Industry launches legal challenge to EU flame retardant ban

An industry group has launched a legal challenge to European ecodesign rules banning the use of halogenated flame retardants in televisions and monitors, drawing criticism as the EU executive promised tougher regulation in a new circular economy action plan.

The restriction – part of a package of rules on the design of household appliances adopted by the European Commission last September and effective from March 2021 – is the first time the European Commission has restricted an entire class of chemicals under the 2009 Ecodesign Directive.

An industry platform called the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (BSEF), which had earlier described the ban as “arbitrary and discriminatory”, announced on Monday it had lodged a case against the European Commission at the European Court of Justice.

The trade association – affiliated to chemicals industry group Cefic – argues that the commission “exceeded the limits of its competence, under the EU Ecodesign Directive... by imposing restrictions on an entire class of substances” that are also controlled through other EU legislation.

BSEF secretary general Kevin Bradley argued that such flame retardants were “critical tools” to ensure product safety. “Halogenated flame retardants are among the best performing chemistries for electronics and eliminating their use... does not represent sound public policy,” he said.

The chemical industry has been fighting European efforts to tighten regulation of flame retardants for at least two decades, but the latest move has attracted particular criticism as it coincides with the launch of a new EU circular economy strategy.

“The ban was introduced to facilitate recycling,” said Mélissa Zill of ECOS, which advocates effective eco-standards for products. “If the biggest plastic parts of all displays put on the European market do not contain flame retardants then this plastic can potentially be recycled.”

“Challenging this regulation on the same week as the release of the circular economy action plan sends a very wrong signal,” Zill told ENDS.

Jamie Page of the UK-based Cancer Prevention and Education Society told ENDS that a range of brominated and chlorinated flame retardants remain in use, often replacing a class of persistent organic pollutant known as PBDEs that were recently subject to stricter control in the EU.

“Because of the sheer number of flame retardant chemicals which freely replaced the PBDEs there is significant merit in a ‘class’ approach to them rather than handling them one by one, often taking many years to restrict or ban a single chemical,” Page told ENDS.

“Many halogenated flame retardants are under evaluation under REACH, and there is a large and ever increasing scientific literature documenting in vitro and in vivo effects, as well as possible human impacts, for example on reproduction,” Page said.

Such chemicals are often persistent and bioaccumulative, and have been found in the wider environment as far away as the Arctic, in birds and in sea mammals such as dolphins and whales, he noted.

Stephane Arditi, a circular economy specialist at the European Environmental Bureau, argued that the EU needs to rethink its current approach to regulation, whereby substances are typically restricted on a one-by-one basis favoured by the chemicals industry.

“We simply cannot move to a circular economy without detoxifying material streams,” Arditi said.

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