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Threats from Plastic Recycling

Context:

At the Second Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee Meeting in Paris, a recent report titled “Forever Toxic: The science on health threats from plastic recycling,” published by Greenpeace Philippines, challenges the widely held belief that recycling is the ultimate solution to plastic pollution.

Relevance:

GS III: Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. Plastic Pollution
  2. Key Findings of the Report on Plastic Pollution
  3. Recommendations for Addressing Plastic Pollution

Plastic Pollution

Plastic waste is a persistent environmental issue due to its non-biodegradable nature, unlike biodegradable waste such as paper, food peels, and leaves. This waste remains in the environment for extended periods, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years.

Major Forms of Polluting Plastic Waste

Microplastics:

  • Size: Small plastic pieces measuring less than five millimeters.
  • Examples: Microbeads (solid particles under one millimeter) found in cosmetics and personal care products, industrial scrubbers, microfibers used in textiles, and virgin resin pellets utilized in plastic manufacturing.
  • Formation: Large plastic pieces that are not recycled break down into microplastics through sun exposure and physical wear.

Single-use plastic:

  • Definition: Disposable materials intended for one-time use before disposal or recycling.
  • Examples: Plastic bags, water bottles, soda bottles, straws, plastic plates, cups, most food packaging, and coffee stirrers are all common sources of single-use plastic.

Key Findings of the Report on Plastic Pollution

Recycled plastics often contain higher levels of harmful chemicals:

  • Chemicals such as toxic flame retardants, benzene, carcinogens, environmental pollutants like brominated and chlorinated dioxins, and numerous endocrine disruptors are found in higher concentrations in recycled plastics.
  • These chemicals can cause changes to the body’s natural hormone levels.

Plastics harbor thousands of chemicals, many of which are hazardous:

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

Toxic chemical accumulation through various pathways:

  • Direct contamination from toxic chemicals present in virgin plastic.
  • Substances like plastic containers for pesticides and cleaning solvents that enter the recycling chain and contaminate plastic.
  • The recycling process itself, particularly when plastics are heated.

Increased risk of fires at recycling facilities:

  • The accumulation of plastic stockpiles has led to an increased risk of large fires, particularly in facilities handling e-waste plastics with used batteries.
  • A survey conducted in the United States and Canada in 2022 reported a record 390 fires in plastic recycling and waste facilities.
  • Large fires have also been reported in various countries, including Australia, Canada, Ghana, Russia, Southern Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and different states in the United States (Florida, Indiana, North Carolina) in the 12 months leading up to April 2023.

Plastic production set to triple, while recycling rates remain low:

  • Plastic production is projected to triple by 2060, with minimal growth in recycling rates anticipated.
  • Since the 1950s, approximately 8 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced.
  • Only a small proportion (9%) of plastics are recycled, and those that are recycled often contain higher concentrations of toxic chemicals, amplifying their potential harm to human, animal, and environmental health.

Disproportionate impact on marginalized communities:

  • Plastic production, disposal, and incineration facilities are predominantly located in low-income, marginalized communities worldwide.
  • These communities experience higher rates of cancer, lung disease, and adverse birth outcomes due to their exposure to the toxic chemicals associated with plastic pollution.

Recommendations for Addressing Plastic Pollution

Implement deep policies and market shifts:

  • Countries and companies should adopt comprehensive policies and market shifts that utilize existing technologies to reduce global plastic pollution by 80% by 2040.
  • These measures should aim to transition towards a circular economy, where plastics are eliminated from the system.

Reduce plastic production:

  • The most effective solution to ending plastic pollution is to significantly decrease plastic production.
  • There is a need for a substantial reduction in the overall amount of plastic being produced worldwide.

Establish a Global Plastics Treaty:

  • An ambitious, legally binding Global Plastics Treaty should be developed to facilitate a just transition away from plastic dependence.
  • This treaty should accelerate efforts to address plastic pollution and provide the necessary conditions for its reduction.

Promote safer and toxics-free materials:

  • The Global Plastics Treaty should promote the use of safer materials that are free from harmful toxins.
  • Emphasizing the adoption of these materials will contribute to reducing the negative impact of plastics on human and planetary health.

Encourage reuse-based, zero-waste economies:

  • The treaty should support the transition towards reuse-based economies and zero-waste practices.
  • This approach promotes the reuse of materials and minimizes resource consumption, thereby reducing plastic waste.
  • Generate new jobs and support affected communities:
  • The transition to safer and more sustainable practices should create new job opportunities.
  • It is essential to protect workers and affected communities throughout the plastics supply and waste chains during this transition process.

Source: Down to Earth


June 2024
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