| Hazardous waste, Waste management

Identifying and treating Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

As confirmed in a recent report from Water Research Centre Limited and The Environment Agency (EA), there are high levels of POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) being found in upholstered domestic seating waste along with some types of WEEE waste. Upon discovering the findings in the report, The EA warned local councils in September 2022 that waste domestic seating must be incinerated, rather than heading to landfill, to ensure the safe destruction of POPs.

For businesses, it is important to check with your waste services provider, to ensure POPs are being appropriately handled and treated. This is part of your duty of care as a waste producer. In this blog, we explore the topic and share insights into the identification and disposal routes for POPs.

What are POPs and why are they dangerous?

Firstly, what are POPs? Persistent Organic Pollutants, more commonly known as ‘POPs’, are toxic chemicals that break down slowly and can eventually find ways into food chains as a result.

Not only can POPs ending up in food cause health problems for humans, but they also pose a threat to wildlife. The WWF confirmed that even small quantities of POPs can cause damage to animal tissue, resulting in damage to nervous systems, diseases of the immune system, reproductive and developmental disorders, and even cancers.  You can find the full list of POPs and the threat they cause on the Gov.uk website, in this list.

Although the manufacturing and selling of products containing POPs is now banned in the United Kingdom, there are still items containing POPs out there that can, unfortunately, find ways into waste heading into the recycling system. Normally, this arrives from upholstered domestic waste being cleared out from old storage, however, it also remains a key issue when it comes to commercial waste.

What to do with POPs

Under duty of care, the responsibility of identifying POPs in items of waste sits with the holder. This means that correct disposal routes become the responsibility of the holder too, making it imperative that all guidance surrounding POPs is both clear and concise.

In a recent article on LetsRecycle, Environment Agency (EA) regulator, Bob McIntyre, shared the agency’s key focus on the specific waste streams that are being targeted to meet current POPs compliance:

  • WEEE waste: –
    – Plastics
    – Cable
    – PC boards
    – Other products such as printer cartridges
  • And soft furnishings, eg domestic seating

With the aim to destroy all POPs, the above waste streams are those that are most found containing POPs, and therefore, require incineration. Energy From Waste (EFW) remains the suggested solution to removing the risk of chemicals being released into the environment, especially when they can remain intact for long periods of time. However, there are concerns about the infrastructure available across the United Kingdom to meet tackle this.

Storage and segregation

With the responsibility of identifying POPs in waste sitting with the holder, it’s crucial to understand how to correctly store and segregate this hazardous item of waste. Guidance from Gov.UK states that ‘all reasonable steps’ must be taken to avoid mixing POPs waste with other items waste during any storage, collection, or treatment stage.

With items containing POP having to be segregated from other waste, businesses must be aware of how to act in case of contamination. If waste containing POPs does become contaminated, it means all of that waste now has to be treated as POPs waste. You must destroy the POPs even if the mixing has diluted the POPs below the concentration limit.

If you are a business that has waste containing POPs, and requires assistance with the storage and segregation, please do not hesitate to contact Reconomy for the appropriate guidance.


Infrastructure concerns

Following The Environment Agency’s emphasises on EFW when it comes to POPs, industry members have since raised concerns over the infrastructure available for incineration across the country. Without the infrastructure availability, it does make EFW very difficult to achieve for all waste items containing POPs, risking the spread of harmful chemicals into the environment. Although infrastructure concerns have been raised, it’s primarily focused on domestic waste. Rest assured, Reconomy’s supply chain and commercial infrastructure surrounding are fully equipped to assist with the treatment and handling.

Amid the raised infrastructure concerns, gaps in treatment facilities have been identified in the country for incineration of both domestic and commercial waste and are currently being worked on by EA and DEFRA.

Current disposal guidance

Whilst incineration is the recommendation for all POPs to destroy the threat, Reconomy would actively encourage partners to consider the waste hierarchy and where possible, promote reuse before classifying items as waste. Not only does this extend the life of the resource, but it also provides benefits to local charities or the community that receive these second-hand items. Providing there is a fire label, and the item is in good condition, it should be considered for re-use over disposal.

However, reuse must be treated with the utmost care. Before confirming if the waste can be reused, Gov.uk states that all the following conditions for reuse must apply:

  • It is reused for the same purpose for which it was designed
  • The previous holder intended for it to be reused
  • No more than minor repair is required to it when it is transferred from the previous holder to the new holder
  • Both the previous holder and new holder know at the point of transfer that it does not need more than a minor repair
  • If a repair is required, it will be done
  • Its use keeps to the law, for example, it carries appropriate fire safety labels
  • It is managed as a non-waste – that is, it is not moved or stored in a way that will damage it, for example in a skip with items of waste

Please note, businesses are breaking the law if an item containing POPs is classified as re-use and all these conditions are not met

If you would like further assistance or guidance on how to handle waste containing POPs, please do not hesitate to get in touch with one of our representatives.