Waste expert: Recycled products ‘faced with the REACH regulation’

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This article is part of our special report Plastics and PVC.

Although the REACH law on chemicals does not cover waste as such, it does affect recycled products which rely on secondary raw materials extracted from waste. At the end of the day, recycling companies might find it difficult to comply, holding back the EU's drive to consume less raw materials, says Wobbe van der Meulen.

Wobbe van der Meulen is environmental policy and reporting manager at SITA NEWS (Northern Europe Waste Services), a waste management and recycling company that is part of the Suez Environment group. He spoke to EURACTIV's editor Frédéric Simon.

How does REACH impact your business?

REACH is not directly affecting our company because waste is outside the scope of REACH.

However, the EU is moving towards a recycling society because of raw materials scarcity in Europe and its dependency on other regions of the world. And that's one of the reasons why the EU came up with end-of-waste criteria.

If you recycle up to an end-of-waste status, it means you're getting a product. And if you have a product and you put it on to the EU market, then you have to comply with the REACH regulation.

At what stage does waste become a product?

End-of-waste criteria define the border between waste and product. At EU level, there are end-of-waste criteria for metals for instance. For plastics, they're working on it.

So if you meet the end-of-waste criteria, then your recycled waste qualifies as a product and you're faced with the REACH regulation.

But the REACH regulation was written for the chemical manufacturers and when the regulation came into force there were no existing detailed provisions to deal with end-of-waste products.

Unlike a primary process in the chemicals industry, which has clearly defined raw material inputs, a recycling process has to deal with a wider range of input compositions, especially when dealing with post-consumer waste.

In this regard, REACH compliance is more constraining for recycled than for primary substances, and this is a constraint for the secondary materials market.

Fair competition between primary and secondary raw materials should prevail – for example by evaluating the environmental burden associated to primary resource extraction, procurement and conversion.

The recycling industry has had many discussions with EU representatives and ECHA to establish a sound procedure for products originated from waste.

How can that problem be solved? Do you think secondary raw materials should be exempted from REACH?

There is no full exemption from REACH obligations, but end-of-waste products are exempted from registration provided that the substance has the same composition than the registered substance that was originally put on the market. If this provision was not created, many secondary raw materials would have been excluded from the recycling market.  

Another  problem is related to REACH's list of substances of very high concern, or Annex XIV of REACH. If you produce or import a (secondary) raw material, you have to comply with the list of substances of very high concern, which is drawn up by the European Chemicals Agency [ECHA] in Helsinki on behalf of member states.

So you have to know the origin and composition of the incoming waste and sometimes make an analysis on your post-consumer recycled material. Our recycling industry is therefore more and more relying on quality controls.

So how do you comply in practice? As a company, I suppose you have to provide this information…

It's just starting now, end-of-waste criteria are being developed at EU and national levels recently.

Metals are easier to deal with because recycled metal has a more consistent quality than recycled post-consumer plastic for instance. In recycled plastics, you may find substances which were on the market 40 years ago but are currently phased out. And so there is not much experience with how to comply.

The availability and reliability of data is essential. Databases can be developed for instance at company level or within a sectoral branch organisation.

But one needs to find a pragmatic way to ensure that a specific batch of secondary raw material does not contain substances of very high concern. Because you cannot analyse every batch. And that's why industry and the European Commission have to think about a practical solution.

Are you saying you are in a sort of regulatory black hole?

If it becomes too complex to comply with REACH criteria for secondary raw materials, then they will remain under a waste status.

We are willing to promote further recycling and implement the five-step waste treatment hierarchy. However, more consistency between regulations and better implementation are needed.

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