Flame retardants: ready to contribute towards the sustainability of products - Let's talk bromine
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Flame retardants: ready to contribute towards the sustainability of products


In a bid to pave the way towards a cleaner and more competitive Europe, the European Commission is currently working on its Sustainable Product Initiative. The legislation will widen the scope of the Ecodesign directive beyond energy-related products and will apply to both EU producers and importers. 

The initiative will represent a full revamp of how the EU regulates products, both goods and services, from design to end-of-life and will have a substantial impact across different value chains. These include electronics, ICT, textiles, furniture and high-impact intermediary products such as steel, cement and chemicals. 

Flame retardants are critical to ensure that products meet the necessary fire safety requirements. These substances delay or prevent the ignition of fire in electronics, textiles, furniture and buildings..  There is no evidence that flame retardants have a negative impact on product sustainability and circularity. On the contrary, recent study conducted by Sofies Sustainability consultants demonstrated that Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) do not hinder the yield from plastics recycling. 

Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) containing BFRs are not hindering recycling  

Over the past 10 years, WEEE recyclers have developed their recycling facilities to efficiently handle brominated-plastics waste streams. The SOFIES study showed that BFRs do not hinder the yield from plastics recycling. In fact, 98% of BFR plastics collected can currently be separated and disposed of through official WEEE recycling channels. 

The recycling of plastics from electronic and electrical equipment is part of the complexity of WEEE waste and WEEE plastics in particular involving multiple variables – WEEE collection systems, overall additive loadings (elastomers, all types of flame retardants, fillers), a multiplicity of polymer types. 

While all plastics containing additives are screened out and disposed of via incineration and co-processing in cement kilns in the EU, the effective recycling rate of WEEE plastics in the EU is still a reasonable 55% of all WEEE plastics. Plastics containing Brominated Flame Retardants, though currently all sorted out and disposed of, have been demonstrated to retain their mechanical and fire performance qualities far better than alternative flame retardants. As the levels of legacy BFRs are now substantially declining (from 40% of WEEE plastics in 2010 to 15% in 2018), there is scope to potentially recover more plastics containing BFRs which are not restricted. This will depend though on a revision of the WEEE CEN standards.  

For the bulk of the non-recycled fraction of WEEE plastics (currently estimated by SOFIES at 45%) it may be more useful in the medium term to look at chemical recycling or dissolution processes to extract more value from  waste material. I would add here the example of PS loop using dissolution technologies! 

Brominated Flame Retardants – Critical for Fire Safety and Product Sustainability 

As the European Commission acknowledges, both in its Circular Economy Action Plan and in its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, a circular economy can only be achieved if products and chemicals are safe and sustainable by design. 

Over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts can be managed  during the design phase of a product. The use of Brominated Flame Retardants certainly contributes to a product’s environmental safety and sustainability throughout its entire lifecycle. BFRs in electrical and electronic products, textiles and furniture fabrics, as well as in construction products, contribute to their overall safety (reduced propensity of material for ignition). This is not only a contribution to saving lives, but also to saving resources throughout the use-phase of products by ensuring their durability. 

At their end-of-life, plastic products containing Brominated Flame Retardants can undergo several waste management treatment options depending on the amount and composition of the plastics waste stream as well as on local conditions. Similarly, durable textiles and furniture fabrics can be safely reused and recycled. 

Bio-based BFRs for a sustainable future 

Finally, it is worth mentioning that BFRs can be part of a more environmentally sustainable and safe future. As Dr. Horrocks emphasized in a previous Meet the Experts interview, we can rethink the design of brominated flame retardant substances based on the structure of naturally occurring brominated organic compounds. 

Watch our interview with Dr. Horrocks: 

There has been growing concern about human exposures to bromine but in fact “bromine is one of the elements essential for life”, as Dr. Horrocks said. According to Dr. Horrocksorganohalogens can be produced naturally by living organismsIn natural environments, these compounds are key for defence mechanisms, repellents, natural pesticides, and territorial markers.  

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