Circular economy and toxic-free environment: a tricky relationship

Circular economy and toxic-free environment ar two major policy goals, which cannot be reached in combination. We present a study with a holistic view on mass flows of materials from production to waste. The „circular economy“ concept aims at maximizing re-use or recycling of products and materials from the technosphere. Hazardous compounds are among the most prominent obstacles towards this goal. On the other hand, the "toxic-free environment" strategy aims at more and more products without any contaminants. Both goals are part of the 7th Environment Action Plan. Approaching both visions requires a thorough revision of the interfaces between chemicals and waste regulation. There is a legislative tendency to extend the regulatory basis for chemicals into the waste sector to prevent contamination of recycled materials with hazardous substances. In contrary to the hazard dominated classification and labelling of chemicals (CLP), physical properties, aggregate state, exposure scenarios, etc. are part of the risk oriented classification of waste. From the investigation of some practical examples we conclude that in a circular economy risk-based approaches will be necessary also in future. Otherwise, handling waste would become extremely difficult without gaining a higher safety level for workers, consumers, and environment. Moreover, circular economy approaches might be severely hampered at an early stage.

More information about chemicals of concern is helpful for recycling – but “SCIP” is not a suitable solution. To re-use or recycle more waste, information on its composition is needed. The EU Waste Framework Directive obliges producers to document the presence of substances of very high concern in a new database (SCIP), which went online in January 2021. We investigated some products of varying complexity and with different pollutant problems from a number of industries. Our study indicates that the new database is of limited use for recycling companies. To foster the intended recycling of used products we urgently recommend to introduce

  • a machine-readable labelling of all affected products (e.g. an imprinted bar code), from which their composition can be deduced during the initial treatment,
  • new extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations for products like textiles or furnishing in addition to those already in place for packaging, batteries, electrical appliances and vehicles,
  • practicable mechanisms to motivate the stakeholders involved in the respective value chains to achieve much higher collection rates for used products than before ,
  • measures to prevent incorrect disposal, cross-contamination, etc., especially by private households and small businesses, as known from the collection of packaging,
  • penalties to support the implementation omef such regulations and to ensure consistent enforcement towards all participants in the value chain.

Further reading:

Presentation by Henning Friege on occasion of the German Waste Legislation Conference (download)

“Interfaces between chemicals, waste and product legislation” (in German, published in AbfallR)

“How should we deal with the interfaces between chemicals, product and waste legislation?” (Environmental Sciences Europe 31:51 (2019))

The new European database for chemicals of concern: How useful is SCIP for waste management?” (Sustainable Chemistry and Pharmacy 21:100430 (2021))

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Dr. Friege & Partner Wirtschafts- und Naturwissenschaftler