Circular economy

The ‘circular economy’ is about an alternative and regenerative way of manufacturing and using products. Unlike the traditional linear economy, toxic chemicals are eliminated from materials streams, it’s powered by renewable energy and the value of the products and material streams is maintained in long lasting cycles. This powerful idea is congruent with the European Waste Hierarchy. Growing recognition of an economic and environmental imperative of developing a sustainable, low carbon, toxic-free, resource efficient and competitive circular economy has led to the EU Action Plan for a Circular Economy and numerous initiatives worldwide by both public and private actors. 

E&H investigates aspects important to the circular economy such as the issue of toxic chemicals in products and materials streams. The aim of ‘keeping toxics out’ keeps the options open for safe and healthy reuse of products as well as recycling of secondary materials into new products. One of the hot issues nowadays is what to do with a recyclable waste product that is contaminated with legacy toxic chemicals – incinerate the contaminated product or allow the materials to be recycled into new products and launched back into the economy, the environment and potentially also human bodies? Another key role E&H plays is to inform design about alternatives for the materials and chemical additives that generate risks for public health and the environment. E&H researchers collaborate with international partners in science, civil society, design, industry and government and others, contributing to the information flow that will enable a transition to a circular economy. In this way E&H is supporting the development of materials products for new markets of next generation materials. E&H also supports circular economic and chemicals management policy at national, EU and international levels. 

E&H’s research focus related to the circular economy: 

  • developing and applying powerful methodologies to measure and identify emerging and legacy chemical additives in plastic products and waste stream and recycling material flows 
  • seeking safer substitute chemicals 
  • understanding toxicity of plastics and chemical additives to humans and ecosystems 
  • analysis of microplastics and other contaminants in wastewater treatment plants and sewage sludge that is often made into biosolids for fertilizer. 
  • collaborating in design teams to design out toxic chemicals from products • case studies e.g. the ‘circularity’ of pulverized end-of-life automobile tires 
  • analysis and policy advice to public sector (e.g. European Parliament, G20) 

Selected publications


Leslie HA, PEG Leonards, SH Brandsma, J de Boer, N Jonkers (2016) Propelling plastics into the circular economy — weeding out the toxics first. Environ Internat 94, 230-234.

Ten Brink P, JP Schweitzer, E Watkins, M de Smet, HA Leslie, F Galgani (2017) T20 Task Force Circular Economy: Circular economy measures to keep plastics and their value in the economy, avoid waste and reduce marine litter G20 Insights

Ballesteros-Gómez A, SH Brandsma, J de Boer, PEG Leonards (2014) Analysis of two alternative organophosphorus flame retardants in electronic and plastic consumer products: Resorcinol bis-(diphenylphosphate) (PBDPP) and bisphenol A bis (diphenylphosphate) (BPA-BDPP). Chemosphere 116, 10-14.

Related Projects


Plastic waste streams     CLEANSEA    ENFIRO

T20 Taskforce     Hazardous chemicals in plastic packaging