Recycling makes plastic even more toxic, warns Greenpeace

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Recycling is often touted as one of the easy ways to reduce your environmental footprint. But this eco-friendly win might not be as green as it seems.

United Nations reports have already shown that less than 9% of plastic globally actually reaches recycling facilities. And now a new report from Greenpeace USA shows that recycling actually increases the toxicity of plastics.

Recycled plastics pose a threat to the health of consumers, frontline communities, and workers in the recycling sector.

Plastics contain more than 13,000 chemicals. More than 3,200 of them are known to be hazardous to human health and many are untested.

During the recycling process, these toxic chemicals are transferred into the recycled material, which is used to make new bottles, food containers and other plastic items.

Greenpeace USA’s report, ‘Forever Toxic: The science of health threats from plastic recycling’, highlights three “poisonous pathways” for recycled plastic material to accumulate toxic chemicals:

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  1. Direct contamination from toxic chemicals in virgin plastic: When plastics are made with toxic chemicals and then recycled, the toxic chemicals can transfer into the recycled plastics.
  2. Leaching of toxic substances into plastic waste: Numerous studies show that plastics can absorb contaminants through direct contact and through the absorption of volatile compounds. When plastics are tainted by toxins in the waste stream and the environment and are then recycled, they produce recycled plastics that contain a stew of toxic chemicals. For example, plastic containers for pesticides, cleaning solvents, and other toxic chemicals that enter the recycling chain can result in contamination of recycled plastic.
  3. New toxic chemicals created by the recycling process: When plastics are heated in the recycling process, this can generate new toxic chemicals that make their way into the recycled plastics. For example, brominated dioxins are created when plastics containing brominated flame retardants are recycled, and a stabilizer used in plastic recycling can degrade to a highly toxic substance found in recycled plastics. Sorting challenges and the presence of certain packaging components in sorted materials can also lead to toxicity in recycled plastic. Studies have shown that benzene (a carcinogen) can be created by mechanical recycling of PET#1 plastic, even with very low rates of contamination by PVC#3 plastic, resulting in the cancer-causing chemical being found in recycled plastics.

Plastic production, disposal, and incineration facilities are most often located in low-income, marginalized communities across the world, which suffer from higher rates of cancer, lung disease and adverse birth outcomes associated with their exposure to the toxic chemicals.

Graham Forbes, Global Plastics Campaign Lead at Greenpeace USA, said: “The plastics industry—including fossil fuel, petrochemical, and consumer goods companies—continues to put forward plastic recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution crisis. But this report shows that the toxicity of plastic actually increases with recycling. Plastics have no place in a circular economy and it’s clear that the only real solution to ending plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production.”

The devastating impacts of the escalating overproduction of plastic heightens the need to accelerate refill- and reuse-based systems—but not with expanded plastic recycling efforts. 

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