In an article on February 17, 2021, the University of Plymouth reported on a study led by Andrew Turner published in the peer-reviewed journal Science of the Total Environment that found rare earth elements (REEs) in children‘s toys and food packaging. The authors suggest the plastic recycling process is contributing to the contamination of plastic materials.
The investigation was the first to systematically study the full range of REEs, including, among others, the lanthanide elements in various consumer plastics in addition to bromide and antimony. The authors explain that REEs have integral functions in electronic equipment, however, no purpose in other plastic materials. Yet, the results show that one or more REEs were found in 24 of the 31 products tested, with a higher abundance in plastics recycled from electronic waste. In addition, various REEs were also present in plastics where unregulated recycling is prohibited (e.g. in food packaging).
The authors conclude this suggests a more generic contamination source for REEs such as during mechanical separation and processing of recoverable components. Even though REEs have been found in much greater levels in other potential sources of exposure (e.g. food and tap water), health impacts from low-level chronic exposures are unknown. Furthermore, the presence of REEs often coincides with the occurrence of other more widely known and better-studied chemical additives and residues such as brominated flame retardants, which are a known cause for concern (FPF reported).
Already in a previous study published in May 2018, Turner and his team examined the presence of toxic substances within everyday consumer products (FPF reported, also see the presentation at the 2020 FPF workshop). They demonstrated that hazardous chemicals such as bromine and antimony were detectable in food contact articles and other everyday products due to the presence of recycled electrical equipment in the materials.
Turner et al. (February 6, 2021). “Rare earth elements in plastics.” Science of the Total Environment
University of Plymouth (February 17, 2021). “Plastic recycling results in rare metals being found in children’s toys and food packaging.”
Science Daily (February 17, 2021). “Plastic recycling results in rare metals being found in children’s toys and food packaging.”