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Chemicals must take 'centre stage' in circular economy discussions

People - Joanna Drake, European Commission - Credit HCF

It is time chemicals took centre stage in discussions on the development of a circular economy, according to Joanna Drake, deputy director general of the European Commission's environment directorate.

Speaking on the final day of last week's Helsinki Chemicals Forum, Ms Drake said circular economy discussions must focus on secondary raw materials, not just primary products.

But this, she said, would require improvements in tracking the presence of hazardous substances in the recycling stream. Something that is proving a "challenge".

Last year, the European Commission said its circular economy action plan included measures to "overcome unnecessary barriers" presented by hazardous chemicals, without compromising health and environmental protection.

According to Ms Drake, one of the Commission's actions is to prepare a strategic approach to chemicals. This will decide the "right course of action to facilitate traceability and the risk management of chemicals in the recycling process."

In a keynote speech, that followed Ms Drake's, Echa’s executive director Geert Dancet agreed that chemicals of concern must not create a barrier to achieving a circular economy.

He said a "fundamental review" of REACH Article 33 should be carried out under the European Commission's circular economy work. This is the legal requirement for companies to provide consumers with information on substances in articles.

In a statement to Chemical Watch, Mr Dancet said that by companies systemically reporting any significant volumes of substances of very high concern (SVHCs) in specific articles or parts of articles, Echa would, for instance, be able to communicate this information to recyclers.

"Recyclers could then eliminate these chemicals from the recycled materials or eventually not recycle articles containing SVHCs," he added.

This would "boost the drive towards a non-toxic environment".

Legislative challenges

More broadly, Ms Drake discussed how the circular economy presents legislative issues on chemicals of concern: "How do we remove these from the circle? Under REACH we are aiming to phase out hazardous substances as much as possible. But these substances may continue to appear in the recycling stream via the many products that were produced before REACH took effect."

She also raised concerns over imported articles: "REACH enables us to phase out substances of concern, but it does not apply equally to imported articles, as EU produced articles." But this, she said, is being addressed through further and improved implementation of REACH.

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