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Is recycling the solution for plastic waste?

Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found toxic chemicals in recycled plastic collected in thirteen countries, including pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

At first glance, recycling plastic seems to be the most obvious solution for the enormous amounts of plastic waste produced daily. After all, if not controlled, a lot of this waste ends up in nature and the ocean, and does not decompose of its own accord. Using recycled plastic is also the latest trend, as brands jump on the opportunity to mention that they use recycled plastic in their packaging, clothing, and other products.

However, the new study shows that recycling plastic is not always such a good idea. The researchers looked at plastic pellets from recycling plants from thirteen different countries in Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe. These were found to contain hundreds of chemicals, including numerous highly toxic pesticides. In total, 491 organic compounds were detected and quantified in the pellets, with an additional 170 compounds tentatively annotated. These compounds span various classes, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, plastic additives.

Plastics absorb chemicals during production and use, which means that their reuse is complicated. There are few regulations on chemicals in plastics, and international trade in plastics waste complicate this issue. Therefore, before recycling can contribute to tackling the plastics pollution crisis, the plastics industry must limit hazardous chemicals.

Photo: Magda Ehlers