On December 13, 2021, the civil society groups International Pollution Elimination Network (IPEN) and International Pellet Watch released two studies reporting on the presence of toxic additives in plastic pellets used in the manufacturing of plastic products. The studies assessed “spilt or lost pre-production plastic pellets found on beaches” and “recycled plastic pellets purchased form recycling facilities around the world.” Every analyzed sample contained chemicals known to cause negative human health outcomes.
The beach study collected pellets from 22 beaches in 20 countries on all six populated continents, and the Caribbean to assess them for toxic substances including ten different benzotriazole UV (BUV) light stabilizers and 13 different polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Pellets were sorted into polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), and other polymers, and colored pellets were excluded from analysis to analyze pellets that were comparably weathered. Every sample contained all 23 chemicals. One of the BUVs, 2-(3,5-di-tert-amyl-2-hydroxylphenyl)benzotriazole (UV-328; CAS 25973-55-1), has been shown to induce endocrine-disrupting effects, liver, and kidney damage (FPF reported). In January 2021 UV-328 was found to fulfill the criteria for classification as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) under the Stockholm Convention (though it has not been formally classified as a POP, FPF reported).
Many of the BUVs in the pellets were intentionally added during production but use of PCBs is banned in most industrialized nations due to their persistence but still are unintentionally produced in some industries or leak from e-waste. The PCBs are likely absorbed by the pellets from the environment and can later release the absorbed chemicals into new environments if the pellets move through waterways or are ingested by wildlife. IPEN reported, “ the concentrations [of BUVs and PCBs] were especially high in African countries, even though they are not major producers of chemicals nor plastics.”
Recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic pellets were collected from 24 facilities in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Europe and analyzed for 11 flame retardants, six BUVs, and bisphenol A (BPA; CAS 80-05-7). IPEN reported that nearly all recycled pellets analyzed contained the flame retardant decabromodiphenyl ether (decaBDE; CAS 1163-19-5), which was banned under the Stockholm Convention in 2017 and most samples contained 11 or more of the analyzed additives. According to IPEN, the presence of flame retardants in recycled plastic pellets “indicates that plastics waste from electronics and polycarbonate products generally feed into HDPE recycling streams globally.”
Studies in Europe have found decaBDE and other flame retardants that are known to be carcinogenic in recycled plastic products, including food contact materials, likely from illicit recycling practices (FPF reported, also here and here).
IPEN and IPW suggestions to policy makers and manufacturers include phasing out groups of hazardous chemicals instead of assessing the health hazards of similarly structured chemicals one at a time (FPF reported); “establishing a right-to-know regulation that requires producers to publicly disclose substances and chemical additives used in products;” stopping the plastic waste trade (FPF reported); and implementing extended producer responsibility practices (FPF reported, also here).
IPEN (December 13, 2021). “New global studies show health threats throughout the plastics supply chain.”
IPEN (December 2021). “Plastic’s Toxic Chemical Problem: A Growing public health crisis (Executive Summary).”
Therese Karlsson, et al. (December 2021). “ Plastic pellets found on beaches all over the world contain toxic chemicals.” IPEN
Sara Brosche, et al. (December 2021). “Widespread chemical contamination of recycled plastic pellets globally.” IPEN