Chemicals management must be a higher priority on the corporate agenda and cannot be the responsibility of a supporting department that has a weak mandate within an organisation, says a report by NGO ChemSec.
The report, The missing piece: chemicals in the circular economy, says that chemical issues can be prioritised at different levels, depending on company goals. But to achieve a circular economy that creates clean, usable secondary materials, chemicals must be a top consideration.
“At the lowest, so-called reactive level, you simply follow regulations and adapt on the fly. By contrast, at the highest and most ambitious level, you actively seek out green chemistry and sustainable materials that position the organisation for the circular economy,” it says.
This kind of work, it adds, means that you are working with a positive selection of chemicals. “Simply replacing an undesirable chemical with another that is not yet regulated, is of similar quality or poorly investigated, is not enough.”
It says that with basic recycling the focus of the circular economy, little attention is paid to the contents of old products that are turned into new ones.
“The truth is that today’s chemicals legislation is not adapted for a sustainable circular economy, as many hazardous chemicals are unregulated and in widespread use.”
These chemicals, it says, fulfil thousands of different functions in all kinds of everyday household items all around us.
“As these items are the very same we recycle and turn into new products in a circular world, it also means we are recycling their toxic contents.”
Luckily, a growing number of brands and retailers are realising that legal compliance is neither a good benchmark for corporate chemicals management, nor for a circular economy.
In order to account for weak legislation and stay away from toxic chemicals in products and supply chains, many companies have internal chemical requirements that go beyond legal compliance, it says.
The report interviews companies on their efforts to phase out hazardous substances, introduce safer chemistry into their designs and enable recycling of old products.
Apple, for example, pays customers to bring back their old phones, which are then used to make new ones. It created the original phone and knows it fulfils Apple’s chemical requirements.
H&M meanwhile has initiated a process of developing and implementing a positive list that will make it possible for the company to consider chemicals right from the design phase. The aim is to design a garment with only preferred chemicals from this list. “This method is not fully implemented yet, but we are getting there,” the company says.
Ikea is exploring how to track legacy chemicals. One of its commitments is to join forces with others to develop new solutions for dealing with chemicals during reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling. It also calls for legislators to enable transparency and availability of recycled materials by setting up a harmonised, cross-border legislative framework.
By Leigh Stringer
Source: Chemical Watch
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