This article is part of our special report Recycling of e-waste plastics.
Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are used in plastics materials in electrical and electronic products to aid fire safety by reducing their propensity for ignition. This not only means a contribution to saving lives, but also products and property, thus preventing waste of resources.
The International Bromine Council (BSEF) is the voice of the bromine technology industry globally.
In the EU, the WEEE Directive (EU 2012/19/EC) requires that plastics from electrical and electronic products are subject to recycling to recover different valuable technical plastics for use again in new plastic parts and components.
The Directive further requires the segregation and separate treatment of BFR-containing plastics in order to ensure that restricted substances (four specific BFR substances restricted under RoHS) are removed from the material stream and destroyed. The WEEE CEN Standards provide the basis for recyclers to achieve this and ensure that plastics being used again do not contain legacy BFRs.
Plastics with BFRs have excellent stability during recycling which allows recycled plastics to meet the same levels of fire safety as virgin material and maintains the value originally provided by flame retardants in the material. Despite this, recycling of BFR containing plastics, is perceived as problematic with some stakeholders saying they impact the yield from plastics recycling.
Do BFRs hindering recycling of Plastics?
To respond to these concerns and to understand the factual situation in the EU, BSEF commissioned the consultancy SOFIES to undertake a study on BFR-containing Plastics and WEEE recycling in 2020.
The results of this study reveal that BFR additives or BFR-containing plastics are not hindering plastics recycling nor are they the substantive factor when it comes to plastics yield from end of life WEEE plastics recycling. Key findings include:
- 6 million tons of WEEE plastics are generated annually, mainly comprised of PP (20% of total), ABS (19%), (HI)PS (18%) and PC/PC-ABS (7%). Brominated plastics represent about 9% of the total, mainly BFR ABS (4%), BFR Epoxy (3%) and BFR HIPS (1%). The remaining 27% includes other engineering polymers used in electrical and electronic equipment
- WEEE plastics contain significant loads of additives, whether fillers, flame retardants, plasticizers or others, and as such all plastics with these elements (45% of the total) must be sorted out prior to recycling and are sent for incineration or to cement kilns.
- on average, 55% of WEEE plastics entering WEEE plastic recycling facilities will actually be turned into regranulates. This yield is mainly influenced by the composition of WEEE plastics, particularly the share of target polymers (PP, PE, ABS, PS and eventually PC-ABS) as well as the densimetric profile.
- the levels of legacy BFRs as a share of total BFRs in WEEE plastics have decreased significantly over the last ten years, demonstrating the positive effect and efforts undertaken by the industry to phase out these legacy BFR PBDE levels can be expected to further decrease in the coming years
- 98% of BFR plastics collected can be separated and disposed of through official WEEE recycling channels demonstrating the effectiveness of the WEEE CEN standards in aiding the treatment of WEEE plastics
An important challenge to address based on the SOFIES findings, is how to extract more value from the 45% of plastics that are currently incinerated or sent to cement kilns. New, innovative chemical and dissolution recycling technologies (e.g. and pyrolysis) are emerging which can address this issue and ensure more recovery of plastic resins and their reuse in new plastics products. The report and its recommendations have been shared with EU policy makers as contribution to the debate on improving plastics recycling generally.
Innovating to support the Circular Economy
As part of its global Circular Economy Action Plan, BSEF and its member companies are engaged in several projects to improve end of life recycling of materials containing brominated flame retardants (BFRs). For instance, BSEF along with the North American Flame Retardant Alliance (NAFRA) and its member companies are supporting an exciting new approach to sorting and separating legacy BFRs from non-restricted BFRs using novel block-chain technology.
The pilot project involves a chemical-based hidden “barcode” system, alongside a unique “reader” to identify these codes. These codes will enable a blockchain record to be developed to store and protect ownership data.
The bromine industry and its value chain are also innovating the way it helps manage plastics with legacy chemicals. One example of this is the EU LIFE co-funded Polystyrene Loop Project. The project involves using CreaSolv® technology for the recycling of post-consumer construction polystyrene foam waste, the destruction of HBCD (a POP under the Stockholm Convention), while recovering the bromine. This technology can also be applied to WEEE plastics containing BFRs and other additives.
The bromine industry is committed to working closely with policy makers, regulatory authorities, its value chains and other stakeholders to encourage further sustainable end of life solutions across the different applications of bromine. Some solutions are easily or more readily available and achievable. Others will take time and require both innovation as well as pragmatism in terms of what is realistically feasible.