Workers at Sri Lanka’s largest plastic recycling facility, Eco Spindles, which makes nylon yarn out of recycled PET bottles, in Horana on June 16, 2023. ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP via Getty Images
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Since its invention more than 100 years ago, plastic has become increasingly ubiquitous in the environment, from the depths of the ocean to within algae beneath Arctic sea ice. Tiny microplastics have been detected floating high in the atmosphere above the French Pyrenees, as well as in human blood.
Plastics persist in the environment because they can take hundreds of years to break down. They also contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” which can take even longer to degrade.
Now, a new study led by scientists from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden has found that recycled plastics contain hundreds of toxic chemical compounds, including pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides and industrial compounds.
The scientists say this means plastics are not fit for most purposes and interfere with efforts to build a circular economy, a press release from the University of Gothenburg said.
“Plastics are produced with a staggering array of chemical compounds, with many being known to possess hazardous properties, and others lacking comprehensive hazard data,” the scientists wrote in the study. “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.”
The study, “A dataset of organic pollutants identified and quantified in recycled polyethylene pellets,” was published in the journal Data in Brief.
The third meeting of the Plastics Treaty Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee will be held November 13 through 19 in Nairobi, Kenya. At the summit, scientists, environmental and health advocates and delegates will discuss the most recent science showing no plastics are safe or suitable for reuse or regeneration due to their toxic chemical content, as well as their ability to adsorb additional chemicals during use, the press release said.
“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 Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg, in the press release.
For the study, the international research team tested plastic pellets taken from recycling plants in 13 countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. The researchers found that the pellets contained hundreds of chemicals, including many highly toxic pesticides.
Altogether, the team found 491 organic compounds in the plastic pellets, with another 170 provisionally annotated.
Because more than 13,000 chemicals are used in plastics, a quarter of which have been classified as hazardous, scientists have said that “no plastic chemical [can be] classified as safe,” according to the press release.
For the most part, chemical compounds used to make plastics are not regulated, and the international plastics waste trade adds to the problem.
“Numerous studies show that hazardous chemicals can accumulate even in relatively close[d]-loop plastic recycling systems. We need to rapidly phase-out plastic chemicals that can cause harm to human health and the environment,” said Carney Almroth.