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Recycling is great – but not always
Circular economy is the new buzzword in the world of sustainability. It has truly become a hot topic – not only among legislators in the European Union, but also among companies that strive to have a progressive sustainability profile.
And most importantly, the concept has gained a lot of traction in public opinion. Many consumers are more interested in, or at least feel better about, buying something that has been made from recycled material.
This is great. It really is.
The economic system in the world today is trapped in a vicious cycle of consumerism.
To make the world go around, it seems that people constantly have to buy new things and that industry has to produce more and more in order to satisfy this imagined need of the people.
To then be able to use recycled material, instead of being forced to produce new material all the time, is really a great way to move away from the depletion of the earth’s resources.
Not all recycling, and not all recycled materials, are good.
The problem starts with the manufacture of new products, made from so-called virgin materials. Many of these contain toxic chemicals, for example that new raincoat containing PFAS to make the water roll right off of it or the plastic doll containing phthalates to make it less fragile.
PFAS and phthalates are great in terms of performance, no doubt about it, but they are highly problematic when it comes to human health and the environment.
PFAS are associated with cancer, liver damage and immune system effects as well as being persistent, meaning that they are non-biodegradable, causing them to accumulate in nature – and also in humans.
And phthalates are recognised as endocrine disruptors. This means that they can interfere with hormone systems, causing cancer, birth defects and other developmental disorders such as learning disabilities, brain problems and physical deformations.
Even though there are safer alternatives available, the sad fact is that many products are still being produced with toxic chemicals like these ones.
So, what happens when you recycle these products? Well… you also recycle the toxic chemicals in them.
Recently a joint report from three European environmental organisations revealed a loophole in EU legislation that allows products made from recycled waste to contain hazardous chemicals. The report found that consumer products, including children’s toys and kitchen utensils, made from recycled electronic waste were contaminated with flame retardant chemicals.
These chemicals are restricted in virgin material due to health and environmental concerns, but are, for some reason, allowed in recycled material. Just like phthalates, the flame retardant chemicals mentioned in the report are hormone disruptors.
Coupling this with the fact that children often put things in their mouths, it should be unacceptable that toys, which are supposed to develop children’s motor skills and intellectual capacity, also expose them to toxic chemicals that have the very opposite, neurotoxic effects.
The report states that if the products analysed in the study were made from virgin materials instead of recycled materials, almost half of them would not be allowed on the market, according to EU regulation, due to exceeded concentrations of hazardous substances.
The report argues that these toxic loopholes are motivated by political recycling targets that ignore the consequences of contaminating new products during recycling.
Last week, the issue was up for discussion in the European Parliament and a proposal to introduce a recycling derogation for five substances in recycled plastics was rejected. The proposal argued that, without the exemption, most European plastics recycling firms would have to drastically reduce their activities.
The members, however, thought that the proposed limit on toxins was too weak and voted against it by 576 to 23 votes.
Whatever the reason may be, recycled material should not be allowed to pass through loopholes in chemicals legislation just to reach ambitious political recycling targets.
Recycling is really great, and essential to halt the depletion of natural resources and make circular economy work. But, toxic chemicals have to be weighed into the equation when recycling something, otherwise we will end up with products that contain a bunch of hazardous chemicals.
The way for recycling is forward, but with caution.
We cannot just recycle everything we get our hands on without knowing exactly what it is that we are recycling. Recycled materials need just as strict chemicals legislation as everything else.
More importantly, we need to know what chemicals are in the products in the first place, otherwise we can never know for sure what can and cannot be recycled safely.