Explained | Chemicals of concern in plastics

Plastic waste
Unlike other materials, plastic does not biodegrade. This pollution chokes marine wildlife, damages soil and poisons groundwater, and can cause serious health impacts. Photo: AFP

While the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) had previously identified around 13,000 plastic chemicals, a report by a team of European scientists found more than 16,000 chemicals in plastics, a quarter of which are thought to be hazardous to human health and the environment.

The report, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, comes as government negotiators grapple with devising the world’s first treaty to tackle mounting plastic pollution.

Other key findings of the report include:

i) At least 4,200 plastic chemicals (or 26 per cent) are of concern because of their high hazards to human health and the environment.

ii) More than 400 chemicals of concern can be present in each major plastic type, including in food packaging, and all tested plastics leached hazardous chemicals.

iii) For making plastics safer, novel approaches to regulate plastic chemicals are needed, including hazard-based identification of groups of plastic chemicals of concern.

• A strong treaty will solve this planetary crisis and enable a transition to a safer and sustainable circular economy. But it is essential that the treaty addresses plastic chemicals because all plastics, from food packaging to car tyres, contain thousands of chemicals that can leach into foodstuffs, homes, and the environment. 

• Since many of these chemicals are hazardous, they can damage human health and the environment.

Impact of chemicals in plastics

• Plastics have become ubiquitous in modern life because they are lightweight, cheap, and versatile materials. However, with the increasing production and consumption of plastics, the world has also seen rampantly increasing releases of plastics to the environment and transboundary pollution.

• While the adverse physical impacts of plastics in the environment are often visible, less apparent are the health risks associated with the chemicals used to produce or found in plastics and subsequently released into the environment.

• All plastics are made of chemicals, including basic polymers and solvents; additives such as plasticizers, flame retardants, stabilizers or pigments used to deliver the material’s functionality; and unintentional chemical residues resulting from incomplete processing during the chemical synthesis and plastic manufacturing stages.

• Chemicals of concern can be released from plastic along its entire life cycle, during not only the extraction of raw materials, production of polymers and manufacture of plastic products, but also the use of plastic products and at the end of their life, particularly when waste is not properly managed, finding their way to the air, water and soils.

• Workers in the plastic or chemical sector may be exposed to hazardous chemicals during the production of polymers, additives, and plastic products, or during plastic waste management, including recycling. 

• In the use phase, consumer exposure is particularly relevant since consumers come in direct contact with plastic-based food contact materials, textiles, building materials, furniture, vehicles, electronics, toys, as well as personal care and household products. 

• In addition to exposure to chemicals via mouthing of products and direct dermal contact, humans and biota can also be exposed to chemicals indirectly when plastic-associated chemicals are released into air, soil, or water, via inhalation of air or consumption of contaminated food and drinking water.

• Organisms can also be exposed to plastic-associated chemicals after ingesting plastic debris or following exposure in waterways and in terrestrial environments.

• Susceptibility to the effects of chemical exposure can differ by gender and age. 

• Women and children are particularly susceptible to these toxic chemicals. Exposures can have severe or long-lasting adverse effects on several key periods of a woman’s life and may impact the next generations. Exposures during fetal development and in children can cause, for example, neurodevelopmental / neurobehavioural related disorders. 

• Men are not spared either, with latest research documenting substantial detrimental effects on male fertility due to current combined exposures to hazardous chemicals, many of which are associated with plastics.

• The sheer volume and variety of plastics and associated chemicals produced, used, and released to the environment worldwide have resulted in transboundary pollution that can have adverse effects on human health and the environment, including by exacerbating climate change and biodiversity loss.

• Without the implementation of globally coordinated measures, the increasing production of plastics and associated chemicals will result in increasing pollution levels and associated environmental, social, and economic costs.

Plastic pollution

• Plastic pollution is a global problem. 

• Unlike other materials, plastic does not biodegrade. This pollution chokes marine wildlife, damages soil and poisons groundwater, and can cause serious health impacts.

• More than 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year worldwide, half of which is designed to be used only once. Of that, less than 10 per cent is recycled.

• The packaging sector is the largest generator of single-use plastic waste ­in the world. Approximately 36 per cent of all plastics produced are used in packaging. This includes single-use plastic food and beverage containers, 85 per cent of which end up in landfills or as mismanaged waste.

• An estimated 19-23 million tonnes end up in lakes, rivers and seas annually. That is approximately the weight of 2,200 Eiffel Towers all together.

• Microplastics — tiny plastic particles up to 5mm in diameter — find their way into food, water and air. 

• It is estimated that each person on the planet consumes more than 50,000 plastic particles per year, and many more if inhalation is considered.

• Discarded or burnt single-use plastic harms human health and biodiversity and pollutes every ecosystem from mountain tops to the ocean floor.

• Plastic pollution can alter habitats and natural processes, reducing ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change, directly affecting millions of people’s livelihoods, food production capabilities and social well-being. 

What is being done about plastic pollution?

• In 2022, UN Member States agreed on a resolution to end plastic pollution. An Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee is developing a legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, with the aim of having it finalised by the end of 2024. 

• Critically, the talks have focused on measures considering the entire life cycle of plastics, from extraction and product design to production to waste management, enabling opportunities to design out waste before it is created as part of a thriving circular economy.

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