Greenpeace warns of ‘uncontrollable poisonous pathways’ of plastic recycling

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A major new Greenpeace report claims that the plastic industry is ramping up its promotion of recycling to distract from efforts to cut plastic production and tackle a global plastic pollution crisis. The group warns that not only are less than 10% of all plastics ever recycled, but that recycling itself is stirring up new problems for society by creating “uncontrollable poisonous pathways”.

In its report – Forever Toxic: The Science on Health Threats From Plastic Recycling – Greenpeace calls for a Global Plastics Treaty that accelerates and creates the conditions needed for a “just transition away from dependence on plastic”. 

Greenpeace says the Treaty should promote safer, toxics-free materials and reuse-based, zero-waste economies. It argues that without dramatically reducing plastic production, it will be impossible to end plastic pollution and eliminate the health threats from chemicals in plastics. It says a Treaty must cap and reduce plastic production, and establish a pathway to end virgin plastic production. 

Greenpeace says that plastics industry, including fossil fuel, petrochemical, and consumer goods companies, are pushing for higher plastic recycling targets and more use of recycled content in a “circular use” cycle. But this, it says, is designed to distract 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 says that consumer goods companies tout the use of recycled plastic in their packaging as an important part of the solution, while failing to achieve significant reductions of overall plastic use – and in some cases increasing plastic use, or meaningful gains in reuse. The reality, says Greenpeace, is that most plastics collected for recycling are never recycled – and when plastics are recycled, it claims they “contain a toxic cocktail of chemicals that makes them unfit for food-grade and other consumer uses”. This, the group argues, makesplastics “inherently incompatible with a circular economy”. 

Greenpeace says dangerous chemicals make their way into recycled plastic materials from a variety of sources and through “three uncontrollable poisonous pathways”:  

  1. Toxic chemicals in new virgin plastic materials: 
  2. Leaching of toxic substances into plastic waste: 
  3. New toxic chemicals created by the recycling process:

Among the key aims of a Global Plastics Treaty, says Greenpeace, would be  immediate, significant reductions in plastic production, the establishment of a pathway to end virgin plastic production, promoting a shift to refill- and reuse-based economies and support a just transition for workers across the plastics supply chain, prioritizing waste pickers who collect approximately 60% of all plastic that is collected for recycling globally. Additionally, Greenpeace is calling for strict ‘polluter pays’ policies and increased transparency about chemicals and additives used in plastics. 

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