Experts urge inclusion of dangers of chemicals in plastics treaty

Unea President Espen Barth Eide

Unea President Espen Barth Eide gives his opening address at the start of the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (Unea 5.2) in Nairobi on February 28, 2022.

Photo credit: Tony Karumba | AFP

As negotiations on a plastic waste treaty at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA 5.2) ended today, experts have urged that the dangers of chemicals used in making plastics be included in the agreement.

The call comes after a report from the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) showed the effects of hazardous chemicals on people’s health.

The report, “Plastic’s Toxic Chemical Problem”, shows the need to include the impact of toxic chemicals in the global treaty.

While most countries represented at UNEA were happy to embrace a circular economy, which includes recycling plastics, IPEN thinks that reprocessing plastic reintroduces toxic chemicals into the environment and should not be adopted.

“Plastics are poisoning the circular economy. It appears to be a good concept under the guise of recycling but it isn’t,” said Bjorn Beeler, IPEN general manager and international coordinator.

“When studies show that we are recycling about nine per cent of our plastic globally, we should not aim to go above that percentage as it is toxic.”

The report shows that companies that make plastics are responsible for the mess as they hide the contents of the plastic manufacturing process though they know the toxicity of the chemicals.

“Lack of transparency of data on toxic chemicals in the plastic market is appalling. Regulations are needed to label the plastic ingredients,” Mr Beeler said.

Most of the recycled plastics, he said, are found in toys, electronics and plastic bottle feeders for babies, among others.

“People and the environment are exposed when these chemicals leach from plastic products or are emitted from production, recycling and waste facilities,” the report says.

“Several scientific studies indicated that plastics play a significant role in transporting toxic chemicals around the world, threatening both human and environment health.”

This is even as Ana Teresa, Peru’s director of the environment in the ministry of foreign affairs (whose country, together with Rwanda, drafted the plastic waste treaty), confirmed that the chemical aspect of plastics had not been included in the treaty.

Giving context to the report on Ghana, one of the countries where the study was conducted, Dr Sam Adu-Kumi, programmes coordinator for chemicals control management at the Environmental Protection Agency, said that an analysis of chicken eggs gave a grim picture of chemicals that the birds consume that find their way in the eggs that humans eat.

“There is hope that the new global treaty will be passed but we hope to fill the gaps on chemical regulations by ensuring toxic plastics do not come to Africa from abroad,” he said.

This also backs a study conducted by Kenya’s Centre for Environmental Justice and Development showing toxic chemicals found in eggs from samples collected in Mirema, Nairobi.

Dr Tadesse Amera, an environmental scientist working with IPEN, said the solution must come from global control of hazardous waste found in plastics.

“When we talk about plastics, the visible aspects attract people but the great impact comes from issues that are not visible such as chemicals,” he said.

“If we would like to end pollution of plastics, we should focus on the chemicals as well. We have to come up with a green design by regulating pollutants affecting the environment.”

Mr Beeler said that there are more than 10,000 chemicals in the plastics industry and 25 per cent of those are harmful to the environment.

“These are chemicals that affect your health, some are endocrine-disrupting chemicals which can lead to cancer,” he said.

“Green designing is the solution to minimise such chemicals in plastic to be among us. We want companies to disclose what they have. We want the full cycle life to be included in the treaty – production to design to where the plastics go after use.”

Apart from the invisible pollutants in plastics, the chemical experts said that burning the waste also has a negative effect on the environment.

“When we burn the plastics, we are releasing the toxic substances to the environment. It also contributes to climate change as it releases greenhouse gases,” Mr Beeler said.


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