Kitchen utensils, water bottles and hundreds of other items made from recycled plastic around the world may contain toxic chemicals that are harmful to human health, according to a new study.
The findings come as countries, including Canada, and companies aim to increase recycling rates in an effort to reduce plastic pollution. But now researchers with the International pollutant elimination network (IPEN) warn that such measures could inadvertently expose people to toxins.
The problem is that most plastic items contain a set of toxic chemical additives like bisphenol-A (BPA) or brominated flame retardants, which can cause endocrine and other health problems. While exposure to these chemicals may initially have been relatively low due to how the plastic was first used, once recycled into a new product it could be subject to much more human contact.
For example, plastics used inside electronic devices often contain harmful flame retardants, but they pose a low risk to humans because we interact with them relatively rarely. However, once the plastic melts into granules, it may end up in a recycled water bottle or kitchen utensils where the risk of exposure is higher.
“It is worrying that we find so many different chemicals in these granules,” said Sara Brosché, environmental chemist and scientific advisor to IPEN. “And we really don’t have any control over what they are used for.”
The study commissioned by IPEN, which was not peer-reviewed, examined granules collected from 24 different locations around the world made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a common plastic used in everything from toys to milk jugs. . The granules are small plastic beads that manufacturers melt down and use to make new plastic items.
The researchers then analyzed the samples for 18 chemical additives, of which at least a dozen have confirmed health impacts, including BPA and brominated flame retardants. All samples contained at least one chemical additive and the vast majority had more than three.
The findings should be cause for concern, explained IPEN technical advisor Vito Buensante. Only about 10 percent of the world’s plastic waste is currently being recycled, but companies and several countries, including Canada, are developing policies to rapidly mainstream it. Key to these efforts is the ability of companies to source recycled plastic cheaply.
Right now, that’s a near-impossible task because new plastic is so much cheaper than recycled. As a result, most plastic waste is landfilled, incinerated, or ends up in the environment. Plastics that are recycled are rarely traced from source to final product due to cost.
While IPEN and other environmental and academic groups argue that efforts to reduce plastic pollution must begin with reducing the production of new materials, Buensante noted that it is vital to ensure that the recycling laws created to manage the remaining plastic protect people from harmful chemicals.
Kitchen utensils, water bottles and hundreds of other items made from recycled plastic around the world may contain toxic chemicals that are harmful to human health, according to a new study. # Plastics # Recycled Plastic
“When people say we need more recycling … this is not the recycling we are looking for,” he said.
So far, relatively little effort has been made to address the problem, even in Canada. Two international treaties, the Basel Convention and the Stockholm Convention, address the international trade in plastic waste and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as some flame retardants.
Most POPs are banned in Canada, including in items made from recycled plastics that contain the chemicals, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) said in a statement. The country’s international commitments also require it to ensure that when POPs become waste they are not “recovered, recycled, recovered or reused.”
Earlier this year, Canada officially listed plastic as toxic under its environmental laws, a move that is expected to facilitate future regulation of plastics. ECCC’s efforts have primarily focused on eliminating some single-use plastics, an electoral promise from Liberals in 2019, but also include proposals to boost recycling capacity, the ministry wrote.
Still, Canada and other countries must take broader steps, such as creating a system to track plastics from the moment they are created until they break down. Automakers have already created this type of system, Buensante said. Now it must become more general.
Both researchers also want countries to ban toxic additives in all plastics, reducing the risk of cross-contamination and damage to the environment and human health. IPEN advocates for countries to include negotiations on a ban on harmful additives in a possible future international plastics treaty likely to be proposed at the UN Environment Assembly meeting in February 2022.
If implemented, those rules would likely force us to change the way plastic is used. Additives serve specific purposes, for example increasing flexibility or reducing flammability, so a ban would force manufacturers and designers to develop alternative solutions. But the researchers noted that it is a small price to pay when it comes to protecting people and the environment.
“Toxic chemicals should not be added to plastics,” Brosché said.