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16 December 2021

IPEN calls for ban on 5,000 toxic chemicals in plastics

This week there is new pressure to remove a significant number of toxic elements which are included in plastics. These are used to add flame retardance and resistance to breakdown from light or UV.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) has released the report this week and it can be found here.

To get a global picture of the role plastics play in transporting toxic chemicals around the world, IPEN worked with International Pellet Watch  and its NGO partners in 35 countries to investigate hazardous chemicals and pollutants present in spilled or lost pre-production plastic pellets found on beaches and recycled plastic pellets at recycling facilities. They pretty much all had toxic chemicals in them.

All of them contained significant health threats to humans including the tendency to cause cancer or change hormone levels, and induce cognitive impairments. Many of the toxic chemical additives persist in the environment, and bioaccumulate in exposed organisms.

For as long as these toxins are still included in plastics, it makes many of them ‘non-circular,’ and excluding them from any circular economy.

IPEN estimates that 10,000 chemicals are present in plastics of which 5,000 are supposed to contribute to the function of products. But although these chemicals are toxic, only a few are subject to regulatory control and many regulatory environments do not issue any information about them at all.

The chemicals assessed in the beach pellets study included ten ultraviolet stabilizers and 13 polychlorinated biphenyls. The recycled pellets study assessed 11 flame retardants; bisphenol A; and six UV light stabilizers.

IPEN and IPW are calling for all phases of plastics manufacture, transport, use, recycling, and disposal to be regulated and says that consumers need to be far more aware of the threats posed by these additives.

Our own conclusions at Rethink Energy, that rapid EV uptake will lead to oil extraction to being cut dramatically as the price of oil falls, with most damage being done between 2027 and 2031. This will remove many feedstocks from the plastics industry and lead not only to a repricing of entire industry, but it represents an opportunity to re-regulate it on a global basis with a view to making all plastics recyclable.

In February 2022, countries will meet at the United Nations Environment Assembly to discuss a global instrument on plastics, largely focused on waste and marine litter. IPEN says the new studies suggest plastics present even greater threats, especially to low and middle-income countries for instance many in Africa, which are not responsible for plastics production and do not have the capacity to manage the risks from toxic chemicals.

Report author and IPEN science advisor Dr Sara Brosché says, “The widespread use of toxic chemical additives in plastic products makes a lot of recycled plastic waste an unacceptable raw material for making new products.”

IPEN is calling for a ban on the use of toxic chemicals in plastics, the identification of essential uses of plastics and the scaling down all other production. Non-circular plastic should be phased out and producer responsibility programs need to be put in place where the plastics industry bears the costs of monitoring throughout the plastics life cycle. IPEN says that plastics should all be fit for re-use, and that they need end of life treatments specified which don’t release those chemicals.