12 May 2023, Quezon City. A report released this week from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions notes that chemicals released throughout the life cycle of plastics pose serious health and environmental threats and should be the focus of global regulations.
The review, “Chemicals in Plastics: A Technical Report,” has immediate significance for the upcoming Plastics Treaty negotiations in Paris later this month, as it explores in detail issues related to the invisible health threats posed by the over 13,000 chemicals associated with plastics and the need for global chemical controls and approaches that promote reducing plastic production.
The report notes that: “Hazardous chemicals can be emitted and released at all stages of the life cycle of plastics, leading to ecosystem and human exposures…. Chemicals [from plastics] have been found to be associated with a wide range of acute, chronic, or multi-generational toxic effects, including specific target organ toxicity, various types of cancer, genetic mutations, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption and ecotoxicity…. 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.”
The report has identified “ten groups of chemicals of major concern due to their high toxicity and potential to migrate or be released from plastics, including specific flame retardants, certain ultraviolet (UV) stabilizers, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), phthalates, bisphenols, alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates, biocides, certain metals and metalloids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and many non-intentionally added substances (NIAS).”
The report finds that, globally, about 22 million tonnes of plastics and chemicals from these plastics are released to the environment every year. Most chemicals used or found in plastics can migrate or leach out over time, and chemical releases from plastics during production, use, and waste disposal can contaminate air, water, soils, and food chains, with consequent risks to human health. Occupational exposures are a serious concern for plastic production, waste, and recycling workers, especially informal waste pickers (including child workers) primarily in developing countries who face significant chemical exposures.
“As the UN report highlights, chemicals linked to serious health conditions are a significant concern throughout the plastics life cycle,” said Lee Bell, a Policy Advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and an expert reviewer of the UN report. “The Plastics Treaty must address the plastics crisis by addressing chemicals and health comprehensively and promoting reductions in plastic production and use. This will help drive solutions through the design of safer, toxics-free materials that move us toward a true circular economy.”
“With this UN-led technical review of chemicals in plastics, we expect negotiators to agree on concrete and just measures addressing the toxic harms caused by plastics to the health of people, wildlife and the ecosystems throughout the plastics life cycle. Coming from a country seriously impacted by plastic, waste and climate pollution, we urge our government and others to put the protection of public health and the environment at the center of the negotiations and thwart false solutions to the planetary plastic pollution crisis,” said Aileen Lucero, National Coordinator, EcoWaste Coalition.
The UN report suggests policy approaches for addressing chemicals of concern, including through regulatory phase-outs (especially of the most problematic chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants or POPs listed for global elimination and control), reductions in the use of chemicals identified by the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM), transparency measures, and other regulations.
Among other things, the report recommends:
- Reducing plastic production and consumption, starting with non-essential plastics, and promoting the design and manufacture of toxics-free materials.
- Avoiding poisonous (so-called “regrettable”) substitutions.
- Improving transparency with full disclosure of the identity and quantity of all chemicals from plastics.
- Updating regulatory testing guidelines.
- Developing waste management rules around chemicals of concern present in plastic waste, with particular attention to waste pickers’ needs.
- Adopting significant capacity-building efforts, in particular in developing countries for developing national regulations in coordination with global rules and other needs around chemicals in plastics and plastic waste.
Other issues raised by the UN report that are relevant to the Plastics Treaty negotiations:
Beyond plastic pollution: the report notes that while much attention has focused on visible plastic litter and clean-up, limiting plastic production will be a more effective solution to the plastics crisis.
Plastics carry toxic chemicals: because plastics travel the globe, toxic chemicals from plastics are found in every corner of the planet, demonstrating the need for global chemical and plastic controls. The report notes that ocean currents transport plastics containing an estimated 1,900 to 7,400 tonnes of hazardous chemical additives (and additional chemicals that adsorb to plastics) to the Arctic every year, with Indigenous peoples in the Arctic experiencing especially high chemical exposures through the consumption of contaminated traditional foods.
A class-based approach to chemical controls and regulation of chemical mixtures: rather than phasing out problematic chemicals one at a time, the report calls for global controls on entire classes of hazardous chemicals. Also, toxicological testing of chemicals in plastic currently focuses on individual substances, but plastic products can contain hundreds of potentially harmful substances. Thus, more attention is needed to develop approaches that address chemical mixtures.
Plastic waste creates chemical contamination: most plastic wastes and their associated chemicals are disposed of in landfills or dumpsites or leak directly into the environment, largely in developing countries. Chemicals from waste plastics are released from landfills and dumps, contaminating groundwater, soil, and food chains in surrounding environments. Some toxic chemicals common in plastics have been detected at high concentrations in closed landfills even 50 years after closure.
Plastic recycling recycles toxic chemicals and creates new chemical hazards: chemicals used in plastic products can contaminate recycled plastics. Numerous studies have found toxic chemicals, including some globally or nationally banned substances, in recycled plastic toys and other products. Chemical recycling and other recycling technologies can produce high amounts of hazardous wastes that lead to additional disposal complications.
Transparency on chemicals in plastics: to address the health and environmental impacts from chemicals in plastics, there must be publicly available information on how plastic-associated chemicals are synthesized, how they are integrated into plastics, and at what levels they end up in plastic materials.