Medio ambiente

Sustainable chemicals for a circular economy


Back in 2009, German and Swiss authorities found a problem: traces of mineral oil in food. The contamination was entering food from the inks in the recycled cardboard used to make packaging for products such as frozen pizzas, pasta and breakfast cereals. Further studies were carried out and in 2017, the European Commission published a recommendation on monitoring mineral oil hydrocarbons in food. Such hydrocarbons could cause cancer, the recommendation noted.

The case shows the risks of using recycled materials where substances of concern are present. Hazardous chemicals in waste can be a serious obstacle to the move to a more circular economy. When certain hazardous substances are present in waste, preparing the waste for reuse or recycling is more expensive and more complex. Furthermore, if these substances have been restricted, recycling the waste in which they are present may not even be allowed. Lack of information is part of the problem – recyclers often cannot know exactly what is in the waste they receive for processing.

Far better would be for products destined for recycling not to include these substances of concern in the first place. But this is easy to say and hard to achieve. In many cases, such as in complex products including electronics and medical equipment, substances of concern are used in small amounts because they offer the greatest benefits in terms of functionality. Manufacturers are permitted to use these hazardous chemicals, provided they are used safely.

To better understand the extent to which substances of concern are present in products, and to ensure their safe handling by waste operators, companies will from 5 January 2021 have to submit data to a new European Union database managed by the European Chemicals Agency. The database, known as SCIP (Substances of Concern In Products), was mandated by a 2018 revision of EU waste laws.

SCIP could potentially collect up to billions of notifications. All suppliers (e.g. producers, importers and wholesalers of products) of articles that contain one or more substances of very high concern (those listed as such in the Union because of their very negative potential effects) in a concentration above 0.1% are obliged to make declarations to the European Chemicals Agency giving details of the article and where the substance is used within it. Notifications could cover a huge range of products, from cars to cameras to clothing, furniture, plastics, smartphones, construction products and anything in between. The idea behind SCIP is that the information thus assembled is available throughout the whole lifecycle of articles and materials, including at the waste stage and can be provided to waste operators and recyclers to help them more efficiently separate and reprocess waste.

The increased transparency will also benefit consumers, who can access SCIP upon request, and give them the opportunity to make better-informed purchase decisions, as well as give them transparent information on safe use and disposal advice for articles on the EU market. Additionally, improved knowledge of the presence and use of substances of concern will benefit competent authorities in Member States in their regulatory work.

SCIP “can help us identify where the greatest problems are and also where the greatest benefits come from. This would impact, for example, product dismantling, separation of the parts that are most contaminated and ensuring that specific parts containing substances of concern can be sent for the correct treatment,” Mike Hale, a spokesman for the European Union for Responsible Incineration and Treatment of Special Waste, told the February 2020 European Chemicals Agency newsletter.

Crucially, SCIP will build on more than a decade’s worth of work that has been done in the EU under the 2006 Regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH, Regulation (EC) No 1907/2006). REACH provides a framework for the EU-wide identification of hazardous chemicals, and their designation as “substances of very high concern,” meaning chemicals that are toxic, carcinogenic, highly persistent in the environment, or that present other similar concerns. It is products containing these high-concern substances – of which 209 have so far been identified under REACH – that must be notified to SCIP. Examples of uses of these substances in products include phthalates in PVC, certain lead compounds in specialist paints, and brominated flame retardants in construction products.

Broader strategy

SCIP is not just about providing better information to recyclers, however. It should be seen in the context of a broader EU strategy on chemicals that has at its core the aim to encourage innovation and the substitution of hazardous chemicals with greener, safer alternatives. This is a major area for eco-innovation. Replacing hazardous chemicals in products will produce health and environmental benefits and would ultimately make SCIP redundant, because recyclers would be sure that what they receive for reprocessing is free of harmful substances.

The emphasis is therefore on products that are safe-by-design in terms of their chemical content, and on substitution of hazardous materials. The European Chemicals Agency published a report in July that found companies are increasingly switching to safer chemicals away from those that the EU has identified as substances of very high concern.

The European Commission, meanwhile, has released a chemicals strategy for sustainability, in October 2020, that aims to strengthen the existing legislative framework, while promoting innovation and the transition from hazardous to green chemicals. The main goal is for Europe to specialise in a portfolio of chemicals that are low-energy in their production, that do not create health or environmental risks, and that can themselves be safely reused and recycled. The strategy is part of the European Green Deal and the aim to achieve the zero-pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment.

Chemicals companies would like to see innovation put at the heart of the strategy. The European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) has recommended that part of the strategy should be to develop a new EU ‘Safe-and-Sustainable-by-Design’ standard, and to support research in predicting the toxic effects of chemicals, in order to speed up innovation in developing new substances. The 2050 vision, according to CEFIC would be that “the European economy has gone circular, recycling all sorts of molecules into new raw materials.”

The Commission roadmap on the chemicals strategy for sustainability, published in May, notes that “production of safer chemicals, products and materials in Europe is not sufficiently incentivised, and frontrunners developing and using safer and more sustainable chemicals, modernising existing or developing alternative technologies and business models, are struggling to be competitive.” The strategy will also seek to address this issue.

Chemicals is a major part of the EU economy, with the EU share global chemical sales standing at about 17% (compared to an EU share of global GDP of about 16%). The sector in the EU directly employs 1.2 million people in high-skill jobs. The chemicals strategy for sustainability and a move to innovative green chemistry could position the EU as the major global supplier of the substances that will go into the products needed for the transition to a low-carbon, low-pollution economy.