Fears grow over toxicity of recycled packaging

New research is warning of health and environmental risks from a drive to increase the use of packaging from recycled materials. David Burrows reports.

New global controls are needed to combat plastics and the toxic chemicals that are added to them, according to health and environmental NGOs. 

The call comes on the back of two new studies investigating the hazardous pollutants and chemicals in plastic pellets found on beaches and recycled plastic pellets purchased from recycling facilities. The pellets, or ‘nurdles’, are the building blocks used to make plastic packaging and products.

Both studies showed the presence of toxic chemical additives and pollutants that pose “multiple health threats to humans and the environment”, said the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), which led the research. The health effects include causing cancer or changing hormone activity (known as endocrine disruption). Many of the toxic chemical additives have several other known health impacts, persist in the environment, and build up (or bioaccumulate) in exposed organisms, the report noted. 

The results of the recycled pellet study are particularly concerning for plastics recyclers, said Sara Brosché, science advisor at IPEN. “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,” she explained.

IPEN has long argued that toxic chemicals in the circular economy are “nearly impossible” to extract once materials are re-circulated. Expect more research to emerge this year as pressure builds to take a much closer look at the issue.

Indeed, scientists have already warned that recycling processes may increase the chemicals found in, and therefore migrating from, food packaging. A consensus statement on the topic, published in the journal Environmental Health, earlier this year and signed by 33 experts, warned that “solutions are being developed toward reuse, recycling or alternative (non-plastic) materials. However, the critical aspect of chemical safety is often ignored.”

It isn’t just recycled plastic that poses such threats. Research published by the US Environment Protection Agency in September found that recycled paper and construction materials “contained greater numbers of chemicals than virgin products”. Some 733 identified chemicals, including flame retardants, solvents and dyes, “had greater occurrence in recycled compared to virgin materials”, according to a paper published in the Environmental Science and Technologyjournal. The authors warned that “the circular nature of the recycling economy may have the potential to introduce additional chemicals into products”.

Fidra, an environmental charity based in Scotland, last year found high levels of potentially toxic chemicals in supermarket packaging as well as that of high street brands including Caffè Nero, Costa, Greggs, Pret a Manger, Starbucks and Dominos. The study revealed significant levels of PFAS (per and poly-fluorinated alkyl substances, or ‘forever chemicals’) present in 90% of food packaging tested including bakery and cookie bags. 

The chemicals are added to paper and board food packaging to repel oil and water. “Many UK supermarkets are already committed to reducing their single-use plastic, something we fully support at Fidra,” said Kerry Dinsmore earlier this year following new research into the chemicals found in food packaging. “However, supermarkets must ensure they don’t undermine the environmental benefits of their current sustainability drive by simply replacing one visible pollutant with a hidden, and more toxic, chemical alternative.”

NGOs have argued that the threat posed by chemicals to the circular economy is “not being talked about”. The waste industry is concerned that scare stories could undermine the drive to recycle more packaging. However, they recognise that more work is needed.

Approaches to regulation and enforcement also need reviewing, according to the Food Packaging Forum, a non-profit foundation based in Switzerland. The regulations “are not terrible” FPF managing director Jane Muncke told Ends Reportrecently, “but what we are doing in terms of enforcement is subterranean. If we were really to enforce the regulations […] we would be clearing out the shelves in the supermarket.”

There is strict EU legislation (that the UK still currently abides by) governing the use of recycled plastic in food contact materials, for example, but campaigners increasingly argue that many chemicals are still not comprehensively assessed.

IPEN says the new studies indicate that plastics present much greater threats, especially to low- and middle-income countries that are not primarily responsible for plastics production or consumption, and do not have the capacity to manage the risks associated with toxic chemicals. These threats need to be dealt with at the international level through a global plastics treaty.

Support for such a treaty has been gathering steam. WWF has launched a new campaign aimed at securing a legally binding global instrument on plastic pollution. “Governments should agree to a mandate coming out of UNEA5.2 [the UN environment assembly meeting set to take place next month] to negotiate and adopt such an ambitious new agreement, with specific legally-binding provisions and obligations to prevent and remediate plastic pollution and its toxic impacts,” the NGO said.

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