This article is part of our special report Recycling of e-waste plastics.
Around half of plastic waste from electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) is not properly collected or sorted in the EU, meaning it is not recycled at the end of the day, according to a new report.
This plastic ends up in general rubbish, goes to ill-suited recycling facilities or is exported outside the EU where they are often burnt without measures to control toxic emissions, says the report by SOFIES, a leading sustainability consulting firm.
Banning the export of WEEE plastics to third countries would greatly help reduce the presence of toxic chemicals in everyday products like food packaging, experts say.
Brominated flame retardants, a family of substances used to prevent computer plastics from catching fire, have been found in children’s toys and food packaging, according to some environmental NGOs.
Although the levels are not of concern from a human health point of view, their potential presence in everyday products “is fairly well known,” said Dr Kevin Bradley, secretary-general of the International Bromine Council, a trade association.
“Experts and the Commission are aware of this, but don’t often talk about it,” he told EURACTIV.
“If we want to avoid situations where plastics containing legacy BFRs find their way back into products as has been occasionally evidenced by some NGOs, we need to ensure that WEEE and WEEE plastics are retained in the EU for proper treatment in accordance with the WEEE Directive or treated under appropriate equivalent conditions in third countries,” Bradley said.
Brominated flame retardants
The report, published on 18 November, looked into the impact of brominated flame retardants on the recycling of WEEE plastics. Approximately 2.6 million tons of WEEE plastics are generated annually in Europe, with plastics containing brominated flame retardants representing about 9% of this.
WEEE plastics contain a wide range of additives such as flame retardants, fillers, pigments and stabilisers which collectively impact the recycling of WEEE plastics. However, the presence of flame retardants doesn’t hinder recycling, with 55% of WEEE plastics entering facilities effectively recycled, the report found.
This is also why flame retardants are sometimes able to re-enter the plastic manufacturing chain and find their way back into new products such as children’s toys.
Brominated flame retardants are used to prevent fires in electronics. The most toxic were restricted in the 2000s and are now known as ‘legacy additives’. Others are still allowed, but have to be recycled with special processes.
However, only 2% are recycled. The remaining 98% are either incinerated or sent to cement kilns.
Recycling these plastics is made harder by competition from cheap virgin materials and producers cautious of restricted legacy additives and heavy metals that may be present in WEEE plastics.
Issues like low collection rates, poor intra-European movement and rapidly changing legislation make recycling WEEE plastics even harder.
As a result, “there are few investors willing to invest because of the instability and uncertainty relating to chemical waste and regulations, which are not harmonised and with many ongoing discussions, which just create this climate of uncertainty,” said Arthur Haarman, a consultant at SOFIES.
Raising the threshold
The European Commission has acknowledged those issues but has so far not been able to articulate an effective policy response.
“We are aware of the problems,” said Maria Banti, policy officer for WEEE at the European Commission’s environment department. “Practically speaking, some intra-EU movement will take place in any case, but we need to revise the rules in order to make it as simple as possible.”
The SOFIES report showed the presence of restricted brominated flame retardants have decreased significantly and Haarman called for the EU to reflect this by raising the threshold for bromine content to enable easier recycling.
Almost a decade ago, the CEN standard laid out the threshold between bromine poor plastics, which can be recycled, and bromine rich plastics, which have to be separated. With levels of restricted brominated flame retardants dropping, the industry wants this threshold raised.
“Today this safe level could be set at 6,000 ppm level. Basically, we think that the treatment requirements and the threshold should be reviewed in view of the trends in levels of restricted BFRs,” said Haarman, who was speaking at an event organised by the International Bromine Council.
The European Environmental Bureau, a green pressure group, said raising the threshold was “absolutely ludicrous” and goes against the Commission’s circular economy ambitions.
“Instead of preventing substances of concern from being blended into consumers products, industry lobbyists are pushing for more of the same,” said Stephane Arditi, director for circular economy at the EEB.
“This goes against growing calls for a phase out from civil society and even fire fighters who argue that flame retardants can do more harm than good. We should instead focus on safer and more effective alternatives such as smoke detectors and sprinklers, which unlike flame retardants, would give people enough time to escape a fire while avoiding potentially toxic dioxins,” he added.
To tackle the amount of WEEE plastics exported from the EU, experts say collection needs to be improved.
“Making sure that we collect all the WEEE and treat in line with the standards is the most effective way of reducing the substances of concern and restricted flame retardants,” said Chris Slijkhuis, General Manager of MGG Polymers and board member of the European Electronics Recyclers Association.
“If we really want to improve WEEE plastic recycling in Europe, we should really work on increasing collection rates to increase the quantities, also enforcing compliance with CEN standards and facilitating intra-European, cross-border shipments to state of the art WEEE plastics recycling facilities to ensure that the material is going where it should go,” Haarman said.
Promoting a circular economy
WEEE is a growing waste stream with 11 million tonnes produced in Europe in 2020. Plastics make up 25% of this.
The Circular Plastics Alliance, an industry coalition, aims to reach 10 million tonnes of plastics recycled by 2025 and improving WEEE recycling will contribute towards that.
The recycling of WEEE feedstock uses less than 10% of the energy than virgin production and produces virgin-like quality, according to Slijkhuis.
“We have a fantastic carbon footprint. We have super energy savings. So let’s make sure that we strike the right balance, an intelligent balance between the non-toxic world and the circular economy,” he said.
The Commission projects an increase in electronics production. Less than 42% are currently recycled in the EU and the Commission is looking to launch repair and take back schemes under its circular economy initiative.
“We need to support take back schemes to incentives consumers to return these unwanted devices and to bring them to specific WEEE collection points or repair facilities in order to give them a second life as a product or bring them to the recyclers for further treatment,” said Banti.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]