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Chemicals are at the core of the circular economy and Europe's future
We currently discard the majority of material we use in the EU. This is something that has to change. The objective of a circular economy is to retain material for as long as possible, minimising waste and the need for additional resources. This requires sustainable materials management and new, innovative approaches to producing materials with a longer life. Bjørn Hansen from the European Commission explains why the legislation on chemicals plays such an important role in a circular economy.
Chemicals are fundamental to the circular economy – they are used in products and will either be recycled or discarded as waste. A circular economy cannot be discussed without looking into the legislation on chemicals and what is happening with hazardous substances in the entire chain of events.
At the end of 2015, the European Commission adopted a package of measures to stimulate Europe’s transition towards a circular economy. Boosting global competitiveness, fostering sustainable economic growth and generating new jobs are some of the benefits that the package is expected to deliver.
Recycle or discard?
Our planet’s resources are limited. Achieving the goals of a circular economy, which relies heavily on greater recycling and reuse, will reduce the strain on natural resources and reduce the EU’s dependency on natural resource imports.
Although everyone is in favour of a higher degree of recycling, there are controversial aspects. For example, REACH has increased the number of chemical substances that are identified as being of concern for health or the environment. What should happen to those chemicals that are already circulating? Many of them will have been recycled and reused long before the current legislation came into force. Some of them may have a long lifetime and therefore stay on the market for decades.
According to Mr Hansen, Head of Unit of Sustainable Chemicals in the Directorate-General for Environment, the raw materials on the market today can be divided into three categories. The first is material that is harmless and is as good as new. This can clearly be recycled without restriction and used to produce new articles.
The second includes material which is so “dirty” that it cannot be put back on the market. “This material must be burned, incinerated with energy recovery or landfilled. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a good example of this group of substances that should not be recycled,” Mr Hansen says.
Material in the third category falls somewhere in between. There is a question mark related over it. It can be physically recycled, but it may include harmful chemicals and, therefore, its use should be controlled and tracked.
It is mainly this third category that complicates the situation. “On one hand, you could say that there are so many unknowns in the future, that precaution tells us to get rid of as many substances as possible as soon as possible, to clean up the waste stream. This means that we would not let these substances be recycled and re-enter the production process. On the other hand, you could put more weight on the importance and value of the material and less on the potential dangerousness of the chemicals it contains,” Mr Hansen explains.
The question is, how to get rid of unwanted substances in recycled material without destroying the material and its function. “Most materials have a desired functionality. And there will be chemicals that are essential for that functionality. The tricky thing is to make sure that the value of the material is maintained for as long as possible, at the same time realising that it may also contain substances that you want to get rid of,” Mr Hansen explains.
Technology can offer some solutions. To find out what the material that goes into recycling actually contains, we need a system to trace chemicals. This is particularly important since the requirements in chemicals legislation today are higher than ever before. “This is something that we need to have anyway,” Mr Hansen says and continues, “if we ever want to enforce the law which says that dangerous substances present in articles have to be notified to ECHA, we have to be able to take, for example, a toy coming from outside the EU and test it. It means that something that is needed for current enforcement purposes can also be used in future to track chemicals”.
However, tracing all substances would have a huge cost, which means that in practice only the most important ones, both societally and technically, can be traced.
Mr Hansen also mentions 3D printing as an opportunity that could lead to cleaner materials in the future. “If people who are producing 3D printers and inks today, would think sustainably about materials now, in 50 years we could be on the right track,” Mr Hansen says. He points out that with 3D printing, once we stop using a product, it can be sent to the 3D printed material recycling plant and out will come the liquid that can be re-used to print the next item. But to actually get there, we need to act now. “If we do this in 20 years, it will be too late. People by then will have invested in the technology, the machines and in the direction of resource and development. They will be much less able to change.”
Investing in something positive
According to Mr Hansen, European industry should now be investing in innovation and moving towards a circular economy. It is the best way to secure Europe’s competitiveness on the global market. “We should be at the forefront of innovation and this applies also to the chemical sector. If a company has a line of chemistry that is predicted to be unsustainable, they have to invest in getting out of it. At the same time, they are actually investing in getting into something better,” Mr Hansen points out.
As soon as it is decided that contaminated materials will no longer be recycled, it immediately creates a market for innovation and replacements. Clear decisions and predictable, long-term actions give industry the stability that they need to be able to start planning alternatives. “Ideally, we should decide today if we want to ban something in 15 years, because then it will stimulate the markets,” he says and continues, “if we don’t address the problem, in 10 year's time, not only will we have the same problem, but we will also have contaminated a lot of very valuable, clean material with the hazardous chemical,” Mr Hansen states.
In the end, everything turns into waste
Mr Hansen reminds that for the time being, a circular economy is not going to solve the waste problem on its own, it is simply slowing down the time before a material becomes waste. We need to keep in mind that eventually, all material ends up as waste and cannot be recycled anymore.
“Hardly any material really maintains its full quality after multiple episodes of being recycled. So, we still need to make sure that we have sustainable waste management,” he emphasises. "It is important that we invest in prevention and make sure that every product is planned so that it contains clean material that, in the end, can be incinerated or otherwise safely disposed,” he concludes.
Interview by Päivi Jokiniemi
Top image: Bjørn Hansen, copyright: ECHA
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