Toxic Threats Throughout the Plastics Life Cycle
Disposal and Plastic Recycling
Recycling Plastics = Recycling Toxic Chemicals
The plastics/petrochemical industries make plastics using toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, infertility, and other serious conditions. People are exposed to these toxic chemicals by plastic recycling: throughout the plastic recycling chain, by plastic recycling technologies, and when they use recycled plastic products.
There is no “magic box” where plastics made with toxic chemicals go in and safe materials come out. When plastics are recycled toxic chemicals are combined and new harmful chemicals are formed, and this toxic stew ends up in the recycled product.
Plastics poison people and pollute the planet
Toxic exposures throughout the plastic recycling stream
Throughout the recycling process, plastics release toxic chemicals that threaten our health and the environment.
Export, collection, and sorting
Plastic recycling and waste pickers’ health
Gathering and sorting plastics safely is important, and it’s especially important to protect waste workers from toxic chemicals in plastics that lead to health threats and contaminate their communities.
But while waste workers collect massive amounts of plastics, a very small amount of the collected plastics are ever recycled – instead plastics containing toxic chemicals are dumped or burned, and recycled plastic products contain toxic chemical mixtures that threaten consumers’ health. Because plastic recycling results in recycling toxic chemicals that poison workers, communities, and consumers, IPEN rejects the plastics industry’s campaign to push recycling as the solution to the plastics crisis. Instead, we call for reducing plastic production and focusing on producing safer, toxics-free materials.
Chemical Recycling and Waste-to-Fuel
As plastics production increases, the petrochemical companies that make plastics and the industries that depend on plastic packaging have teamed up to promote new methods of plastic recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution problem.
But industry’s plastic recycling proposals are fairy tales. No recycling scheme currently in use or proposed can absorb the millions of tonnes of plastic scrap expected to be produced over the next twenty years. And all recycling schemes, in use now or proposed, expose people and their communities to toxic chemicals released into the air, land, and water.
Further, fuels made from waste plastics are simply an extension of fossil fuel burning. Producing fuels from waste (sometime called refuse derived fuels or RDF) requires large amounts of energy inputs and releases toxic pollutants, carbon, and particulates. Yet industry portrays waste-to-fuels schemes as “renewable” energy projects.
By masquerading as renewable energy, both producers and users of the fuel can access a range of renewable energy subsidies that should be directed to real renewable energy projects. Similarly, burning plastic waste as “alternate fuels” or RDF squanders resources and results in toxic emissions, toxic ash, and large carbon releases that hasten climate change.
In 2023, a report by IPEN and Beyond Plastics exposed chemical recycling’s long history of failure and the threats it poses to the environment, human health, and environmental justice. Click below for the report and more information.
Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are chemicals that a) persist in the environment for a long time; b) are toxic to humans, wildlife, and plants; c) bioaccumulate and can increase in concentration as they move higher in the food chain; and d) disperse throughout the environment via wind, water, and migratory species.
Some POPs are used as chemical additives in plastics, while others are created when plastic waste is burned or heated. Dioxins, furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), certain flame retardants, and per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) are some examples of plastic-related POPs.
Some POPs are globally banned or restricted under the Stockholm Convention – but there are thousands of POPs that are not regulated under any international agreement. Even POPs that were banned decades ago are still found in recycled plastics, in the environment, and in plastic waste stockpiles due to their longevity.
Open burning and incineration of plastic wastes pollutes the air with dioxins, some of the most deadly chemicals known, and other toxic chemicals. Burning plastic also creates hazardous ash and residues that are typically dumped or landfilled, spreading chemical pollution and contaminating food chains and waterways.
An IPEN study looked at egg samples from an area of Ghana where e-waste is burned, finding high levels of toxic chemicals. Another IPEN study in Indonesia found that eggs collected from near plastic waste dumps contained high amounts of toxic chemicals. Eating just one egg per week from one site would exceed proposed EU safety levels for a weekly intake of PFOS, a PFAS chemical that has been banned globally.