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Hundreds of Toxic Chemicals in Recycled Plastics?

Delegates, scientists and health and environmental advocates from around the world have traveling to Nairobi, Kenya for this week’s meeting of the third session of the Plastics Treaty Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3). There, competing factions will debate how to end plastic pollution, with some targeting a drastic reduction in plastic production.

Mechanical recycling is set to play a crucial role in limiting production of virgin polymer and tackling the plastic waste issue but according to researchers from Sweden's University of Gothenburg, the presence of "hundreds of toxic chemicals, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals" in the recovered plastics stream make "recycled plastics unfit for most purposes and a hinder in the attempts to create a circular economy."

At INC-3, the University of Gothenburg scientists will urge delegates to heed the latest science showing that because toxic chemicals are used to make all plastics, and plastics will adsorb other chemicals during use, there are no plastics that can be deemed safe or circular.

“Plastic recycling has been touted as a solution to the plastics pollution crisis, but toxic chemicals in plastics complicate their reuse and disposal and hinder recycling,” says Professor Bethanie Carney Almroth, of the University of Gothenburg.

In a recently published study in Data in Brief via ScienceDirect, led by Carney Almroth, plastic pellets from plastic recycle plants in 13 different countries in Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe were found to contain hundreds of chemicals, including numerous highly toxic pesticides.

Image Courtesy of Bethanie Carney Almroth

In total, 491 organic compounds were detected and quantified in the pellets, with an additional 170 compounds tentatively annotated. These compounds span various classes, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, plastic additives. There are few regulations on chemicals in plastics, and international trade in plastics waste complicate this issue.

In a correspondence published this month in the prestigious journal Science researchers from the University of Gothenburg, IPEN, Aarhus University, and the University of Exeter noted that: “The hazardous chemicals present risks to recycling workers and consumers, as well as to the wider society and environment. Before recycling can contribute to tackling the plastics pollution crisis, the plastics industry must limit hazardous chemicals.” More than 13 000 chemicals used in plastics with 25% classified as hazardous. Scientists state that “no plastic chemical [can be] classified as safe.”

Professor Bethanie Carney Almroth brings a clear message to this week’s meeting in Nairobi:

“Numerous studies show that hazardous chemicals can accumulate even in relatively close-loop plastic recycling systems. We need to rapidly phase-out plastic chemicals that can cause harm to human health and the environment.”


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