The phase-out of substances of concern from new materials would entail billions of Euros in business opportunities. We need to recycle more, but have to consider chemical safety alongside increased recycling rates. And the presence of hazardous chemicals in recycled materials prevents the upscaling of circular economy.
These are some of the key findings in the report “What goes around”, addressing the importance of a circular economy free from substances of concern, made by non-profit NGO ChemSec.
The need to move away from the decades old, predominant linear mindset of “take, make, waste” towards a more circular one of “reuse, reduce, recycle” is something most of us can agree on. But when discussing and working towards a circular economy, there is one aspect that keeps getting surprisingly overlooked: The presence of hazardous chemicals.
Major financial gains of a non-toxic circular economy
The NGO ChemSec now launches the extensive report “What goes around” on the chemical aspect of circular economy – the missing piece, if you will.
The financial chapter is particularly interesting, since an analysis of the business opportunities of a circular economy without problematic chemicals has never been done before.
So what is the market potential of a circular economy free from the “stumble block” of substances of concern? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
“If chemicals of concern were more efficiently addressed, the market for recycled materials would increase”
“Our analysis shows that if problematic chemicals were more efficiently addressed, the market for recycled materials would increase. Even a small increase of 10% in the recycling of plastic packaging would correspond to an annual increase in EU market value of €2.6 billion”, says Anne-Sofie Bäckar, Executive Director at ChemSec.
Hazardous substances accumulate and remain in the loop
The report dives into what is known about chemicals of concern in recycled materials, focusing on plastic packaging and textiles. Both these materials are omnipresent in our everyday lives and produced in chemical-intensive processes.
“When we close the loop, we are ‘stuck’ with what is in the system, for good and bad”
What goes around comes around – and chemicals are no exception. They may accumulate in materials over repeated recycling loops, and remain in the system for many years after the chemicals have ceased to be used in new products.
This means that when we close the loop, we are “stuck” with what is in the system, for good and bad. This is of course especially problematic when it comes to chemicals of concern.
“From our discussions with companies, we know that they find it difficult to use recycled materials in their consumer products. They struggle to increase the use of recycled materials in products, while staying compliant with chemical legislation and their own chemical requirements. Of course, this limits the market for recycled materials”, says Anne-Sofie Bäckar.
Increase recycling rates – but make it safe
Even though recycling of plastic packaging has developed over decades, the recycling rates are only about 10% globally. Recycling of textiles is an underdeveloped sector, and only about 1% of textiles are recycled into new clothes. While it is vital to increase the recycling rates, the presence of chemicals of concern must be taken into account, making sure we don’t recycle hazardous substances along with the material.
In the report, ChemSec takes a closer look at the chemicals that prevent safe recycling, as well as available recycling methods. Different recycling methodologies are compared based on how they handle hazardous chemicals, and emerging techniques that effectively track chemical content are investigated.
Even though there are several recycling methods, gathered under the umbrella term “chemical recycling”, that could potentially remove substances of concern from recycled materials, these are very energy-intensive, expensive, limited to certain types of materials and may – ironically enough – generate hazardous chemicals.
“Mechanical recycling is expected to remain the primary technology for the foreseeable future, making the phasing out of substances of concern all the more urgent”
For these reasons, mechanical recycling is expected to remain the primary technology for the foreseeable future, making the phasing out of substances of concern all the more urgent.
“As long as problematic chemicals are included in material flows, we will not be able to achieve a truly sustainable circular economy and reap the many benefits of it. With this report, we aim to nuance the picture and contribute some of the missing pieces in the puzzle we all have to help solve”, Anne-Sofie Bäckar concludes.
- Increased use of virgin materials and low recycling levels show that a circular economy is far from being realized.
- The presence of chemicals of concern in materials is an important reason for this.
- Mechanical recycling will remain the main recycling technology for the foreseeable future, which makes establishing non-toxic waste streams the key to scaling up the circular economy.
- Chemicals of concern must therefore be designed out of new products.
- Along with this decreased use of chemicals of concern, a substantial market opportunity can be realized through the increased usability of recycled materials.