Plastics and Flame Retardants: Balancing Safety and Sustainability

Within the realm of plastics, there is a delicate – often underdiscussed – interplay between fire safety and environmental impact. This Think Piece by Adrien Specker explores innovative approaches and proactive strategies shaping a more sustainable future for flame retardants in plastics.

Plastics, once hailed as revolutionary materials for their versatility and convenience, are increasingly investigated because of the environmental and health impacts they cause. One of the main drawbacks of this material, however, is its flammability. The carbon-based nature of the material makes it particularly prone to burning, releasing gases and smoke when subjected to a flame. In many cases where plastics are used, this flammable property can represent a big risk. This led to the need to incorporate flame-retardant chemicals in some plastics to reduce their ignitability and thus the risk of fire. Conventionally, flame retardants are not added to all plastics but are concentrated on plastics which are heated or close to an ignition source (e.g. electronics and electrical devices, wires, automotive, furnishing, etc.). From a resource perspective, it is necessary to question whether the addition of chemicals can negatively affect and alter the recycling of plastics, leading to a degradation of this resource rather than enhancing circularity.

The dual challenge

Although crucial for fire safety, concerns have arisen regarding the environmental persistence and potential health effects of flame retardants. Some flame retardants, which have been used frequently in the past, are considered persistent organic pollutants (POPs), meaning they are resistant to degradation through chemical, biological and photolytic processes and can therefore accumulate and magnify in living organisms through the food chain, giving them this “persistency” property.

This problem is not new and already in 1995, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted the urgent need to take action against the spread of POPs in our environment. Following this, the Stockholm Convention, which lists POP chemicals including flame retardants, was completed in 2001 and entered into force in 2004. The Convention is ratified by all countries except for the United States of America, Israel, and Malaysia. The Convention includes a set of requirements such as providing measures to eliminate, manage and dispose of POP containing wastes in an environmentally sound manner. Some of the flame retardants listed in the Convention contain brominated (e.g. polybrominated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, hexabromobiphenyl and hexabromocyclododecane) and chlorinated (e.g. hexachlorobutadiene, chlordecone, etc.) components.

This challenge between safety and sustainability requires strategic thinking on how to proceed with keeping the advantages of such chemicals while removing any risk of contaminating the environment once the plastics reach their end-of-life.

A holistic approach

Innovations holds promise as a means to address this dual challenge. Researchers and industry stakeholders are exploring alternative flame-retardant technologies that offer comparable fire safety performance while minimizing environmental and health risks. One unconventional yet promising innovation lies in exploring biobased alternative flame retardants as eco-friendly solutions for improving fire safety in plastic materials. These flame retardants, derived from renewable sources such as biomass waste and natural compounds like phytic acid, tannic acid, chitin, eggshells, rice husk, and oyster shell powder, offer a sustainable approach to reducing environmental impact. By utilizing these natural materials, the development of biobased flame retardants aims to enhance fire performance while promoting recycling and biodegradability. Incorporating these alternatives in plastics represents a shift towards more sustainable practices and environmental responsibility in fire safety measures.

While awaiting the development of those innovative solutions on a larger scale, end-of-life management for products containing hazardous chemicals is a critical aspect of sustainable chemical substitution practices. It is essential to ensure that these products are disposed of properly to prevent environmental contamination and potential health risks. In regions where there is limited capacity for handling hazardous waste, such as in developing countries, it becomes the responsibility of producers and importers to manage the end-of-life phase of these products.

One approach is for producers to either export these products to countries with the necessary facilities for safe disposal or to take the initiative to establish such facilities within the local region. This proactive management strategy is crucial in preventing hazardous chemicals from being improperly disposed of in landfills or dumpsites, which could have long-lasting detrimental effects on the environment.

By implementing effective end-of-life management practices, such as responsible disposal, recycling, and treatment of products containing hazardous chemicals, the goal is to minimize the potential for these substances to enter the environment and pose risks to ecosystems and human health as well as to prevent the chemicals from entering the plastic recycling chain and degrading the quality of this resource on the long run. This comprehensive approach to managing hazardous chemicals throughout their life cycle is fundamental in promoting sustainable and responsible chemical use practices.

Implementing solutions in Côte d’Ivoire

The World Resources Forum is directly involved in the implementation of effective end-of-life management practices in Côte d’Ivoire. This project, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by the Unites Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), aims to establish a system for the ecologically sound management of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) and the final disposal of end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) and electronic waste (e-waste) contaminated with brominated flame retardants. The project’s main components include 1) revising legal frameworks, 2) enhancing technical capacities, and 3) establishing a sustainable recycling enterprise to manage POP-contaminated plastics effectively. This also includes training and capacity building of the main stakeholders of the recycling value chain in the country.

This project holds significant importance for the country’s plastic waste management, as its long-term goal is to prevent the emission of 13 metric tonnes of POP-PBDE and the open burning of 130 tonnes of plastics in Côte d’Ivoire. Additionally, this ensures the plastic recycling chain offers high-quality recycled plastic, free of problematic chemicals. Such measures are crucial for mitigating environmental impacts of plastics.

The need for a strict regulatory framework

In the European Union’s regulatory strategy concerning flame retardants, recommendations have been proposed to phase out or restrict substances recognized for their potential risks to human health and the environment, including reproductive toxicants and neurotoxicants. The strategy underscores the significance of minimizing the mobility of flame retardants in materials and implementing robust waste management systems. Furthermore, there is a call for additional data generation to accurately assess the hazards of specific substances and to consider initiating restrictions based on existing data supporting regulatory action. These recommendations aim to ensure the safe use of flame retardants while upholding human health and environmental protection standards within the European Union’s regulatory framework.

An integrated solution to overcome the challenge

The discourse on flame retardants in plastics reflects a delicate balance between ensuring fire safety and addressing environmental and health concerns. While flame retardants play a crucial role in mitigating fire risks, their persistent organic pollutants (POPs) nature raises apprehensions regarding long-term environmental impact and human health consequences. Embracing innovative solutions such as biobased flame retardants derived from renewable sources offers a promising avenue towards enhancing fire safety while promoting sustainability.

Additionally, for existing contaminated plastics, effective end-of-life management practices are essential to prevent hazardous chemicals from contaminating the environment and posing risks to ecosystems and human health. Furthermore, stringent regulatory frameworks, as proposed by the European Union, are crucial for ensuring the safe use of flame retardants while upholding human health and environmental protection standards. By taking a comprehensive approach that includes innovation, responsible management practices, and regulatory measures, a future where plastics are both safe and sustainable can be achieved.


Adrien Specker

Project Officer, World Resources Forum