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NGOs urge EU to end POPs exemptions for recycled plastics

Products - Electronic waste © Inga Nielsen - 123RF stock photo

The European Commission must withdraw recycling exemptions on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in order to close a "toxic loophole" in EU policy, NGOs have said.

Their recommendation comes in a report from a major study, which found the flame retardants PBDE and HBCD in plastic toys and other articles made from recycled electronic waste.

PBDEs are used in casings and wire insulation of old electronics and appliances and HBCD was used in polystyrene foams and plastics for electronics and cars.

The report, Toxic loophole, recycling hazardous waste into new products, was produced by the NGOs Arnika, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) and the International POPs Elimination Network (Ipen). They are urging MEPs to vote against exemptions for recycled plastics during a plenary meeting expected to start on 22 October.

Earlier this month NGOs called on the European Parliament’s Environment Committee (Envi) to vote against a draft report of proposed changes to the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) Regulation. MEPs subsequently voted in favour of the proposed amendments.

The NGOs have seven recommendations they say are essential to close the "toxic loophole". These are:

  • withdraw recycling exemptions for materials containing pentaBDE and octaBDE under the Stockholm Convention and EU POPs Regulation;
  • stop "undermining" the convention’s global elimination aims. The European Parliament should adopt a more protective standard of 10ppm for decaBDE content in articles made of recycled materials;
  • set protective limits on POPs waste under the Basel Convention and EU POPs Regulation. The EU should "take the initiative" to support lowering the currently proposed hazardous waste limit of 1,000ppm for PBDEs and for HBCD to the scientifically and environmentally sound limits. These would be 50ppm for PBDEs and 100ppm for HBCD in the Basel and Stockholm Conventions and the EU POPs Regulation;
  • under the Basel Convention provisions stop e-waste export from Europe to developing countries that lack regulatory and hazardous waste management infrastructure. E-waste must be "clearly designated" as hazardous;
  • streamline restrictions for POPs, avoid regrettable substitutes and speed up the REACH authorisation process. All halogenated flame retardants should be restricted under REACH to avoid regrettable substitution. No exemptions, derogations, or transitional periods for restrictions or authorisations should be given for recycled materials or spare parts containing POPs;
  • implement non-combustion technologies and separation techniques to remove toxic chemicals from waste. The EU should implement non-combustion techniques to destroy POPs and advocate their adoption in Stockholm and Basel Convention working groups; and
  • publish the non-toxic environment strategy "to guarantee a truly non-toxic circular economy" and benefits for health and environment. This should include a clear commitment to keep chemicals of concern out of products because of their harmful impacts on vulnerable populations.

Study findings

Between April and June this year, the three NGOs and 17 other European organisations tested 430 plastic items including toys, hair accessories, kitchen utensils and other consumer products. They were purchased from stores in 11 EU members states and eight other European countries.

Of the samples collected, 109 were identified as "likely" to contain flame retardants originating from recycled e-waste. More detailed chemical analysis revealed:

  • 50 samples (46%) would fail to meet the EU POPs Regulation if the product was composed of new rather than recycled plastic; and
  • the highest measured concentrations of PBDEs were found in children’s toys, followed by hair accessories and kitchen utensils.

"Consumers do not know that new products made of recycled plastics can contain hazardous chemicals that were already banned a long time ago," Manuel Fernández, from Bund – Friends of the Earth Germany, said.

"The EU should create maximum transparency and traceability of especially hazardous chemicals in products so that the downstream users, recyclers and consumers know what kind of dangerous chemicals might be in the products they intend to use and can opt for safer alternatives," he said.

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