Plastics Poison People and Pollute the Planet

IPEN’s microsite shows how hazardous plastics production drives the pressing environmental threat of plastics’ multiple and myriad sources of pollution. Learn how plastic pollution impacts our ecosystems, health, and people, driving major injustice and health disparities.

Review paper highlights key concerns with recycling and reusing plastic food packaging from often overlooked health-centered approach to coping with plastic pollution. Covers concerns about migration of hazardous chemicals into food packaging and their impacts on human health, especially from recycled plastics which can accumulate hazardous chemicals.

Dangerous chemicals make their way into recycled plastic materials from a variety of sources. Since nearly all plastics are made from a combination of carbon (mainly oil/gas) and toxic chemicals, the most obvious pathway is direct contamination, as chemicals from the original plastic products simply transfer into recycled plastic. But chemicals can also enter recycled plastics in other ways, due to contamination in the plastic waste stream and the recycling process itself. This Greenpeace report shows us why plastics do not have a place in the circular economy, and in fact poison the circular economy.

Microplastics have been detected in various media including water, sediment, and seafood, whereas there are few studies focusing on microplastics in take-out containers. In this study, scientists collected take-out containers made of common polymer materials (polypropylene, PP; polystyrene, PS; polyethylene, PE; polyethylene terephthalate, PET) from five cities in China. Microplastics in the containers were analyzed after different treatments (direct flushing and flushing after immersing with hot water). Results showed that microplastics were found in all take-out containers, and come from atmospheric fallout and flakes from container’s inner surfaces. Based on the microplastic abundance in take-out containers, people who order take-out food 4–7 times weekly may ingest 12–203 pieces of microplastics through containers.

With current plastic production and the growing problem of global plastic pollution, an increase and improvement in plastic recycling is needed. There is limited knowledge or assessment of microplastic pollution from point sources such as plastic recycling facilities globally. This pilot study investigates microplastic pollution from a mixed plastics recycling facility in the UK to advance current quantitative understanding of microplastic (MP) pollution release from a plastic recycling facility to receiving waters. Raw recycling wash water were estimate to contain microplastic counts between 5.97 106 – 1.12 × 108 MP m−3 (following fluorescence microscopy analysis). The microplastic pollution mitigation (filtration installed) was found to remove the majority of microplastics >5µm, with high removal efficiencies for microplastics >40µm. Microplastics <5µm were generally not removed by the filtration and subsequently discharged, with 59-1184 tonnes potentially discharged annually. It is recommended that additional filtration to remove the smaller microplastics prior to wash discharge is incorporated in the wash water management. Evidence of microplastic wash water pollution suggest it may be important to integrate microplastics into water quality regulations. Further studies should be conducted to increase knowledge of microplastic pollution from plastic recycling processes.

Increased recycling rates is a proposed solution to the current health and environmental crisis that is caused by the massive overproduction of plastics. However, almost all plastics contain toxic chemicals that are not removed during recycling but are carried over to the new products, and the recycling process can even generate new toxic chemicals such as dioxins. The increased recycling is intended to contribute to a so-called circular economy, but plastics containing toxic chemicals should not be recycled. Instead, they should be considered non-circular materials.

This IPEN study aimed at increasing the amount of information available about toxic chemicals transferred from plastic waste into recycled plastic pellets globally. Therefore, pellets made from recycled high-density polyethylene, intended for use in new products, were purchased from 24 recycling facilities in 23 countries. The pellets were analyzed to determine the presence of 18 substances, representing three types of toxic chemicals: 11 brominated flame retardants, 6 benzotriazole UV stabilizers and bisphenol A. None of the samples were free from all the targeted chemicals, and 21 samples contained all three types of chemicals. More than half of the samples contained 11 or more chemicals, and 17 samples contained five or more endocrine disrupting chemicals.