RIVM proposes the consideration of a broader environmental perspective in the trade-off between incineration and recycling of plastics. Plastics with dangerous substances in them are now mostly incinerated. In many cases these plastics can be recycled or re-used in such a manner that humans and the environment are not exposed to these dangerous substances. An English version of this report has become available to facilitate international developments.

In order to make responsible recycling possible, it is recommended to investigate how waste-processing and risk management for dangerous substances can be combined in conjunction with various stakeholders.

In order to contribute to a circular economy, reduction of the amount of raw ingredients used and the re-use of materials in new products is encouraged as much as possible. In the case of a broader perspective, the fact that less energy is required to make plastics from a recycled product, and as a result less CO2 is released, should be taken into account. At the same time, it must be guaranteed that humans and the environment are not exposed to dangerous substances from recycled materials.

Re-use as much as possible

The RIVM report outlines the current waste-processing procedures, the technical background of recycling of plastic materials and the complicated legislation around recycling. The dilemmas are elaborated in different case studies: the flame retardant HBCDD in in expanded polystyrene (EPS) and plasticisers, cadmium and lead in plastic tubes (PVC).

New technologies have made it possible to extract substances from plastics, for example the persistent organic fire retardant HBCDD in expanded polystyrene. Likewise, polymers with dangerous substances can be re-used in a way that does not cause harm to humans and the environment. In this way, PVC, in which in the past cadmium was used, is re-used in tubes in a place where this recycled PVC does not come into direct contact with humans and the environment. In addition, this material is labelled to ensure that it can be processed separately during the waste phase.

Better alignment of the legal frameworks for the approval and waste-processing of substances of materials to be recycled is recommended. Hence it is advisable to examine the lifecycle of the material as a whole when making a decision concerning recycling or removal.