Urgent action is needed to address toxicity in plastics after a report linked numerous groups of chemicals to adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
Ten groups of chemicals used in plastic production and found in a wide range of products including food packaging were identified as being of major concern due to their high toxicity and potential to migrate or be released from plastics.
The report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) identified issues with specific flame retardants, certain UV stabilizers, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), phthalates, bisphenols, alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates, biocides, certain metals and metalloids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and many other non-intentionally added substances (NIAS).
It said chemicals of concern have been found in plastics across a wide range of sectors and product value chains including toys and other children's products, packaging (including food contact materials), electrical and electronic equipment, vehicles, synthetic textiles and related materials, furniture, building materials, medical devices, personal care and household products, and agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries.
PFSA – also known as ‘forever chemicals’ – have been a particular cause for concern among campaigners from a food packaging perspective. Last year, a group of 30 civil society organisations called on the UK government to ban all unnecessary uses of PFAS, which are widely used in food packaging including bakery and cookie bags. The group argued the chemicals posed “an unacceptable risk to wildlife, human health and the wider environment”.
UNEP said chemicals of concern can be released from plastic along its entire lifecycle, 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 into the air, water and soils.
The research, which received financial support from the governments of Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, pointed to data showing that more than 13,000 chemicals are associated with plastics and plastic production across a wide range of applications, of which over 3,200 monomers, additives, processing aids and NIAS are of potential concern to human health and the environment due to their hazardous properties.
UNEP called for global action to tackle the problem including a reduction in plastic production and consumption, starting with non-essential plastics; a shift to designing and manufacturing plastics that are free of chemicals of concern; improved transparency along the entire plastics value chain; and the development of robust regulatory waste management frameworks.