The recycling of hazardous chemicals in plastic may threaten human health and poison the circular economy. A study conducted by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) found that toxic chemicals from plastics were not removed during the recycling process but carried over to the new recycled plastic products. While the increase in plastic recycling was seen as a solution to the plastic pollution problem, plastics containing toxic chemicals should not be recycled at all and instead considered as non-circular materials.
Toxic chemicals such as brominated flame retardants (BFRs) have been found in recycled plastic products from China, Indonesia, and Russia. BFRs are chemicals added to products to prevent them from catching fire. All 73 samples of plastic products such as toys, hair accessories, office supplies and kitchen utensils analysed by IPEN contained BFRs. The presence of BFRs in the products may cause harm to humans and the environment.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as ‘forever chemicals’ have also been found in clothing of these three countries in an analysis by IPEN. PFAS chemicals have been used widely to make outdoor clothing waterproof. The presence of the PFAS chemicals in consumer products may cause exposure during production and disposal. Most textile waste ends up in landfill or incinerated, therefore leading to PFAS and fluorinated greenhouse gas emissions, besides other pollutant releases from incineration. Believe it or not, we are all exposed to PFAS as recent studies have shown that PFAS have been detected in air, soil, water, and even drinking water sources.
Another toxic chemical is Bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical that is widely used in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. A number of countries, including Malaysia, EU member states, China, and Indonesia have restricted the use of BPA in baby bottles. However, in a study carried out by the Consumers’ Association of Penang (CAP) in collaboration with IPEN, BPA was detected in all 9 Malaysian samples of polycarbonate bottles tested including an imported baby bottle.
Exposure to BPA which is an endocrine disrupting chemical is linked to several adverse health effects including cancer, fertility disorders, and sexual dysfunction both in men and women, as well as diabetes. Children’s BPA levels are higher than in adults’ as babies are exposed to BPA through beverages and food that leach from bottles and other containers.
A study by CAP and IPEN on recycled plastic pellets, showed that pellets contain three groups of known chemical hazardous substances, which are benzotriazole UV-stabilizers (BUVs), brominated flame retardants, and bisphenol A.
Benzotriazole UV-stabilizers (BUVs) are extensively used in plastics, coatings, and cosmetics as they can prevent degradation from sunlight exposure. Some BUVs can bioaccumulate and also persist in the environment. In addition, some of the BUVs can affect human health; for example, endocrine disruption. BUVs are known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Some of the pellets that were analysed in the study contained UV-327, which is classified as a Substance of Very High Concern in the EU. Specific authorisation is required before the use of UV-327. The substance may cause organ damage, may harm aquatic life with long-lasting effects, serious eye irritation, may cause skin irritation, and respiratory irritation.
According to Science Advisor of IPEN, Dr Sara Brosché, the pellets from Malaysia are not suitable for use in new products, particularly products that expose children to toxic chemicals. Therefore, we must not recycle plastic materials that contain toxic chemicals. Furthermore, manufacturers should phase out the toxic chemicals used in plastic and disclose any toxic content to downstream users, consumers, recyclers, and waste management personnel.
The export of plastic and plastic waste containing toxic chemicals should be prohibited, especially electronic waste. Last but not least, the government also should play their part by not encouraging toxic plastic recycling businesses as it can cause environmental destruction and harm to workers and consumers’ health.
 Consumers Association of Penang. (2022). CAP: Toxic chemicals found in plastic pellets used for recycled plastics https://consumer.org.my/cap-toxic-chemicals-found-in-plastic-pellets-used-for-recycled-plastics/
 IPEN (2022). Plastic Poisons the Circular Economy |https://ipen.org/news/plastic-poisons-circular-economy
 IPEN (2022). Brominated Flame Retardants in Plastic Products from China, Indonesia, and Russia https://ipen.org/documents/brominated-flame-retardants-plastic-products-china-indonesia-and-russia
 IPEN (2022). PFAS in clothing study in Indonesia, China, and Russia shows barriers for non-toxic circular economy. https://ipen.org/sites/default/files/documents/ipen-pfas-2021-v1_6w.pdf
 IPEN (2021)Widespread chemical contamination of recycled plastic pellets globally . https://ipen.org/documents/widespread-chemical-contamination-recycled-plastic-pellets-globally