IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

Tackling plastic pollution: ‘We can’t recycle our way out of this’

men burning a small pile of plastic trash, France24 logo in foreground

The scale of plastic pollution is growing, relentlessly. The world is producing twice as much plastic waste as two decades ago, reaching 353 million tonnes in 2019, according to OECD figures. The vast majority goes into landfills, gets incinerated or is “mismanaged”, meaning left as litter or not correctly disposed of. Just 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled. 

Ramping up plastic recycling might seem like a logical way to transform waste into a resource. But recent studies suggest that recycling plastic poses its own environmental and health risks, including the high levels of microplastics and harmful toxins produced by the recycling process that can be dangerous for people, animals and the environment. 

Plastics are made with as many as 13,000 chemicals, according to a UN report this month, and 3,200 of those have “hazardous properties” that could affect human health and the environment. Many more have never been assessed and may also be toxic, according to a report from Greenpeace released last week. 

In addition, “only a very, very small portion of those chemicals are regulated globally”, said Therese Karlsson, science and technical adviser at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). “Since there’s no transparency [in the market], there’s no way for people to know which plastics contain toxic chemicals and which don’t.” 

The risk these chemicals pose increases among recycled plastics, as products with unknown compositions are heated and mixed together. “The outcome is a completely unknown product that is reintroduced onto the market,” Karlsson said.

Read the full story from France24.