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Rare Earth Elements are Contaminating Consumer and Environmental Plastics

According to a new study, some of the rarest metals found on Earth - utilized in smartphones and other electrical equipment manufacturing - are increasingly being found in day-to-day consumer plastics.

Image Credit: LuYago/

Researchers at the University of Plymouth and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have tested a variety of new and utilized products such as cosmetic containers, office equipment, and children’s toys.

Using several elaborate evaluations, they analyzed levels of rare earth elements (REEs) and the amount of antimony and bromine, employed as flame retardants in electrical equipment and an indication of the existence of recycled electronic plastic.

The findings indicated that one or more REEs were discovered in 24 of the 31 products that were tested, such as items where unchecked recycling is forbidden, for example, single-use food packaging.

They were mostly found in samples that contain antimony and bromine at levels inadequate to achieve flame retardancy but were also observed in plastics where those chemicals were not present.

REEs have also been observed in marine plastics washed up ashore, so the research team has proposed that there is proof they are universal and widespread contaminants of both historical and contemporary consumer and environmental plastics.

Published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, the study is the first one to systematically analyze the complete range of REEs in a wide range of consumer plastics.

Although REEs have been observed earlier in a range of environments—such as the atmosphere, groundwater, and soils—the study illustrates the extensive REE contamination of the “plastisphere” that does not seem to be associated with a single source or activity.

Rare earth elements have a variety of critical applications in modern electronic equipment because of their magnetic, phosphorescent and electrochemical properties. However, they are not deliberately added to plastic to serve any function. So their presence is more likely the result of incidental contamination during the mechanical separation and processing of recoverable components.

Dr Andrew Turner, Study Lead Author and Associate Professor (Reader), Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth

The health impacts arising from chronic exposure to small quantities of these metals are unknown. But they have been found in greater levels in food and tap water and certain medicines, meaning plastics are unlikely to represent a significant vector of exposure to the general population. However, they could signify the presence of other more widely known and better-studied chemical additives and residues that are a cause for concern,” added Turner.

The study is the most recent work done by Dr Turner involving the investigation of the existence of hazardous substances in day-to-day consumer products, wider surroundings, and marine litter.

In May 2018, Dr Turner demonstrated that toxic chemicals like lead, antimony, and bromine are managing to seep into food-contact items and other day-to-day products since manufacturers are making use of recycled electrical equipment as a source of black plastic.

Dr Turner’s study was part of a successful application by the University to receive the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for its pioneering study on microplastics pollution.

Moreover, the study advances earlier work at the University, as part of which researchers blended a smartphone to illustrate quantities of unusual or so-called “conflict” elements in every product.

Journal Reference

Turner, A., et al. (2021) Rare earth elements in plastics. Science of the Total Environment.


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