Unpacking the complexity of the PET drink bottles value chain: A chemicals perspective

Researchers find that there are at least 150 chemicals that leach into drinks, including water, from single-use plastic bottles. At least 18 of those chemicals were found at levels that exceed EU chemical regulations.

Abstract: Chemicals can migrate from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) drink bottles to their content and recycling processes may concentrate or introduce new chemicals to the PET value chain. Therefore, even though recycling PET bottles is key in reducing plastic pollution, it may raise concerns about safety and quality. This study provides a systematic evidence map of the food contact chemicals (FCCs) that migrate from PET drink bottles aiming to identify challenges in closing the plastic packaging loop. The migration potential of 193 FCCs has been investigated across the PET drink bottles lifecycle, of which 150 have been detected to migrate from PET bottles into food simulants/food samples. The study reveals that much research has focused on the migration of antimony (Sb), acetaldehyde and some well-known endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). It indicates and discusses the key influential factors on FCCs migration, such as physical characteristics and geographical origin of PET bottles, storage conditions, and reprocessing efficiency . Although, safety and quality implications arising from the recycling of PET bottles remain underexplored, the higher migration of Sb and Bishphenol A has been reported in recycled (rPET) compared to virgin PET. This is attributed to multiple contamination sources and the variability in the collection, sorting, and decontamination efficiency. Better collaboration among stakeholders across the entire PET bottles lifecycle is needed to ensure sustainable resource management and food contact safety of rPET.

Experts find there is a significant lack of understanding in recycling facilities’ pollution potential. Plastic recycling facilities are a source of microplastic pollution. This pollution is most concentrated in recycling wash water.

Abstract: 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.

Plastic pollution experts make a case for addressing toxic additives, unintentionally added substances, and contaminants in plastics. They point out that current regulations fail to require plastic producers to track or make available information on harmful chemicals in plastics. For these reasons, the experts say that before recycling can be considered as part of the approach to end plastic pollution, especially if it becomes part of the UN Plastics Treaty, plastic’ chemicals must be simplified through a major reduction of the expansive amount of chemicals used in plastics production.

Lead has been detected in a wide range of consumer products, including those made of or with plastic. As plastics are recycled, toxic lead is transferred into new consumer products and pollutes human bodies and the environment. Scientists propose that plastic pollution be classified as hazardous depending on its lead content and according to existing regulations on consumer plastics.

Abstract: X-ray fluorescence spectrometry has been employed to measure Pb in a wide range of consumer and environmental plastics, including food-packaging material, household goods, electronic casings, beach litter and agricultural waste. Results reveal high concentrations of Pb (>1000 mg kg−1) in historical items that are still in use or circulation (e.g. toys, construction plastics, wiring insulation) and variable, but generally lower concentrations in more recently manufactured articles. Analysis of Br, Cl and Cr, proxies for brominated flame retardants, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and chromate pigments, respectively, suggests that as historical material is recycled, Pb from electronic plastics and pigments, but not PVC, is dispersed into a variety of newer products. Although most cases in the consumer sector comply with relevant EU Directives, some products that are non-compliant highlight shortfalls in regulations where recycling is involved and potential problems arising from the direct fashioning of industrial plastics into new consumer goods through attempts to be environmentally positive. The uncontrolled loss of historical and recycled plastics has also resulted in Pb contamination of the environment. Here, it is proposed that litter can be classified as hazardous depending on its Pb content and according to existing regulations that embrace consumer plastics.

Scientists chemically analyze 28 samples of recycled high density polyethylene (HDPE) collected from across regions of the Global South, along with a fresh sample of new HDPE. Their research shows the prevalence of certain chemicals commonly used in processing HDPE increase in recycled plastic, as well as pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, and other plastic additives.

Abstract: Plastics are produced with a staggering array of chemical compounds, with many being known to possess hazardous properties, and others lacking comprehensive hazard data. Furthermore, non-intentionally added substances can contaminate plastics at various stages of their lifecycle, resulting in recycled materials containing an unknown number of chemical compounds at unknown concentrations. While some national and regional regulations exist for permissible concentrations of hazardous chemicals in specific plastic products, less than 1 % of plastics chemicals are subject to international regulation [1]. There are currently no policies mandating transparent reporting of chemicals throughout the plastics value chain or comprehensive monitoring of chemicals in recycled materials.

The dataset presented here provides the chemical analysis of 28 samples of recycled High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) pellets obtained from various regions of the Global South, along with a reference sample of virgin HDPE. The analysis comprises both Target and Non-Targeted Screening approaches, employing Liquid Chromatography-High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry (LC-HRMS) and Gas Chromatography-High-Resolution Mass Spectrometry (GC-HRMS). In total, 491 organic compounds were detected and quantified, with an additional 170 compounds tentatively annotated. These compounds span various classes, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, plastic additives.

The results highlight the prevalence of certain chemicals, such as N-ethyl-o-Toluesulfonamide, commonly used in HDPE processing, found in high concentrations. The paper provides a dataset advancing knowledge of the complex chemical composition associated with recycled plastics.

Studies of communities’ recycling programs, rates, and behaviors in North Carolina show that household waste generation increases 6-10% when people have access to curbside recycling. These results suggest that any efforts to increase recycling rates should be coupled with efforts to reduce consumption of “disposable” consumer goods in the first place.

Abstract: The environmental benefits of recycling depend on the extent to which it reduces virgin material consumption, yet there currently is a lack of empirical research on this relationship. This study addresses this gap by leveraging data on variation in the regional adoption of curbside recycling programs in North Carolina between 1999 and 2019. It uses difference-in-differences regression methods with two-way fixed effects to compare solid waste generation between similar communities with and without recycling programs. The study finds that during the study period solid waste generation in North Carolina increased by 6–10 % in the presence of curbside recycling, providing empirical evidence of circular economy rebound on the household level. This result suggests that the current focus of recycling programs and other circular economy activities, which is to increase the availability of secondary resources through collection and recycling, should be complemented by efforts to reduce the consumption of primary resources.