Persistent Organic Pollutants: practical advice on what regulation means


  • Sustainability

18 October 2023


Earlier this year, new regulation from the Environment Agency came into force relating to items containing Persistent Organic Pollutants or ‘POPs’. The regulations profoundly change the rules about what to do with waste furniture and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), but how exactly? There’s been much confusion in the marketplace, including among our members, about what they should and shouldn’t do with items impacted by POPs - and even how to identify these items.

To get some clarity, the IWFM approached the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), and put your questions to their Technical Manager, Tina Benfield. Tina very kindly provided clear and detailed answers to them all, along with useful links for further information and practical guidance.   

Commenting on the response, Ann Beavis from IWFM’s Sustainability SIG, noted, “There has been a lot of confusion since the roll out of POPs. So, gaining clarity from the CIWM for IWFM members is important to help guide compliant disposal of items that are now truly a waste, but to also recognise that reuse remains a viable option for quality items that are still functional. We should still focus on circular economy when looking at assets that are no longer needed.”


IWFM: How do you identify if a product contains POPs? What should you do if you are unsure?

Tina: The first point to consider is whether an item is waste. For example, if the furniture is going to be reused as it is, does not need repair or any work on it, then it is not waste and so does not need to be determined for containing POPs. This means furniture and WEEE can be reused and there is Defra guidance for this.

The moment is does become waste – at the end of its useful life – then it must be considered for POPs content. This is not easy or cheap. If the product already outlines what chemicals it contains then you will know whether it contains POPs by comparing that list to the banned list issued by the Stockholm Convention. Defra issued guidance to identify and classify waste containing persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which covers WEEE and soft furnishings.

Testing for POPs in furniture can be carried out, but the equipment is expensive and not easy to use; it should be used by a competent person who knows how to use the equipment correctly. The usual test method is x-ray fluorescence (XRF) to scan for bromine, which indicates that POPs are likely to be present. 

Due to the testing of POPs in furniture being difficult, most people are assuming that POPs are present, unless you are certain the product has been manufactured since the ban and does not contain banned chemicals. Most manufacturers associations are confident that items made in EU and UK are free from banned chemicals. The issue comes more from overseas manufacture and those not made under association membership.

If you are unsure, you should presume the content of POPs and handle it in that way. Defra issued guidance that was drafted by the Resolver Group which represented regulators, industry and local government. You can read it here: Manage waste upholstered domestic seating containing POPs.


IWFM: Which product categories are most affected? What else is there to watch out for?

Tina: POPs as a whole cover many sectors: agriculture, automotive, aeronautical as well as waste management. Furniture, which is the main concern for the resources and waste sector and local government, as well as the charity sector, covers numerous types and they are listed in this guidance: Manage waste upholstered domestic seating containing POPs.

Non-WEEE cables and wires have also recently been assigned under POPs requirements, along with wood. Wood is more of a concern for older demolition projects and there is some good information here: WRA welcomes plans to withdraw RPS 250. For cables, see Storing and treating hazardous waste cable: RPS 276.

There has been other work on carpets and curtains, but I am aware that fire regulations dictate the use of fire retardants in different ways, depending on the product. For instance, fire retardants are likely to contain chemicals that are banned under the Stockholm Convention. For more information, read Fire safety of furniture and furnishings in the contract and non-domestic sectors and Fire safety of furniture and furnishings in the home.

It's useful to look into the background to the Stockholm Convention (see box). Chemicals are listed all the time for different reasons, and the only real way to keep an eye on what is happening is to ‘watch’ the Stockholm Convention. UK regulators attend the Convention meetings and I believe the UK are looking at listing some chemicals. CIWM will be keeping a watching brief on this work, as our members are potentially going to be handling anything that is listed, at some point in time.


The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was adopted in May 2001 and came into force May 2004. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods, become widely distributed geographically, accumulate in the fatty tissue of humans and wildlife and have harmful impacts on human health or on the environment. The UK signed up to this Convention and adhere to its Procedures.


IWFM: Does POPs in any parts of a unit always taints the whole unit?

Tina: This will depend on how intrinsic the POPs related part of the unit is to the item, assuming the whole item is not treated with POPs. For soft furnishings, the main aspect is the foam and textile. So, any wood or metal frame is not likely to be POPs treated, but it could be POPs contaminated – so if the foam or textile cannot be removed completely, the frame would be POPs waste.


IWFM: What are the dos and don’ts for products that do or may contain POPs in terms of:

Current use/reuse

Tina: If the item can be reused in its present state and does not need extensive repair, guidance indicates this is a viable option. Soft furnishings and WEEE have guidance set out for this.


Tina: Currently, the Environment Agency and HSE are assessing the need for the resources and waste sector to have emissions controls on shredding of soft furnishings. This is looking less stringent than first thought, so for anyone carrying out local repair, like reupholstery following the Refurbishing upholstered domestic seating, POPs guidance is important.


Tina: Donation is mentioned in the Reusing upholstered domestic seating containing POPs guidance, under the Examples of receiving upholstered domestic seating.


Tina: To prevent the cross contamination of POPs to other items being collected, care should be taken on collecting and transporting items. Co-collection can happen, but to reduce the potential for contamination, POPs items should be transported carefully to prevent damage to them. For furniture, the items should be transported to prevent tearing of the fabric, foam seating, etc. Operators should take this care so that the whole load does not become POPs waste and must be consigned to incineration.


Tina: Operators may look at what parts of the item can be recycled and for furniture this may be the wooden or metal frame, assuming there is no contamination from POPs.


Tina: Waste that contains POPs must not be landfilled, it must go for destruction and the common method is incineration. POPs are not automatically hazardous, so you do not need to go for high temperature incineration. Each item would need to be classified and guidance does help with determination of hazardous or non-hazardous. On the waste transfer note, the item must have an EWC code and the words, for furniture ‘domestic seating waste containing POPs’.


IWFM: Where can our members get further information on this?

Tina: Defra guidance has been developed via the Defra Stakeholder Group and Resolver Group that included the resources and waste sector; manufacturer associations; regulators; local government and the charity sector. Any guidance given should be checked against the official government guidance, as interpretation can influence.


IWFM: Any recommendations on best processes to follow?

Tina: Ensure you know what an item contains, check labels, manufacturer guidance and information sheets. Check what operators do with waste when they take it from you: are they handling it correctly to prevent cross-contamination; keeping it separate to ensure only POPs related items are treated as such? This is your responsibility under Duty of Care. Do you know where the items are being taken for disposal? Are they being stored prior to treatment, if so, is it on a permitted site? Correct classification and description is important for those handling the item/material.


Key takeaways:

  • This relates mainly to waste furniture, but also has implications for waste non-WEEE cables and wires and waste wood.
  • Always assume these waste products contain POPs unless you’re certain they don’t.
  • Whether POPs in any part of an item taints the whole item depends on how intrinsic the POPs-related part is.
  • Follow the Defra guidance for disposal of these products: Manage waste upholstered domestic seating containing POPs.
  • Make sure your waste operators handle disposal in an appropriate manner - to prevent damage and contamination, keep POPs waste separate and follow the issued guidance.
  • Reuse or donation of suspected POPs items in their present state and not needing extensive repair is still a viable option.