Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in Plastics: Impact on WEEE Recycling
POPs are a group of organic chemical substances which, due to their specific physical and chemical properties, are able to persist in the environment for long periods of time. Once released into the environment they have the ability to bio-magnify and bio-accumulate in ecosystems and have significant negative environmental and human health impacts.
POPs are regulated by the Stockholm Convention adopted in 2001 and brought into force in 2004. The Stockholm Convention requires its parties (currently 181 nation states and the EU) to put measures in place to eliminate or reduce the release of POPs into the environment.
How does this link to WEEE recycling?
The flame retardants previously used in the manufacture of WEEE plastics are now identified as POPs, the most common being brominated flame retardants. Whilst these substances were legitimately added to plastics at the point of manufacture, they are now prohibited under the Stockholm Convention which places guidelines on the disposal of waste containing POPs. Waste containing POPs above a certain threshold is required to be disposed of in such a way that the POP is ‘destroyed or irreversibly transformed’ and the negative environmental impact is therefore removed. This means that WEEE plastics containing POPs cannot be treated in the same way as WEEE plastics which do not contain POPs.
A recent study by the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) which tested samples of plastics from the different WEEE streams found that POPs were present at levels higher than the permitted limit across multiple WEEE streams. Display equipment and small mixed WEEE showed high POPs levels across the whole item, whilst in fridges and large domestic appliances, POPs were contained within smaller components.
What is the potential impact of these findings?
It is likely that all plastics containing POPs will be considered hazardous and will, going forwards, need to be treated in line with the Stockholm Convention guidelines. The UK does not currently have the infrastructure or capacity to treat POPs plastics through the required methods of destruction such as high-temperature incineration or the use of cement kilns. It is, however, possible to export plastics containing POPs but only to OECD countries and only if the destruction of POPs forms part of the treatment operation.
This all has the potential to result in increased treatment costs, particularly for small mixed WEEE and display equipment. This, in turn, could then have a knock-on effect on the cost of WEEE evidence, required to demonstrate compliance under the WEEE Regulations.
The Environment Agency and DEFRA are currently consulting with approved treatment facilities, plastics reprocessors and compliance schemes to outline the expected changes to the legal requirements for WEEE treatment in the UK in light of the presence of POPs in WEEE plastics.