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An Interview with Greenpeace: The Harmful Reality of Plastic Recycling

What are the key issues we currently face in regard to plastic?

Plastic pollution has flooded our planet, harming people’s health, accelerating social injustice, destroying biodiversity, and fueling the climate crisis at each stage of plastic’s lifecycle - from the extraction of oil and gas to disposal in landfills and incinerators to the plastic trash that clogs our oceans.

Science is only beginning to understand the long-term effects of plastic on human health, yet microplastics have been found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and even in our organs and blood.

A new Greenpeace report has been published highlighting the toxic hazards of recycled plastic. Can you summarize the most important points raised in the report, including the three “poisonous pathways”?

The reality is that most plastics collected for recycling are never recycled – and when plastics are recycled, they contain a toxic cocktail of chemicals that makes them unfit for food-grade and other consumer uses.

Recycling is not a safe or effective way to end plastic pollution.

The report highlights three “poisonous pathways” for recycled plastic material to accumulate toxic chemicals:

1. Direct contamination from toxic chemicals in virgin plastic: When plastics are made with toxic chemicals and then recycled, the toxic chemicals can transfer into recycled plastics.

2. Leaching of toxic substances into plastic waste: When plastics are tainted by toxins in the waste stream and the environment and are then recycled, they produce recycled plastics that contain a stew of toxic chemicals. For example, plastic containers for pesticides, cleaning solvents, and other toxic chemicals that enter the recycling chain can contaminate recycled plastic.

3. New toxic chemicals created by the recycling process: When plastics are heated in the recycling process, this can generate new toxic chemicals that make their way into the recycled plastics. For example, brominated dioxins are created when plastics containing brominated flame retardants are recycled, and a stabilizer used in plastic recycling can degrade to a highly toxic substance in recycled plastics. Sorting challenges and the presence of specific packaging components in sorted materials can also lead to toxicity in recycled plastic

If recycling plastic is considered a serious threat to our society, what are the possible alternative solutions to the current plastic pollution crisis and how can we achieve this?

We cannot recycle our way out of this crisis. Major players in the industry must recognize that plastic recycling will never be fully sustainable. To date, it is estimated that only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled globally, and production is projected to triple in the future. We will never be able to solve this crisis with just waste management and cleanups. The solution is for decision-makers to support a strong plastics treaty to end runaway plastic production and invest in refill and reuse.

What is the significance of the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations in Paris, and what could it mean for our society?

The Global Plastics Treaty represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle an issue driving climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution in every corner of the planet, including our bodies. A treaty that fails to deliver significant reductions in plastic production and use will not solve the runaway plastic catastrophe already having devastating impacts on our health, communities, biodiversity, and climate.

How will Greenpeace’s recent report impact the future of plastic recycling and negotiations advocating agreements that cap plastic production?

Our report, Forever Toxic, highlights the threat that recycled plastics pose to the health of consumers, frontline communities, and workers in the recycling sector. Our previous research shows that very little plastic reaches recycling facilities in the first place.

Recycled plastics often contain higher levels of chemicals that can poison people and contaminate communities, including toxic flame retardants, benzene, and other carcinogens, environmental pollutants like brominated and chlorinated dioxins, and numerous endocrine disruptors that can cause changes to the body’s natural hormone levels.

Can you explain the seven-point plan that Greenpeace is advocating at the Paris talks?

A robust Global Plastics Treaty must match the scale of the plastic pollution crisis and end runaway plastic production and use. Plastic pollution is one of our most pressing environmental challenges, with the daily impacts growing more severe.

To meet the demands of science and justice, the treaty must:

Achieve immediate, significant reductions in plastic production, establishing a pathway to end virgin plastic production.

  1. Promote a shift to refill- and reuse-based economies, creating jobs and standards in new reuse industries and supporting established zero-waste practices.

  2. Support a just transition for workers across the plastics supply chain, prioritizing waste pickers who collect approximately 60% of all plastic for recycling globally.

  3. Promote non-combustion technologies for plastic stockpiles and waste disposal.

  4. Institute the “polluter pays” principle for plastic waste management and addressing health and environmental costs throughout the plastics life cycle.

  5. Significantly improve regulation, oversight, safety, and worker protections for existing recycling facilities.

  6. Require transparency about chemicals in plastics and eliminate all toxic additives and chemicals used in the plastics' life cycle.

This is a classic situation where we already know the solution. We have the technology to implement the solution. It is simple: we must turn off the plastic tap, produce less throwaway plastic, and invest in reuse and refill systems. So why are we not making use of the obvious solution? Because plastic production is a lifeline keeping the dying oil and gas industry alive, and it is concerning that the fossil fuel industry and consumer goods companies have such a loud voice in the Global Plastic Treaty negotiations.

What are the next steps for your team at Greenpeace?

A treaty that fails to deliver significant reductions in plastic production and use will not solve the plastic catastrophe that has devastating impacts on our health, communities, biodiversity, and climate.

We will continue to work toward achieving an effective Global Plastics Treaty that will end runaway plastic production and use.

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