Plastics contain toxic chemicals that can enter products and interact to create new harmful substances during the recycling process, a new report from Greenpeace and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) shows.
The report comes as negotiators from more than 180 nations meet in Paris this week to discuss a global plastics treaty, developing regulations to address the plastic pollution crisis. The backdrop is stark: Plastics production is currently on track to triple by 2060, causing harm to human health and the environment throughout its lifecycle from creation to disposal.
Capping plastics production is a key point of debate. Fifty-eight countries, aligned in a group called the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, want to see a treaty that slows production. Industry groups and countries that stand to profit from plastic production want to focus on waste management and recycling instead, according to scientists and advocates.
Plastics manufacturing is one of the largest industries in the U.S., but the country is still committed to a treaty with “strong binding provisions, not only voluntary actions,” said Jose Fernandez, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and environment, at a High Ambition Coalition briefing. The U.S. is not a member of the coalition, instead calling for the treaty to direct nations to develop individual action plans.
Current plastic recycling systems “mold this unknown cocktail of potentially harmful substances together,” Melanie Bergmann, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute and a member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, who was not speaking on behalf of the coalition, told Environmental Health News (EHN).
That chemical cocktail can harm workers and communities around recycling sites and leach from recycled plastic products, the Greenpeace and IPEN report found.
Chemical additives in plastic
Only 9% of plastic is recycled and the rest is burned in incinerators, left to pollute nature or tossed in landfills that are often located in low and middle-income countries. But increasing recycling isn’t a viable solution, scientists and advocates point out. Plastics contain toxic chemicals, such as bisphenols (like BPA), phthalates and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and can also absorb materials from other products in the wastestream, like pesticides and pharmaceuticals, which can later leach out of the plastic. IPEN and Greenpeace advocate for limiting plastic production alongside eliminating toxic chemicals added to plastics to make safe recycled products feasible.
Fossil fuels are the raw material that makes plastic, and more than 13,000 chemicals are added to change durability, flexibility, color, UV-protection and more. Roughly 3,200 of those chemicals are considered a concern for human health, and an additional 6,000 have never been screened, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program.
“Six thousand with no data is like driving blind,” Bjorn Beeler, international coordinator at IPEN, told EHN. Many chemicals added to plastics are linked with health risks including cancers, hormonal system disruptions and reproductive harms….