Propelling plastics into the circular economy - weeding out the toxics first

H.A. Leslie, P.E.G. Leonards, S.H. Brandsma, J. de Boer, N. Jonkers

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The Stockholm Convention bans toxic chemicals on its persistent organic pollutants (POPs) list in order to promote cleaner production and prevent POPs accumulation in the global environment. The original 'dirty dozen' set of POPs has been expanded to include some of the brominated diphenyl ether flame retardants (POP-BDEs). In addition to cleaner production, there is an urgent need for increased resource efficiency to address the finite amount of raw materials on Earth. Recycling plastic enhances resource efficiency and is part of the circular economy approach, but how clean are the materials we are recycling? With the help of a new screening method and detailed analyses, we set out to investigate where these largely obsolete BDEs were showing up in Dutch automotive and electronics waste streams, calculate mass flows and determine to what extent they are entering the new product chains. Our study revealed that banned BDEs and other toxic flame retardants are found at high concentrations in certain plastic materials destined for recycling markets. They were also found in a variety of new consumer products, including children's toys. A mass flow analysis showed that 22% of all the POP-BDE in waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is expected to end up in recycled plastics because these toxic, bioaccumulative and persistent substances are currently not effectively separated out of plastic waste streams. In the automotive sector, this is 14%, while an additional 19% is expected to end up in second-hand parts (reuse). These results raise the issue of delicate trade-offs between consumer safety/cleaner production and resource efficiency. As petroleum intensive materials, plastic products ought to be repaired, reused, remanufactured and recycled, making good use of the 'inner circles' of the circular economy. Keeping hazardous substances - whether they are well known POPs or emerging contaminants - out of products and plastic waste streams could make these cycles work better for businesses, people and nature.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)230-234
JournalEnvironment International
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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