Sponsored By

A Greenpeace report on the “health threats from plastic recycling” argues that global controls on chemicals in plastics and significant reductions in plastics production are the only solution to the “plastic crisis.”

Geoff Giordano

May 24, 2023

3 Min Read
skull and crossbones
illust-monster/iStock via Getty Images

Are recycled plastics progress or “poison?” For Greenpeace USA, it’s the latter.

Recycling increases the toxicity of plastics, according to the environmental activist group’s latest report, issued a few days before the United Nations (UN) convenes the second round of talks toward reaching a global plastics treaty.

Titled “Forever Toxic: The science of health threats from plastic recycling,” the report catalogs peer-reviewed research and international studies and cites UN Environment Programme data that show plastics contain more than 13,000 chemicals — “3,200 of them known to be hazardous to human health.”

Recycled plastics “often contain higher levels of chemicals that can poison people and contaminate communities,” the report asserts, “including toxic flame retardants, benzene, and other carcinogens; environmental pollutants like brominated and chlorinated dioxins; and numerous endocrine disruptors that can cause changes to the body’s natural hormone levels.”

Forever chemicals said to outlast recycling

The report cites Dr. Therese Karlsson, Science Advisor with the International Pollutants Elimination Network, who pointedly declared: “Plastics are made with toxic chemicals, and these chemicals don’t simply go away when plastics are recycled. The science clearly shows that plastic recycling is a toxic endeavor with threats to our health and the environment all along the recycling stream.

“Simply put, plastic poisons the circular economy and our bodies, and pollutes air, water, and food. We should not recycle plastics that contain toxic chemicals. Real solutions to the plastics crisis will require global controls on chemicals in plastics and significant reductions in plastic production.”

Three "poisonous pathways”

Three “poisonous pathways” through which toxic chemicals accumulate in recycled plastics are emphasized in the report. These chemicals are present in:

  • Virgin plastic;

  • substances like pesticides, cleaning solvents, and others that enter the recycling chain and can contaminate plastic;

  • the recycling process, when plastics are heated.

Regarding the latter, the report notes that brominated dioxins are created when plastics containing brominated flame retardants are recycled. Also, a stabilizer used in plastic recycling can degrade to a “highly toxic substance found in recycled plastics.” And, other studies have shown that carcinogenic benzene can be created by mechanical recycling of PET#1 plastic, “even with very low rates of contamination by PVC#3 plastic, resulting in the cancer-causing chemical being found in recycled plastics.”

Modern life under Greenpeace would be dramatically different

Plastic industry experts understandably have responded with raised eyebrows.

“If Greenpeace had its way, modern life would be dramatically different,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics at the American Chemistry Council. “People across the world, particularly in developing countries, would have less access to clean drinking water, safe food supplies, sanitary medical and personal care products, and renewable energy. The proposals in their report would disrupt global supply chains, hinder sustainable development, and substitute plastics with materials that have a much higher carbon footprint in critical applications.”

Another industry insider and regular columnist in PlasticsToday, Robert Lilienfeld, executive director of SPRING, is not surprised by this alarmist take on plastic recycling. (SPRING is the Sustainable Packaging Research, Packaging and Information Group in Broomfield, Colorado.)

“Sadly, this was bound to be the next phase of anti-plastic efforts and will most likely have very broad implications — whether it's true or not on a widescale basis,” Lilienfeld wrote on LinkedIn in response to a May 22 Washington Post report echoing the downside of plastics recycling — in that case, microplastics as a byproduct.

About the Author(s)

Geoff Giordano

Geoff Giordano is a tech journalist with more than 30 years’ experience in all facets of publishing. He has reported extensively on the gamut of plastics manufacturing technologies and issues, including 3D printing materials and methods; injection, blow, micro and rotomolding; additives, colorants and nanomodifiers; blown and cast films; packaging; thermoforming; tooling; ancillary equipment; and the circular economy. Contact him at [email protected].

Sign up for the PlasticsToday NewsFeed newsletter.

You May Also Like