Chemicals and the Circular Economy: What’s the problem?

Whether it’s through reusing, recycling, or repairing our everyday items, initiatives to increase circularity and sustainability are on the rise. But could the chemicals used in our everyday goods be set to undo all our well-intended progress? Our new review assesses the latest evidence on chemicals of concern in a circular economy.

The Importance of Circular Economy 

A circular economy aspires to make products last as long as possible, maximising their value and minimising waste. It describes the pursuit of intelligent product design that prioritises longevity, simplifies dismantle and repair processes, and helps retain the highest value of raw materials ready for reuse or recycling; all of which contributes to our principal goal of building a more sustainable future.

Research has demonstrated how embracing a circular economy could help propel the UK towards multiple sustainability targets. Improved resource efficiency would offer major contributions towards achieving the UK’s Net Zero goals, support waste management targets set across the devolved nations, and work towards the UK’s commitments to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets (1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6). It could also offer the UK increased economic security. As a net importer, the UK relies heavily on the stability of numerous complex supply chains. By producing goods of greater value for less, the UK economy can lower production costs and increase supply-chain resilience, all whilst encouraging businesses to evolve and diversify (7). However, as the UK makes steady progress towards this bright and circular ideal, a significant barrier remains overlooked, effective chemical management.

Managing Chemicals in a Circular Economy

Short-comings of present-day chemical management strategies has meant that chemicals have often been brought to market with incomplete safety information, risking public and environmental exposure to potentially harmful substances (8). When considering a circular economy, such risks are amplified as chemicals are likely to remain in circulation for longer. By some estimates, there is no data on the environmental impacts of up to 95-98% of chemicals currently on the global market (9). These figures demonstrate the focus of current management on a chemical’s primary use and a significant knowledge gap on their fates beyond this point, much less the additional complexities to be encountered within a circular economy. The impacts of such oversights are beginning to show. Bisphenol-A (BPA), a substance classified as being toxic to reproduction and a recognised Endocrine Disrupting Chemical (EDC), has been found in multiple products made from recycled materials, including napkins and toilet paper (10; 11). Per- or Poly-fluorinated Alkyl Substances (PFAS), also recognised for their connection with numerous health and environmental concerns and currently facing a plethora of restrictions across the globe, have been found in paper and cardboard food packaging labelled suitable for recycling or composting in the UK (12; 13; 14). There are then multiple cases of brominated flame retardants being found in products made from recycled plastics, including decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE), a chemical now listed as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) and restricted under Annex A of the Stockholm Convention, being detected in plastic kitchen utensils (15; 16; 17; 18).

Evidence Review

In a new Evidence Review, we provide an in-depth assessment of current chemical management practises and their potential impact on a circular economy, focusing on chemical flame retardants in mattress recycling as a case study. Current UK fire safety regulations have resulted in large quantities of chemical flame retardants being used in mattresses and other upholstered furniture items (19). Without means of traceability, these chemicals risk contaminating waste and recycling streams, and undermining environmental and public health protection. With plans to increase bulky waste recycling across the UK, mattress recycling provides an effective case study to demonstrate opportunities for improved chemical management in a circular economy (2).

Following the review’s findings, we will be continuing to work with stakeholders from across the mattress supply chain towards further discussions and development of viable solutions. If you are a mattress manufacturer, retailer or recycler and would like to be involved, contact the Fidra team via:

Find links to our full Evidence Review and summary document below. For updates on the next blog in this three-part series, follow us on Twitter.


Evidence Review

Evidence Review Summary



1. Accelerating the Transition to a Circular Economy for Net-Zero Emissions by 2050: A Systematic Review. Khalifa, Ahmed A., Abdul-Jalil Ibrahim, Abdulkarem I. Amhamed, and Muftah H. El-Naas, 2022. Sustainability.

2.  Our Waste, Our Strategy: a Strategy for England. Defra, 2018.

3. Making Things Last: A Circular Economy Strategy for Scotland. Scottish Government, 2016. Scottish Government.

4. Beyond Recycling – A strategy to make the circular. Welsh Government, 2021.

5. Work begins on new DAERA Waste Management Strategy. Northern Ireland Executive, 2022. [Online] Available at:

6. Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 and the Aichi Targets. Convention on Biological Diversity.

7. Closing the loop – Time to crack on with resource effeciency. Aldersgate Group, 2021.

8. REACH Compliance Workshop at the BfR. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, 2018.

9. Screening for PBT chemicals among the “existing” and “new” chemicals of the EU. Strempel, Sebastian, Martin Scheringer, Carla A. Ng, and Konrad Hungerbühler, 2012. Environmental Science and Technology.

10. Substance Infocard – 4,4′-isopropylidenediphenol. ECHA, 2022. [Online] Available at:

11. Widespread Occurrence of Bisphenol A in Paper and Paper Products: Implications for Human Exposure. Kannan, Chunyang Liao and Kurunthachalam, 2011. Environmental Science and Technology.

12. What are PFAS? PFASfree, 2023. [Online] Available at:

13. Regulations. PFASfree, 2023. [Online] Available at:

14. Forever chemicals in the food aisle: PFAS content of UK supermarket and takeaway food packaging. Dinsmore, K., 2020.

15. Brominated flame retardants in black plastic kitchen utensils: Concentrations and human exposure implications. Kuang, J., Abdallah, M.A.E. and Harrad, S., 2018. Science of The Total Environment.

16. Brominated flame retardants in children’s toys: concentration, composition, and children’s exposure and risk assessment. Chen, S.J., Ma, Y.J., Wang, J., Chen, D., Luo, X.J. and Mai, B.X., 2009. Environmental Science and Technololgy.

17. Occurrence of brominated flame retardants in black thermo cups and selected kitchen utensils purchased on the European market. Samsonek, J. and Puype, F., 2013. Food Additives & Contaminants.

18. All POPs listed in the Stockholm Convention. UN Environment Programme – Stockholm Convention, 2019. [Online] Available at:

19. Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life. House of Commons – Environmental Audit Committee, 2019.