More than 190 governments will meet in Kenya from 28 February-2 March 2022, for the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) to consider negotiating a treaty on plastic pollution.

The assembly comes as an alarming report from the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) reveals the unknown harm to people and environments from the recycling of plastics in the circular economy. 

IPEN, based in Sweden and comprising more than 600 public interest NGOs in over 120 countries, has called on the UN Environment Assembly to: 

  • Strengthen global policies to simplify the range and reduce the volume of plastic materials in commerce, focusing on essential uses, the elimination of toxic chemicals in new plastics, and the labelling of chemical ingredients.
  • End hazardous plastic waste management through policies that protect human health and the environment, including banning toxics recycling, the use of plastic waste as fuel, and incineration as a disposal method.
  • Hold plastic and chemical producers financially responsible for the social, economic, and environmental harm caused by their products through taxes, fees, and deposit return programs.

Ahead of the UN assembly, IPEN has published studies that demonstrate the significant difficulties for countries seeking to implement safe plastic circular economies. 

The studies reveal that countries are unable to handle large volumes of diverse plastics waste streams safely, and the reality is that, without regulations requiring plastic ingredients to be labelled, countries are blindly allowing known toxic chemicals onto their markets in plastic products. Given current forecasts for huge growth in plastic and chemical production this threat to human and environmental health will increase.

To better understand the risks associated with plastics and the circular economy, IPEN investigated the situation in three significant global economies — China, Indonesia and Russia. It analysed:

  • the volume and trends of plastic production, import and use
  • the status of waste management, recycling and their governance systems

The results showed that all three countries struggled to safely manage massive volumes of plastic waste.

IPEN carried out three studies on the presence of toxic chemicals in plastic and synthetic textile consumer products available on the market. (The chemicals in such products are used to impart functionality, such as stain or water resistance, or remain as a result of recycling plastic products that already contain toxic additives). The studies looked at the following widely recognised chemicals of concern:

  • Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in recycled plastic products from China, Indonesia and Russia
  • Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals”, in clothing in China, Indonesia and Russia
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles in Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

These consumer product studies showed that toxic chemicals that have been banned under international chemicals conventions are being recycled from old waste into new consumer products, resulting in risks that are impossible to quantify because of a lack of knowledge on the composition. 

Also, toxic chemicals continue to be used in consumer products in the countries assessed, despite being identified as harmful and restricted, or banned in other regions, further fuelling the supply of non-circular hazardous plastic waste globally.

“Overall, the studies’ findings paint a nightmare scenario of countries unable to deal with complex hazardous waste streams and citizens being exposed to toxic chemicals in everyday products,” said Vito Buonsante, Policy and Technical Advisor, IPEN.

Olga Speranskaya, policy advisor to Eco-Accord, one of the participating organizations in the studies, said: “The results of our tests … [demonstrate] that toxic chemicals are widely present in consumer plastic products, including products for children. Moreover, plastic contaminated with toxic chemicals are being recycled into new products that come into contact with vulnerable people, including babies and pregnant women.” 

According to Indonesian expert Yuyun Ismawati, co-founder at Nexus3 Foundation, “It is shocking to find that every single plastic product from China, Indonesia and Russia tested positive for banned flame retardants. There is no mechanism to warn people about the risks from being exposed to these chemicals. The results are clear — plastics are poisoning the circular economy.” 

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  1. Multiexposure to toxic compounds and synergistic effects between different chemicals are big threats to life as a are heading to a more and more toxic polluted world.