A new report from Greenpeace USA claims that recycling increases the toxicity of plastics. The report, which appeared under the title Forever Toxic: The science of health threats from plastic recycling provides a catalogue of peer-reviewed research and international studies supporting this claim. Publication of the report was timed to appear a few days before the start of the second round of Global Plastics Treaty negotiations in Paris from 29 May 29 to 2 June.
It argues that plastics are ‘inherently incompatible’ with a circular economy, concluding that the upcoming negotiations in Paris must focus on capping and then phasing down plastic production.
While recycling and recycled content continue to be stimulated as central solutions to the plastic pollution crisis, with various groups lobbying for the recycling and circular use of plastics, the Greenpeace report alleges that ‘recycled plastics often contain higher levels of chemicals that can poison people and contaminate communities, including toxic flame retardants, benzene and other carcinogens, environmental pollutants like brominated and chlorinated dioxins, and numerous endocrine disruptors that can cause changes to the body’s natural hormone levels’.
Recycled plastics accumulate potentially toxic chemicals in three ways, according to the Greenpeace report: direct contamination from toxic chemicals in virgin plastic, leaching and heating during the recycling process.
“For example, brominated dioxins are created when plastics containing brominated flame retardants are recycled, and a stabiliser used in plastic recycling can degrade to a highly toxic substance found in recycled plastics,” the report noted. “Sorting challenges and the presence of certain packaging components in sorted materials can also lead to toxicity in recycled plastic.”
At the Paris meetings, the Greenpeace global network will be advocating for a Global Plastics Treaty that, among other things, promotes a shift to refill- and reuse-based economies; supports a just transition for workers across the plastics supply chain, prioritising waste pickers who collect approximately 60% of all plastic that is collected for recycling globally; and implements the “polluter pays” principle for plastic waste management and for addressing the health and
environmental costs throughout the plastics life cycle. The agreement should also include stronger regulations on recycling facilities, require transparency about what chemicals are in plastics and push companies to eliminate all toxic additives and chemicals from plastics.
The American Chemistry Council (ACC) has responded to the study, noting the benefits plastics bring to society.
“If Greenpeace had its way, modern life would be dramatically different,” Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council, said. “People across the world, particularly in developing countries, would have less access to clean drinking water, safe food supplies, sanitary medical and personal care products, and renewable energy.”