E&H scientists study hazardous chemicals in plastic waste streams and products

Dutch plastic waste streams contaminated with banned toxic chemicals was the topic of a recent E&H study. The research published in Environment International shows that plastic waste streams in the Netherlands are contaminated with persistent organic pollutants. The study signifies the regulatory balancing act needed to both protect human health and promote resource efficiency.

The work focused on brominated flame retardants of the class “brominated diphenyl ethers’ (BDEs), which are Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP-BDEs) because they are toxic, accumulate in living organisms, and take years to decompose. In 2009, POP-BDEs were added to the list of POPs under the Stockholm Convention, with the goal of eliminating and cleaning up stockpiles of these chemicals and working towards a POPs-free future.

However, this unique study revealed that 22% of all the banned POP-BDEs in Dutch electronic waste ends up in recycled plastics. 33% of all the banned POP-BDE in Dutch automotive plastic waste finds its way back into recycled plastic, or is still in plastic items destined for reuse. In this way, over 7 tonnes of these banned chemicals are recirculated annually in the Netherlands.


“Our findings revealed that large amounts of banned POPs are still present in our plastic waste and sometimes in new products including toys. It is a complicated regulatory challenge to manage toxic chemicals after they enter waste streams and secondary raw materials,” says Dr. Heather Leslie, the VU researcher leading this study.

Should banned chemicals be recycled with the plastic materials according to the European waste hierarchy and to meet resource efficiency goals, or eliminated to meet the goals of a POPs-free future and consumer safety? Both official POPs and other, lesser known but still potentially toxic, bioaccumulative and persistent substances can show up in newly manufactured plastic products. “Our study also makes clear that more manufacturers need to start designing products that do not poison their customers and the environment,” Leslie says. “It’s a pity these chemicals were banned only after decades on the market, after production volumes reached well over a million tonnes, and after global product lines, the environment, our food chains and blood streams were already contaminated.”

The fate of plastic waste streams containing POPs is a problem that is being hotly debated in Europe and among signatory nations of the Stockholm Convention on POPs. The data from this VU-IVAM study illustrate the importance of toxic-free manufacturing for safe reuse of products and a ‘waste-to-resource’ approach to recycling of materials, which are essential requirements for a circular economy.

Contact: heather.leslie@vu.nl

Leslie HA, PEG Leonards, SHBrandsma, J de Boer, N Jonkers. 2016. Propelling plastics into the circular economy - weeding out the toxics first.Environment International 94, 230–234.