By analyzing pellets derived from recycled plastic gathered across 13 countries, scientists discovered a multitude of hazardous chemicals, such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals.
As a result of these findings, the scientists report that recycled plastics are deemed unsuitable for most purposes. This poses a significant obstacle to the efforts to establish a circular economy.
Delegates, scientists, and advocates for health and the environment from various parts of the world are converging in Nairobi, Kenya, for the upcoming meeting of the third session of the Plastics Treaty Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3).
The scientists will advocate for delegates to take heed of the most recent scientific evidence, which highlights that, due to the use of toxic chemicals in the production of all plastics and the subsequent absorption of additional chemicals during their use, no plastics can be considered safe or conducive to a circular economy.
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.
Bethanie Carney Almroth, Professor, University of Gothenburg
Over 600 Chemical Compounds
A study recently published in Data in Brief via ScienceDirect, spearheaded by Carney Almroth, revealed that plastic pellets sourced from recycling plants in 13 diverse countries across Africa, South America, Asia, and Eastern Europe were identified to harbor hundreds of chemicals. Among these substances were numerous highly toxic pesticides.
A comprehensive analysis identified and quantified a total of 491 organic compounds in the plastic pellets. Additionally, 170 compounds were tentatively annotated. These diverse compounds belonged to various classes, encompassing pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and plastic additives.
Present Risk for All
There are few guidelines on chemicals in plastics, and international trade in plastics waste complicates 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 are used in plastics, with 25% classified as hazardous. Researchers state that “no plastic chemical can be classified as safe.”
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.
Bethanie Carney Almroth, Professor, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Gothenburg
Carmona, E., et al. (2023). A dataset of organic pollutants identified and quantified in recycled polyethylene pellets. ScienceDirect. doi.org/10.1016/j.dib.2023.109740