24 February 2022
A circular economy for plastic lies at the heart of all proposals for a binding international plastic treaty about which the world will meet from 28 February to 2 March in Nairobi. However, new IPEN (International Pollutants Elimination Network) research undermines this image of a circular economy in which plastic is endlessly recycled and there is no waste. Instead, it shows how plastic poisons the circular economy.
The reason is that plastic products contain chemicals that pose a health risk and are hazardous to the environment, even chemicals that have long been banned internationally. These chemicals cannot be removed in the recycling process and they continue to pollute the raw materials for new plastic products.
The circular economy must be safe. Regulations are needed to ensure that the world only uses safe chemicals for the production of plastic from now on. But recycling companies do not know what chemicals are contained in discarded plastic and governments are not able to monitor this. It seems as if this unsolvable problem will not be, or hardly be, discussed at the forthcoming negotiations. Countries and companies find common ground in the concept of a circular economy and anything that undermines this image of a bright future seems to be taboo.
PFAS, BPA AND FLAME RETARDANTS
IPEN examined a range of plastic products for the presence of brominated flame retardants, synthetic clothing for PFAS substances, and baby bottles for the endocrine disruptor BPA. These substances pose a risk to human health and the environment. The products examined were purchased in different countries. The results are extremely disturbing.
All 73 products that were tested for flame retardants did indeed contain them. The composition and concentrations showed that plastic waste from various sources were used as raw materials. Of the clothing examined, 86% contained PFAS substances, making these clothing unsuitable for recycling. And 78% of the 98 plastic baby bottles tested from eight countries contained BPA, the hormone disrupting substance that babies are especially sensitive to.
THE HEART OF THE PROBLEM
Last January, in their Pre-UNEA Statement, 70 multinationals and large banks jointly called for an international plastic treaty based on a circular economy. They share the vision of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. One part of that vision is that all plastic packaging must be free of dangerous chemicals. To this end, internationally binding agreements need to be made.
But the question of how to handle all the plastic waste that is now used as raw materials for recycling – which contain the controversial chemical substances – is not addressed. Products made of recycled plastic can be recycled again after use. This thus keeps the undesirable substances in the system forever, even if binding agreements would now be made to ban these substances.
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