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CIRCULAR ECONOMY HELD BACK BY HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS

15-03-2019
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Anne-Sofie Bäckar, ChemSec

A circular economy represents a golden opportunity to combine corporate sustainability with profits, but is obstructed by weak chemicals legislations in every part of the world. In many cases, the corporate world is ahead of legislation, and the notion that there is a contradiction between corporate profits and sustainability is becoming increasingly outdated.

This is the key message in a new publication, The Missing Piece – Chemicals in Circular Economy, from ChemSec – the International Chemical Secretariat, an independent non-profit organisation that advocates for substitution of toxic chemicals by safer alternatives.

“Toxic chemicals are very much overlooked in circular economy discussions, but they need to be addressed to make it truly sustainable,” says ChemSec Executive Director Anne-Sofie Bäckar. “Sadly, a large majority of policy makers either do not understand this, or simply don’t care.”

ChemSec’s publication discusses business opportunities in a circular economy, product planning and design, supply chain management, legal compliance, and reuse and recycling. It features five progressive companies – Apple (technology), H&M (fast-fashion clothing), Ikea (furniture and appliances), Coop Denmark (consumer goods) and recycling specialist Sarp Industries – and how they work with chemicals within their business models.

Apple recently announced its goal to one day make its products using only recycled or renewable resources, and has developed disassembly robots that can remove and sort components from up to 200 iPhones per hour, recovering materials that existing techniques such as shredding can’t, at a higher quality.

H&M is developing and implementing a positive list of chemicals to be considered right from the design phase, with the aim of designing garments using only those. Instead of focusing on what not to use, it now focuses on what it should use. The list is publicly available.

Ikea now has 64 per cent renewable and 8 per cent recycled materials in its entire product range, and its aim is to use only renewable or recycled materials by 2030. Its challenge is to find recycled materials from other sources of the right quality and not containing harmful chemicals.

Coop, a member-owned cooperative, applies a stricter approach to chemicals than Danish legislation calls for, and recently ran a petition campaign calling for stricter legislation. Its media activity, campaigning and presence in the public debate actually resemble that of an NGO at times.

On the other hand, Sarp is concerned about politically ambitious recycling goals being set with no concern for what is technically and economically feasible. Focusing on the quantity of materials being recycled and how to increase this, without looking quality of recycled products, just leads to bad practices and cutt¬ing corners.

These case studies illustrate how a growing number of manufacturers and retailers compensate for weak legislation by setting much higher standards of their own. Recently, this positive corporate movement has been on a collision course with legislation that allows for recycled materials with toxic contents.

“More and more companies are interested in recycled materials, but only if they are free from toxic chemicals,” says Bäckar. “Chemicals legislation therefore needs to be set up in a way that actually supports a toxic-free circular economy. That means picking up the pace, banning the use of obviously problematic substances and raising the requirements for chemical transparency in materials.”

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