Plastics that are recycled often contain high levels toxic chemicals that can negatively impact people and the planet, according to a report published by Greenpeace in late May.

Describing plastic materials as “inherently incompatible with a circular economy,” the report notes that fewer than 10% of all plastics are recycled and details three pathways in which toxic chemicals are part of plastic production and recycling processes.

There are around 13,000 chemicals that can be used in plastic production, and these chemicals are transferred into recycled products.

In addition, plastics can absorb additional contaminants and chemicals with which they come into contact in the recycling stream and additional chemicals (some of which are known carcinogens) are created when plastics are heated for reuse.

Many items that are technically recyclable never reach a recycling facility, but make their way to landfills, official and unofficial, or are burned. A 2022 report from Greenpeace details the small percentage of materials that are recycled, and a 2019 report from GAIA detailed the negative environmental impacts of recyclable materials being disposed of or burned.

Even the recycling processes have negative impacts, the report noted, including the production of “harmful, air-polluting chemicals” and negative health impacts on workers in recycling facilities who might “inhale toxic dust or fumes.” In addition, recycled plastics have been found to contain “endocrine-disrupting chemicals and chemicals with links to neurotoxicity, cytotoxic effects and cardiovascular impacts.”

Fires at plastic recycling facilities are a growing concern, particularly at e-waste facilities. When they occur, the burning plastics release toxic chemicals into the air that can harm the health of residents living near these facilities and could contaminate food grown in the area.

The report emphasized the importance of shifting from a mentality of recycling as a viable means to address plastic waste and pollution and moving toward a substantive and sustained effort to reduce plastic production and increase refill and reuse processes.

“Members of the U.S. Plastics Pact lobby for the recycling and ‘circular use’ of plastics, distracting attention from the need for massive reductions in global plastic production and shifting the burden of dealing with plastic waste away from themselves as the producers and onto the public,” the report said.

“The reality is that most plastics collected for recycling are never recycled – and when plastics are recycled, they contain a toxic cocktail of chemicals that makes them unfit for food-grade and other consumer uses. In fact, plastics are inherently incompatible with a circular economy.”

The full report is available here.

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