent logic of circular economy
  • Circular economy creates obligations
    • Product design for longevity, re-use, recycling (e.g. compulsory warranties)
    • Avoiding pollution of the circle, dealing with this at source – product design
  • Examples of chemical problems:
  • Conclusions
    • Need to avoid regulatory holes – e.g. lack of EU harmonisation on non-plastic food contact materials, similar issues with regulations for pipes and other water carrying materials
    • In electronics the ROHS directive is used to get rid of the worst chemicals, making products more recyclable; does this approach need to be more widespread?
    • REACH has had great benefit of discouraging ‘end of waste’ unless sure of safety. This is a key safety control.
    • Still uncertain whether REACH authorisation will truly get rid of worst chemicals when safer alternatives available – e.g. DEHP in PVC case
    • REACH and circular economy – must go together, companies must realise the importance of avoiding hazardous substances