12 October 2020
Circular is the new magic word. In 2020 it is all about achieving a circular economy in which as little waste as possible is generated. Recycling plays a crucial role in this. But the problem is that a safe circular plastics economy is an illusion as long as it is impossible to remove the toxic additives present in plastic. And that, unfortunately, is the current situation: unwanted chemicals cannot be filtered by existing recycling techniques and end up in new products made from recycled materials.
This is the conclusion of an alliance of authoritative institutions, including three UN organizations and IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network), in the report Plastic’s Toxic Additives and the Circular Economy.
The report makes it clear that current international regulations are not sufficient to protect people and the environment from these chemicals. Drastic action will have to be taken on many levels.
TREATY OF STOCKHOLM
The Stockholm Convention restricts the use of so-called persistent organic pollutants (POPs). There is a list of prohibited substances. But this list turns out to be entirely insufficient. Chemical companies can circumvent a ban by applying a related substance that is not on the list but is potentially just as dangerous. The report, therefore, advocates excluding entire substance groups (from additives).
The implementing body of the Stockholm Convention, signed by more than 180 countries, is one of the compilers of the report. A second recommendation is full transparency of the added chemicals. It is challenging to determine additives in a new plastic product. It is impossible to do so with recycled products as it’s unknown how the mixed chemicals react with each other.
TREATY OF BASEL
The Basel Convention deals with the control of transboundary trade in toxic and hazardous substances and hazardous waste. An important step has already been taken by including the transport of mixed and contaminated plastic waste in this treaty. Importing countries can now ban these shipments and countries must (start) recycling their waste.
This has resulted in a surplus of plastic waste in the former exporting (Western) countries. New products are made of some of it, but no one can do anything with a large amount of the rest (the ‘mix’). This leftover waste is incinerated, dumped or exported, sometimes illegally.
The report proposes apparent solutions. For example, it argues in favour of separate collection, where clean streams of plastic are created, of which the recycler are aware of the kind of chemicals that are used.
The industry should also avoid the use of problematic chemical additives and invest in safe alternatives. The industry should take responsibility for the materials they now produce, set new safe standards and provide full transparency. New products should not be problematic for waste disposal.
MAN AND ENVIRONMENT COMPLETELY UNPROTECTED
Unfortunately, this is now the case. Fortunately, the UN organizations, as mentioned above, are sounding the alarm and admit that they are not yet able to protect people and the environment from hazardous substances. But the critical question is to what extent countries that are treaty partners, but also the home countries of the chemical industry and plastic producers, are prepared to tighten up the rules? Then there are the countries that have signed the treaties but have not ratified them. These are the United States, the Russian Federation for the Stockholm Convention and the United States for the Basel Convention. They will ignore or otherwise obstruct new rules.
Unless the rest of the world makes a fist. And it’s about time!
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