One of the mostly unseen effects of the Grenfell Tower fire has been to get officials from different government departments communicating with each other for a change, albeit behind closed doors. It would be nice to think that this is in order to pool knowledge towards providing survivors with the full truth about, for example, the toxicity they were exposed to. Unfortunately, it seems as if this collusion is designed to do little more than protect business interests and the backs of civil servants who do not have the guts to stand up to them and have their own mistakes to cover.
At one such secret meeting last year, an official from BEIS stated that his department knows that the Furniture Regulations don't work but doesn't know what to do about it. Hold that thought.
On 18thDecember 2018, Defra published "Our Waste, Our Resources: A Strategy for England" which can be accessed here. In the Ministerial Foreword, Michael Gove states:
"Our goal is to maximise the value of the resources we use, minimise the waste we create, cut emissions and help create a cleaner, greener, healthier planet.
"By making sure that manufacturers and producers bear a heavier financial burden for the pollution they cause, the Strategy fully upholds the ‘polluter pays’ principle.
"And by protecting the natural world, and leaving it in a healthier state for the next generation, it will help us uphold a core pledge of our 25 Year Environment Plan."
Which sounds good and indeed the press, where it can be bothered to, has picked up mainly on this intention to get industry to clean up its own rubbish. But let's look a bit more closely at how Defra has also made up its own rules inside this strategy that are directly in defiance of the Stockholm Convention (which the UK is signed up to), to allow mass chemical pollution to continue via upholstered furniture.
For a start, there is not a single mention in this strategy of flame retardants (just one to "chemicals" – see below), despite the fact the UK is the largest polluter of the environment with regard to these chemicals in domestic products.
Flame retardants are Persistent Organic Pollutants, and here's what the Stockholm Convention says about POPs:
1) They are highly toxic;
2) they are persistent, lasting for years or even decades before degrading into less dangerous forms;
3) they evaporate and travel long distances through the air and through water; and
4) they accumulate in fatty tissue.
As stated elsewhere on this site, UK homes contain the highest levels of flame retardant dust in the world, mainly because of our tough (but largely useless) Furniture Regulations.
Okay, time to step back a few years. Towards the end of 2013, I arranged a meeting at BEIS (BIS as it was then) with a group of furniture industry representatives, to bring them up to date with the changes we wanted to make to the Furniture Regulations. Changes that would have seen a huge reduction in brominated flame retardants in cover fabrics (BFRs are extremely toxic). Their reaction was less than enthusiastic, it has to be said, but at the time we didn't realise the full extent of their collusion with the chemical industry. I'd also invited a colleague from the Environment Agency to give a talk on the Stockholm Convention and how it was due to rule soon that products containing flame retardants like DecaBDE (ubiquitous in UK furniture at the time) would need to be disposed of safely. And that would be a very expensive process. Well, that certainly got their attention . . . so much so, that a delegation from the furniture industry travelled to Brussels soon after to put a case to the European Commission. Was this to support our proposal to remove harmful FRs from furniture? No, it was to try to get the Commission to let them off the likely huge disposal costs. "But we have a mountain of sofas and mattresses in the UK to dispose of!" they bleated. "Tough," said the Commission; "that's the UK's problem."
Then again, maybe they're breathing a little easier now, if they've seen the Environment Agency's record on enforcements, i.e. down from around 130 a year in 2012 to around just 15 in 2018 (see graph at end of this blog). The EA has of course been commissioned to undertake a study into the toxicity of the Grenfell Tower fire. Will that put up their enforcement figures? It's hard to tell since the EA has gone totally silent on this project.
Now, here's what's required of any nation that signs up to the Stockholm Convention:
a) Develop and implement appropriate strategies for identifying stockpiles, products and articles in use that contain or are contaminated with POPs;
b) Manage stockpiles and wastes in an environmentally sound manner;
c) Dispose of waste so that the POPs content is destroyed or irreversibly transformed;
d) Not permit the recycling, recovery, reclamation, direct reuse or alternative use of the POPs;
e) Endeavour to develop strategies for identifying contaminated sites and perform eventual remediation in an environmentally sound manner.
