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Hundreds of hazardous chemicals found in recycled plastics

A recent study from the University of Gothenburg has raised significant concerns about the safety of recycled plastics. The researchers discovered a multitude of toxic chemicals in recycled plastic pellets collected from 13 different countries. 

The experts detected the presence of hazardous substances such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and industrial chemicals in these plastics.

Complex issue

Professor Bethanie Carney Almroth emphasized the complexity added by these toxic chemicals to the reuse, disposal, and recycling of plastics. 

“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,” said Professor Almroth.

This revelation casts doubts on the viability of recycled plastics for most purposes and challenges the notion of a circular economy.

The study revealed over 600 chemical compounds in the plastic pellets, including 491 organic compounds that were detected and quantified, along with an additional 170 compounds.

Limited regulations

The chemicals represent various classes, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and plastic additives. This issue is further complicated by the limited regulations on chemicals in plastics and the complexities brought by international trade in plastic waste. 

A corresponding article published in the journal Science, involving researchers from the University of Gothenburg, IPEN, Aarhus University, and the University of Exeter, highlighted these risks.

Hazardous chemicals

“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,” wrote the researchers.

The experts also pointed out that over 13,000 chemicals are used in plastics, with about 25% classified as hazardous, and stated that “no plastic chemical [can be] classified as safe.”

Plastics treaty

To address such issues, delegates, scientists, and health and environmental advocates from around the globe are convening in Nairobi, Kenya, for the third session of the Plastics Treaty Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3). 

Here, scientists will urge delegates to consider the latest research indicating that all plastics, due to their inherent toxic chemical content and their ability to adsorb other chemicals during use, cannot be deemed safe or conducive to a circular economy.

Professor Carney Almroth will be bringing a clear message to the Nairobi meeting: “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.” 

Study implications 

This research is a wake-up call for the global community, emphasizing the need for more stringent regulations and a reconsideration of our reliance on plastic recycling as a primary solution to the plastic pollution crisis. 

The safety of recycled plastics is now a critical issue that requires immediate attention and action at both the national and international levels.

The study is published in the journal Data in Brief.

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