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Toxic Chemicals in Recycled Plastic Electronics Threaten Circular Economy

Image Credit: World Atlas

A recent report by UK-based charity CHEMTrust has linked the recycling of plastic components of electrical and electronic products to dangerous human health risks, creating obstacles for the recycling industry and the widespread adoption of a circular economy.

Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) are largely to blame. The chemicals are commonly found in furniture and building materials and are increasingly popping up in electronics as metal components are replaced by plastic. Both acute and chronic exposure to BFRs with developmental neurotoxic (DNT) properties, such as those in the polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) group, can lead to such health problems as lower mental, psychomotor and physical development and IQ, as well as decreased fine motor coordination and cognition, poor working memory and decreased processing speed.

BFRs are already banned or nearly banned in the European Union, yet their presence persists. Not only are BFRs increasingly found in dust, but they often appear in products imported from countries such as China, where e-waste is on the rise and recycling regulations and policies are less stringent. Plastics recovered from electronics contain PBDEs, but often they are not disposed of properly and find their way into children’s toys, as pointed out by Joseph DiGangi and Jitka Strakova in their 2015 Toxic Toy or Toxic Waste: Recycling POPs Into New Products report.

“The brain development of future generations is at stake,” said Dr. Michael Warhurst, director of CHEMTrust. “We need EU regulators to phase out groups of chemicals of concern, rather than slowly restricting one chemical at a time. We cannot continue to gamble with our children’s health.”

The EU is slowly but surely restricting the use of DNT chemicals and plastics containing persistent organic chemicals (POPs) can efficiently and safely be incinerated, yet a lack of transparency and communication along the product lifecycle often leads to improper handling at the end-of-life stage. Additionally, imported products may contain dangerous substances, having been recycled outside of the EU.

While non-action is not an option, the introduction of stricter regulations poses a number of difficulties for businesses. It is likely that costs will rise for companies who use recycling as a means to generate additional revenue, as well as for those who rely on recycled plastic materials to manufacture new products.

“Whereas steel is just steel, plastic is not just plastic,” Philip Morton, former CEO of UK e-waste producer compliance scheme Repic told The Guardian. “There are a number of different grades and additives that should be on everyone’s radar. More things will soon start appearing on the ‘POP list’ and that has the potential to become very difficult [for industry].”

“Going forward, there will have to be stronger connections between manufacturing and the designers of their products as it’s a closed loop and producers putting these products on the market will ultimately pay for recycling at the end of a product’s life.”

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