The Right Chemistry

How Apple and Ahold Delhaize are ensuring the new materials economy is safe

For decades, we’ve been concerned about products and packaging found to contain chemicals linked to chronic disease, including cancer and endocrine disruption. With efforts to increase the circularity of materials, these hazardous chemicals unintentionally could end up recycled into future products — even finding their way into "greener" options.

However, many major companies are stepping up, adopting practices that restrict the use of dangerous substances in products and packaging in order to create a safer and more circular economy.

Commitments to reusing and recycling materials in products are imperative to a more sustainable, circular society. Yet hazardous chemicals in things that are used every day can cause long-term health problems. Take flame retardants in televisions, for example. Certain flame retardants used in TV enclosures do not break down in nature and can accumulate in our bodies, causing infertility, cancer or hormone disruption. When these electronics are recycled at end of life, these hazardous flame retardant chemicals can end up being reground and reused in new products including toys — exposing recycling workers and children to harmful substances.

To address this problem, leading companies are exploring potential issues in their products and supply chains and adopting protective material health strategies in product design and manufacturing. One way they’re approaching these chemicals of concern is by institutionalizing corporate initiatives. Apple, for example, launched its Chemical Management Program to help suppliers develop a comprehensive approach to managing chemicals safely. The program, which includes 113 participating supplier facilities, enabled Apple to develop a Regulated Substances Specification (RSS) list of all of the chemicals used to make its products, collecting information from several tiers of upstream suppliers to identify and eliminate harmful substances in its products.

Using the RSS, Apple works with its global suppliers to find and replace hazardous chemicals with safer substances. To date, the company has eliminated mercury, brominated flame retardants, PVC, phthalates and beryllium from its products including computers and phones. Apple continues to screen materials with comprehensive risk assessment tools, including GreenScreen, to evaluate substances against 18 hazards, including carcinogens, mutagens and endocrine disruptors.

The effort is especially important given that in 2017, Apple declared its intention to manufacture all future products using only recycled and renewable materials. The company developed a robot affectionately named "Daisy" to dismantle iPhones as part of an effort to retrieve 14 valuable metals and materials. For example, cobalt, tin and other materials harvested by Daisy are being reincorporated into new Apple products. According to the company's annual report, Apple uses recovered tin in the solder on the main logic boards of 11 devices. In addition, in 2019 Apple announced the opening of its new Material Recovery Lab to improve recycling rates and device disassembly. The company refurbished more than 7.8 million devices in 2018, diverting 48,000 metric tons of e-waste from landfills.

Consumer packaging is also an area where consumers and brands are focusing for greater circularity. However, some packaging contains hazardous substances and should not be recirculated back into the economy. Examples include persistent and harmful materials such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and Bisphenol A (BPAs), both of which are used in food packaging.

Recently, retailer Ahold Delhaize USA also launched a sustainable chemistry commitment to restrict these and other chemicals from its private brand products and packaging. The grocery retailer will be working with its suppliers to eliminate certain chemicals of concern and instead use sustainable substitutes. Ahold Delhaize USA plans to verify that priority products meet these requirements with testing and product certification.

However, materials of concern unintentionally can be added to products and packaging, such as those in TVs and toys, as mentioned above. Ahold Delhaize USA also plans to collaborate with its supply chain to address the root causes for potential contaminants of concern so they do not end up in finished products and packaging. This could include impurities and contaminants in raw materials and manufacturing processes or in recycled feedstocks. 

Working with the supply chain is critical to ensuring that hazardous substances do not get recycled back into the economy. Measurements and partnerships can help. Family-owned toy manufacturer Radio Flyer understands this. One of the key steps the company took to advance the use of safer materials was to measure its chemical footprint — which chemicals are of concern and the levels present in any of the company’s trikes, scooters, wagons and other products. This demanded significant communication with suppliers and their suppliers to find these answers to manufacture using chemicals and materials that can be safely "reincarnated" into future products.

Radio Flyer found that engaging deeply with its suppliers not only helped to advance its efforts, but also strengthened many supplier relationships. In addition, the Chemical Footprint Project protocol provided an important tool that helped to track, measure and report progress. Radio Flyer and Walmart have been participating in the Chemical Footprint Project and in 2020, Ahold Delhaize USA also plans to complete The Chemical Footprint Project survey.

The path to a safer and circular economy requires removing chemicals of concern.

Taking steps to remove and avoid harmful materials may not be easy, but it is a critical step to the future of an economy that circulates its resources and ensures that they are safe for human health and the environment.