No place for toxins in circular economy

Plastic materials containing toxic chemicals should not be recycled; they should be phased out

By Richa Singh
Published: Friday 04 February 2022
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) granules. Photo: iStock
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) granules. Photo: iStock High-density polyethylene (HDPE) granules. Photo: iStock

The massive production and consumption of plastics have caused enormous quantities of plastic waste to be generated. Plastic pollution has emerged as global concern over the past few decades.

Increased recycling rates are the proposed solution to deal with the current health and environmental crisis caused by the menace of plastic wastes. The world also considers plastic recycling as a way towards adopting a circular economy approach.

Given all this, the concern over toxins entering the anthropogenic biome due to hazardous chemicals in plastics cannot be overlooked today.

Read: Why new rule allowing recycled plastic in food packaging raises concerns

Some chemicals are added during the manufacturing of plastic products to enhance their properties, such as flexibility, colour, durability and resistance to fire. Plastic products retain these chemicals even after their end-of-life phase and recycling.

The International Pollutants Elimination Network, a network of over 600 non-governmental organisations to eliminate toxic chemicals from the global environment, recently conducted a study.

It reported the presence of harmful substances such as brominated flame retardants, benzotriazole UV stabilisers and bisphenol in the pellets made from recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE).

These recycled HDPE pellets were procured from 24 recycling facilities in 23 countries, including India. The chemicals found in the recycled pellets were endocrine-disruptors that can interfere with endocrine systems causing cancerous tumors, congenital disabilities and other developmental disorders. 

Another study by Arnika Association (a Czech non-governmental organisation) reported the presence of Octabromodiphenyl ether (a brominated flame retardant) at concentrations ranging from 1-161 parts per million (ppm) in the samples of plastic toys, hair accessories and kitchen utensils.

The samples also contained Decabromodiphenyl ether at concentrations ranging from 1-3,310 ppm. The highest concentrations of hazardous chemicals were found in children’s toys, followed by hair accessories and kitchen utensils. These findings are critical in assessing the recycling potential of plastics containing hazardous chemicals.

In India, plastic products are typically recycled by mechanical recycling, where obsolete plastic products are shredded, melted and converted into  pellets which are further utilised in new products.

This process also transfers the toxic additives from the old plastic product to the new products. In this way, plastic product-to-product recycling could be hazardous and can cause severe damage to the environment and human health.

It is imperative to notice that increased recycling is intended to contribute to a so-called circular economy. However, the agenda of recycling should be pushed forward with the consideration of phasing out chemicals that impart hazardous characteristics to plastic products.

‘Plastics containing hazardous chemicals’ should not be recycled at any cost. Rather, they should be considered non-circular materials.

But, the recently notified Plastic Waste Management (Second Amendment) Rules, 2021, have allowed the packing of food items in recycled plastic bags.

They have done this by superseding the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, that restricted carry bags made of recycled plastic for food items.  Such policy interventions can expose us to the detrimental impacts of hazardous chemicals in the name of recycling.  

Currently, efforts are needed to phase out the usage of toxic chemicals such as brominated flame retardants, bisphenols and benzotriazole UV stabilisers in plastic product manufacturing, especially at the policy level.

Regulations should have provisions for banning the usage of hazardous materials in the product manufacturing phase itself. The manufacturers should reveal or disclose the usage of any harmful content in the plastic products to consumers, recyclers and waste handlers. Responsible production and consumption is the need of the hour.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.