Let's see how the UK deals with furniture under these requirements:
a) We'll come to the strategy as such in a moment but in terms of identifying stockpiles, etc, contaminated with POPs, basically the UK doesn't, other than citing a "mountain" of furniture. We don't even know what's in an individual sofa or mattress, just that it's a variety of FR chemicals.
b) At present, most sofas and mattresses at end-life go into landfill, where FRs leach out and get into water, soil and the food chain.
c) Virtually no furniture waste is disposed of safely in the UK.
d) The UK allows second-hand furniture containing toxic FRs to be re-sold.
e) As far as furniture's concerned, I'm not aware of any such identification that has been carried out.
In light of this, you'd expect the UK's new Waste Strategy to provide a solution. Well, if you turn to page 39 you'll find a section headed: "Invoking the 'polluter pays' principle and harnessing the potential of EPR for other waste streams". (EPR stands for Extended Producer Responsibility.)
On the face of it, then, this is the furniture industry's nightmare made flesh: as the producer they will have to take responsibility and, well, pay as the main polluter. Excellent: at last we'll safely get rid of the millions of kilograms of toxic FRs in our furniture and, because they'll have to pay, they'll stop putting new FRs in new furniture too.
Or not. Because on the same page we find this:
"Extended producer responsibility can help deal with those items and products which cannot be classified as hazardous waste, for example soft furnishings that contain chemicals which were legal at time of manufacture but which have subsequently been banned."
This is an extraordinary statement in that it completely defies the Stockholm Convention. It even contradicts existing UK government policy, e.g. on asbestos – because this statement rules that anything that contains asbestos is not hazardous waste if asbestos was legal at the time of manufacture. Er, so why all that effort to have it removed and disposed of safely that's been going on since 1999? Why do local authorities provide an asbestos collection service to its citizens? Shouldn't they also be offering a collection service for sofas and mattresses that contain toxic and banned flame retardants? Apparently not because Defra reckons there is a difference between one kind of hazardous waste and another; it just isn't explaining what exactly.
Let's translate what this statement actually means with regard to soft furnishings:
a) The literally millions of sofas/mattresses that contain now-banned FRs like DecaBDE can remain in UK homes because Defra has decided they're not hazardous waste.
b) When they come to the end of their life, we can continue slinging them into landfill.
c) Furniture manufacturers can continue the process of stuffing furniture with the latest FRs that only the FR industry reckon are safe, and when they're later banned do nothing about it.
Are there any hidden motives behind this policy?
Let's call this speculation for now, but here are a few possibles:
- If BEIS was to tell the furniture industry that under the Stockholm Convention they must pay to dispose of old furniture safely, the industry would publicly hammer them with the fact that it's BEIS's fault they've continued to use tons of FRs, i.e. because in 2014 BEIS proved the furniture regulations mostly don't work but has refused to put them right.
- If furniture containing FRs is (rightly) deemed 'hazardous waste' then clearly Grenfell Tower was stuffed with it and the resulting fire highly toxic. This would again impact on BEIS because as said they've refused to put the regulations right. It would also impact on the furniture industry since they've known for at least five years that they're selling toxic products. And it would impact on the flame retardant industry because their products contributed hugely to the UK's worst domestic fire since the war.
- If furniture in Grenfell Tower was hazardous then the Environment Agency will be compelled to start their investigation into the toxicity of the fire from the clear foundation that it was indeed toxic. With this ruling by Defra, however, wriggle room is introduced, i.e. they can claim furniture was not hazardous, which on the surface is ludicrous but shallow claims are surprisingly effective in a country that provides no oversight on its government departments.
- The cost of disposal of furniture at end-life would be huge. But if it's revealed that industry was knowingly supplying UK consumers with hazardous products, the costs could escalate and perhaps even be lethal. Law suits would abound, and the government itself would not be exempt from being prosecuted.
Let's just remind ourselves that this waste management policy was put together by public servants. It's supposed to protect our health and the environment. Which means that the provision it's introduced to de-hazard toxic furniture and thereby allow industry to continue poisoning all of us forever (unless something or someone intervenes and with Brexit looming that seems unlikely) is either an act of extraordinary incompetence. Or it's something else entirely.