Scientists Uncover Hundreds of Toxic Chemicals in Recycled Plastics

Nov. 13, 2023
Researchers say the use of chemicals in plastics must be limited to achieve true circularity.

Scientists at a Swedish university said they have discovered hundreds of toxic chemicals in recycled plastics they tested from 13 countries.

The researchers released the findings ahead of the third Plastics Treaty Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3) session taking place Nov. 13-19 in Nairobi, Kenya. The committee is developing an international legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. Some countries, including Norway and Rwanda, are pushing for policies that limit plastics production, while other countries and industry trade groups favor actions that encourage recycling and a circular economy.

The University of Gothenburg scientists found more than 600 chemical compounds from samples collected in 13 countries, according to a Nov. 10 news release. Due to the high level of toxins, the researchers determined the recycled plastics are unfit for most purposes and hinder attempts to create a circular economy.

The researchers will urge delegates at the committee session to heed the latest science showing that because toxic chemicals are used to make all plastics, and plastics will adsorb other chemicals during use, no plastics can be deemed safe or circular.

“Plastic recycling has been touted as a solution to the plastics pollution crisis, but toxic chemicals in plastics complicate their reuse and disposal and hinder recycling,” said University of Gothenburg professor Bethanie Carney Almroth in the news release.

The study, called “Data in Brief via ScienceDirect,” led by Almroth, determined that plastic pellets from recycling plants in Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe were found to contain hundreds of chemicals, including numerous highly toxic pesticides.

In total, the researchers detected 491 organic compounds in the pellets, with an additional 170 compounds tentatively annotated. These compounds span various classes, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and plastic additives.

To effectively address the plastics pollution crisis through recycling, the industry must limit the use of hazardous chemicals, the researchers said.

The scientists further stated that “no plastic chemical [can be] classified as safe.” 

Almroth said the findings deliver a clear message to the delegates meeting in Nairobi.

“Numerous studies show that hazardous chemicals can accumulate even in relatively close-loop plastic recycling systems,” she said. “We need to rapidly phase-out plastic chemicals that can cause harm to human health and the environment.” 

About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Executive Editor

Jonathan Katz, executive editor, brings nearly two decades of experience as a B2B journalist to Chemical Processing magazine. He has expertise on a wide range of industrial topics. Jon previously served as the managing editor for IndustryWeek magazine and, most recently, as a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for the manufacturing sector.

His knowledge areas include industrial safety, environmental compliance/sustainability, lean manufacturing/continuous improvement, Industry 4.0/automation and many other topics of interest to the Chemical Processing audience.

When he’s not working, Jon enjoys fishing, hiking and music, including a small but growing vinyl collection.

Jon resides in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

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