Toys, décor and more: Chemical flame retardants come full circle

Closeup of Mardi Gras beads

What happens to your old computer after you haul it to the local e-waste recycling drop off? Many of us have seen photos of workers (including children) dismantling electronic waste in developing countries. But then what? Surprisingly, after traveling halfway around the world, parts of your outdated desktop may end up back in your home in any number of items, including children’s products. Items like decorations, costumes, accessories, toys, school supplies, kitchen items, garden tools, apparel, floor tiles and more.

The Ecology Center, a local non-profit organization, sampled more than 1,500 of these products for a recently published, peer-reviewed study. The researchers uncovered evidence that plastics from recycled electronic waste —old computers, phones, TVs, printers, cables, etc. — are contaminating new products with low levels of brominated flame retardants, lead and other metals. The exposure hazards for consumers are not known.

The Journal of Environmental Protection published the paper titled “Toys, Décor and More: Evidence of Hazardous Electronic Waste Recycled into New Consumer Products” in February 2016. (The full text is available here.)

More than 1,500 new consumer products purchased in 2012 through 2014, were analyzed using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to detect metals and bromine in the plastic parts of these items.

Electronic products were much more likely than non-electronics to contain high levels of bromine (greater than 1,000 parts per million), suggesting that flame retardants were intentionally added, as expected. Non-electronic products were more likely to contain between 5 and 100 ppm bromine, suggesting unintentional contamination. But the results of some products didn’t fall into the normal ranges.

“While we expected to find high levels of bromine in electronics,” Ecology Center staff scientist and lead author of the study Gillian Miller says, “we were very surprised to find equally high levels of bromine in beaded necklaces and garlands, such as Mardi Gras beads.” Miller found that besides bromine, these strands of beads — commonly tossed to children at parades and hung in homes during the holidays — also had several other hazardous elements often found in e-waste, including lead.

Electronic and electrical devices typically contain flame retardant chemicals and heavy metals. When plastic parts of these products are recycled into new, non-electronic products, hazardous substances can re-enter the marketplace. Miller and her fellow authors of the study argue that bromine (at both low and high levels) in non-electrical products is at least partly due to brominated flame retardants present in recycled e-waste plastics. E-waste plastics include TV and computer monitor housings, as well as wire and cable insulation.

But why were bromine levels so much higher in the beaded holiday garlands and necklaces than in the other non-electronics? Miller and her colleagues needed to know. To further understand the anomaly, they used a different technique that allowed them to identify specific chemicals. They found five brominated flame retardants (including deca-BDE, which was phased out of U.S. production in 2013) in beads sampled from 50 different necklaces. When cut open and examined with a microscope, the beads were found to be a mixture of tiny plastic chunks. Bromine was heavily concentrated in some of these chunks, suggesting that the bead plastic is made up of tiny pieces of discarded electronics.

A cross-section of a bead

A cross-section of a bead.

The study underscores how these hazardous chemicals persist in our world and will continue to show up long after they are no longer used. The results are consistent with studies by other researchers that have found low concentrations of brominated flame retardants, most likely from recycled e-waste, in plastic kitchen utensils and toys.

This doesn’t mean you should simply throw your old electronics into the trash, where they will be added to the municipal solid waste stream. All of those heavy metals and hazardous chemicals may end up polluting the air and water if not handled properly. The answer may lie with local e-waste recyclers who process outdated gadgets on-site (instead of sending them overseas), practicing strict safety standards, and tracking toxic materials downstream of their facilities; see below for a list. And whether you are shopping for holiday decorations or enjoying a parade, don’t bother reaching for the shiny plastic beads.

– Melissa Cooper Sargent, Environmental Health Educator with LocalMotionGreen at Ecology Center. For more information, you can email her at melissas@ecocenter.org or visit http://www.ecocenter.org/lmg.

Local e-waste recyclers in southeast Michigan:

  • e-Stewards: The recyclers listed here have committed to the e-Stewards Standard, which prohibits the export of hazardous electronic waste from developed to developing countries while allowing viable technology to be reused. It includes responsible used electronics management and downstream accountability for toxic materials to final disposition.
  • Global Electric Electronic Processing (GEEP): Processes e-waste locally in southeast Michigan and has e-Steward certification.
  • Call2Recycle: The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. accepts old cell phones for free recycling. They have drop-off sites in many cities (usually in stores). Use their location finder to enter your ZIP code to find the closest to you.

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