Updated May 25, 2023

Greenpeace warns recycled plastic is no fix for pollution

Before the latest rounds of negotiations for an international plastics treaty, campaign group Greenpeace has warned that recycling plastic can make it more toxic and should not be considered a solution to the pollution crisis.

In a report bringing together research which showed that recycled plastics are more toxic than non-recycled, the environmental network said that "plastics are inherently incompatible with a circular economy".

Coinciding with the beginning of fresh talks for a potential global plastics treaty, the report comes as separate research has found breaking down plastics for recycling scatters microplastic pollution into the environment.

Representatives from 173 countries last year agreed to develop a legally binding treaty covering the "full lifecycle" of plastics from production to disposal, to be negotiated over the next two years. They are due to meet in Paris for talks that have already been criticised for excluding communities in developing countries harmed by dumping and burning of plastic waste, as well as marginalised waste pickers, who are crucial to recycling.

Without those voices the fear is that negotiations will be swayed by corporate interests. Graham Forbes, Lead on Greenpeace USA's global plastics campaign, said: "The plastics industry – including fossil fuel, petrochemical and consumer goods companies – continues to put forward plastic recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution crisis".

"But . . . the toxicity of plastic actually increases with recycling. Plastics have no place in a circular economy and it's clear that the only real solution to ending plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production".

Since the 1950s around 8 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced. The Greenpeace report catalogues peer-reviewed research and international studies showing, not only that just a small proportion (9%) of plastics are ever recycled, but also that those that are, end up with higher concentrations of toxic chemicals, multiplying their potential harm to human, animal and environmental health.

The report says that recycled plastics often contain:

  • higher levels of chemicals such as toxic flame retardants, benzene, and other carcinogens;
  • environmental pollutants including brominated and chlorinated dioxins; and
  • numerous endocrine disruptors that can cause changes to the body's natural hormone levels.

Dr Therese Karlsson, a science adviser with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), said: "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 endeavour 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".

Plastic production is forecast to triple by 2060, and Greenpeace said any global plastics treaty must achieve immediate significant reductions in plastic production, as a first step on a pathway to the total elimination of the manufacture virgin plastic.

Greenpeace said that plastics that remain must be reused as far as possible, while waste disposal technologies are developed that do not involve simply burning or burying it.

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