IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

Increasing Evidence Shows: There are No Safe and Circular Plastics

Plastics Treaty Delegates Urged to Follow the Science and Aim for Ambitious Curbs on Plastic Production and Controls on Toxic Chemicals in Plastic

Health and environmental advocates from dozens of IPEN’s member groups from around the world are traveling to Nairobi, Kenya for next week’s meeting of the third session of the Plastics Treaty Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-3), where they will urge delegates to heed the latest science showing that because toxic chemicals are used to make all plastics, there are no plastics that can be deemed safe or circular. The IPEN member group leaders will also warn that recycling will not solve the plastic pollution crisis but instead they call for significant reductions in plastic production and support a Treaty that establishes strong controls to eliminate health and environmental threats from chemicals in plastics.

“Plastics are a global crisis and the Arctic is a hemispheric sink for chemicals transported in plastics that accumulate in the bodies of fish, wildlife, and people,” said IPEN Co-chair Pamela Miller, and Executive Director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT). “Since there are no known safe and circular plastics, we need a Treaty that ensures drastic reduction in plastics production to protect people and the planet.”

The evidence of toxic threats from chemicals in plastics has been accumulating, with recent evidence showing the complexity of the toxic plastic problem. Data published last week reveal that hundreds of chemicals, including numerous highly toxic pesticides, were found in recycled plastic material (pellets) collected from thirteen countries across Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. In correspondence published last week in the prestigious journal Science, researchers from IPEN, the University of Gothenburg, Aarhus University, and the University of Exeter noted that “Hazardous chemicals present risks to recycling workers and consumers, as well as to the wider society and environment… Before recycling can contribute to tackling the plastics pollution crisis, the plastics industry must limit hazardous chemicals.” A webinar previewing a forthcoming study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology noted that there are more than 16,000 chemicals used in plastics with 25% classified as hazardous and noted that “no plastic chemical [can be] classified as safe.”

“Plastics are chemicals, many of which are known to be toxic. The Plastics Treaty needs to focus on eliminating toxic chemicals throughout the plastic life cycle,” said IPEN Science and Technical Advisor Dr. Therese Karlsson. “Without safety data, transparency, and traceability of chemicals in plastics, it is not possible to say that any plastics are safe or circular.”

IPEN is also urging delegates not to rely on plastic recycling (aka, plastic circularity) as a solution to the plastic pollution problem. Earlier this year, a Greenpeace report summarized data from IPEN research and other independent studies on recycled plastics. The report found that plastic recycling results in toxic emissions and hazardous recycled plastic products, posing threats to recycling workers, communities, and consumers across the waste recycling stream. IPEN studies earlier this year found internationally banned toxic plastic chemicals in consumer products from Kenya made from recycled plastics and in the blood of plastic recycling workers in Thailand.

The IPEN leaders will also warn delegates against the false promises of plastic recycling and are calling for a Treaty that establishes strong controls to eliminate health and environmental threats from chemicals in plastic. “The Global South faces an unequal share of the burdens from plastic pollution and the highly toxic chemicals from plastics that contaminate our food, water, air, and even toys that our children play with,” said Griffins Ochieng, Executive Director of CEJAD in Kenya and co-chair of IPEN’s Plastic Working Group. “We experience greater health risks because of loopholes in international regulations and abuses by corporations and countries that export plastic wastes which contain and release dangerous chemicals. We urgently need stronger global policies to end the crisis from toxic plastics.”

“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 plastic recycling,” said Dr. Bethanie Carney Almroth, of the University of Gothenburg in Göteborg, Sweden and a co-author of a recent study showing that plastic and chemical pollution has exceeded the Earth’s “planetary boundaries.” Dr. Almroth continued, “Numerous studies show that hazardous chemicals can accumulate even in relatively close-loop plastic recycling systems. We need to rapidly phase-out plastic chemicals that can cause harm to human health and the environment.”

The negative consequences of toxic plastic chemicals are well documented. Just last month, an IPEN studyrevealed that the toxic chemicals chlorinated paraffins (CPs) were found in all plastic toys tested from 10 countries, including short-chain CPs which were globally banned in 2017. The study demonstrates that even the most toxic plastic chemicals can remain in commerce for years after governments take action to restrict production. Another IPEN study found that plastic wastes are exported with limited to no transparency, often under the guise of reuse or recycling. IPEN and the U.S. nonprofit Beyond Plastics also released a report last week detailing the decades of failures of chemical recycling of plastics, a technology that creates massive hazardous waste streams and toxic emissions that pose threats to communities and the climate.

IPEN is urging delegates not to rely on recycling as the way out of the plastic crisis and instead to adopt strong, legally-binding provisions focused on upstream approaches. An IPEN report, Troubling Toxicsoutlines approaches in the Plastics Treaty that could establish criteria for a negative list of chemicals to eliminate/phase out from the production, use, and disposal of plastics.

At INC-3, IPEN expects movement toward a strong Plastics Treaty to protect human health and the environment from harmful effects of plastics throughout its lifecycle. “The Treaty must have strong, legally binding controls that require the elimination of toxic chemicals throughout the lifecycle of plastics and publicly available and accessible traceability and transparency of chemicals used in plastics,” said IPEN Policy Advisor Vito Buonsante. “We encourage delegates to work through the Zero draft and move forward for a health-protective Treaty in 2024.”