IPEN International Pollutants Elimination Network

UN Report: Global Controls on Chemicals and Reducing Production Key to Addressing the Plastics Crisis

plastic litter on a beach

Technical review calls for protecting health and the environment from toxic chemical exposures throughout the plastic life cycle 

Geneva – A report released this week from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions notes that chemicals released throughout the life cycle of plastics pose serious health and environmental threats and should be the focus of global regulations. The review, “Chemicals in Plastics: A Technical Report” has immediate significance for the upcoming Plastics Treaty negotiations in Paris later this month, as it explores in detail issues related to the invisible health threats posed by chemicals in plastic and the need for global chemical controls and approaches that promote reducing plastic production. 

The report notes that:

Hazardous chemicals can be emitted and released at all stages of the life cycle of plastics, leading to ecosystem and human exposures…. chemicals [from plastics] have been found to be associated with a wide range of acute, chronic, or multi-generational toxic effects, including specific target organ toxicity, various types of cancer, genetic mutations, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption and ecotoxicity…. Without the implementation of globally coordinated measures, the increasing production of plastics and associated chemicals will result in increasing pollution levels and associated environmental, social, and economic costs. 

“As the UN report highlights, chemicals linked to serious health conditions are a significant concern throughout the plastics life cycle,” said Lee Bell, an IPEN Policy Advisor and an expert reviewer of the UN report. “The Plastics Treaty must address the plastics crisis by addressing chemicals and health comprehensively and promoting reductions in plastic production and use. This will help drive solutions through the design of safer, toxics-free materials that move us toward a true circular economy.” 

The technical report finds that globally, about 22 million tonnes of plastics and chemicals from these plastics are released to the environment every year. Most chemicals used or found in plastics can migrate or leach out over time, and chemical releases from plastics during production, use, and waste disposal can contaminate air, water, soils, and food chains, with consequent risks to human health. Occupational exposures are a serious concern for plastic production, waste, and recycling workers, especially informal waste pickers (including child workers) primarily in developing countries who face significant chemical exposures.  

“Africa is not a major plastic producer but we bear an unequal share of the impacts from toxic plastic wastes,” said Semia Gharbi, an IPEN Steering Committee member and Chairperson of Tunisia’s Association de l’Education Environnementale pour les Futures Générations (AEEFG), who also served as an expert reviewer of the UN report. “When countries export plastic wastes which contain and release dangerous chemicals, our people suffer the consequences. The UN report shows that we urgently need stronger global policies to end the crisis from poisonous plastics.”

Other issues raised by the UN report are relevant to the Plastics Treaty, including: 

  • Beyond plastic pollution: the report notes that while much attention has focused on visible plastic litter and clean-up, limiting plastic production will be a more effective solution to the plastics crisis. 
  • Plastics carry toxic chemicals: because plastics travel the globe, toxic chemicals from plastics are found in every corner of the planet, demonstrating the need for global chemical and plastic controls. The report notes that ocean currents transport plastics containing an estimated 1,900 to 7,400 tonnes of hazardous chemical additives (and additional chemicals that adsorb to plastics) to the Arctic every year, with Indigenous peoples in the Arctic experiencing especially high chemical exposures through the consumption of contaminated traditional foods. 
  • A class-based approach to chemical controls and regulation of chemical mixtures: rather than phasing out problematic chemicals one at a time, the report calls for global controls on entire classes of hazardous chemicals. Also, toxicological testing of chemicals in plastic currently focuses on individual substances, but plastic products can contain hundreds of potentially harmful substances. Thus, more attention is needed to develop approaches that address chemical mixtures. 
  • Plastic waste creates chemical contamination: most plastic wastes and their associated chemicals are disposed to landfills or dumpsites or leak directly into the environment, largely in developing countries. Chemicals from waste plastics are released from landfills and dumps, contaminating groundwater, soil, and food chains in surrounding environments. Some toxic chemicals common in plastics have been detected at high concentrations in closed landfills even 50 years after closure. 
  • Plastic recycling recycles toxic chemicals and creates new chemical hazards: chemicals used in plastic products can contaminate recycled plastics. Numerous studies have found toxic chemicals, including some globally or nationally banned substances, in recycled plastic toys and other products. Chemical recycling and other recycling technologies can produce high amounts of hazardous wastes that lead to additional disposal complications. 
  • Transparency on chemicals in plastics: to address the health and environmental impacts from chemicals in plastics, there must be publicly available information on how plastic-associated chemicals are synthesized, how they are integrated into plastics, and at what
    levels they end up in plastic materials. 

The UN report suggests policy approaches for addressing chemicals of concern, including through regulatory phase-outs (especially of the most problematic chemicals, including POPs listed for global elimination and control), reductions in the use of chemicals identified by SAICM, transparency measures, and other regulations. The report recommends 

  • Reducing plastic production and consumption, starting with non-essential plastics, and promoting the design and manufacture of toxics-free materials.   
  • Avoiding poisonous (so-called “regrettable”) substitutions. 
  • Improving transparency with full disclosure of the identity and quantity of all chemicals from plastics.  
  • Updating regulatory testing guidelines. 
  • Developing waste management rules around chemicals of concern present in plastic waste, with particular attention to waste pickers’ needs.  
  • Adopting significant capacity-building efforts, in particular in developing countries for developing national regulations in coordination with global rules and other needs around chemicals in plastics and plastic waste.