Scientists worry chemicals could undermine global plastic treaty

Chemicals in plastics pose a risk to human and marine health, as chemicals in plastic packaging contaminates food and clog up waterways.

The United Nations is meeting next week in Uruguay to discuss an international legally binding treaty tackling plastic pollution, but scientists are concerned negotiations could overlook chemicals present in plastic.

A recent study found more than 10,000 chemical substances that could be used in plastic production and a lack of coordination among manufacturers means different chemical compositions are used for the same applications.

Scientists say this can lead to negative impacts and challenges, posing a risk to ecosystem health, as chemicals leach out of plastics during their lifetime, and also creating problems for technological solutions to plastic pollution.

‘This diversity of chemicals in different plastic products make different waste streams incompatible. This incompatibility can significantly reduce the quality of recycling products, resulting in down-cycling, and leading to toxic waste that requires extra safe handling measures,’ said by the lead author, Dr. Zhanyun Wang, a scientist from Empa – Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.

Jane Muncke, Managing Director and Chief Scientific Officer at the Food Packaging Forum (FPF), recently wrote for Environment Journal about how many chemicals in plastic packaging are still unknown to scientists.

Dr. Antonia Praetorius, assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam, suggests new types of reusable packaging are needed to tackle the problem: ‘A proposed solution to counteract plastic waste caused by single-use plastics is the increased use of more durable plastics, e.g., to allow for multiple reuse cycles of plastic takeaway food containers. The more complex the chemical makeup of these durable plastics, the more difficult it is to ensure their integrity and safety over extended product lifetimes.’

However, researchers are hopeful the negotiations could create real change and are urging policymakers and politicians to join forces and re-design plastics.

Identifying a common set of safe chemical additives is crucial in achieving this, so simpler and more standardized plastic formulations can be created. There are also calls for a circular plastic economy to reduce waste and protect the environment.

Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen


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