Recycled plastic more toxic, increases micro-plastic pollution: Greenpeace report

Greenpeace has asserted that the only way to truly manage the plastic crisis is by putting a cap on plastic production along with reuse and proper disposal strategies.

Amsterdam-based independent environmental campaigning network Greenpeace, in its latest report ahead of the network’s Global Plastics Treaty negotiations in Paris, has raised concern saying that recycled plastic is actually more toxic than the original components, contributes significantly to microplastic pollution, and is not a solution to environmental pollution.

The organization’s “Forever Toxic” report comes roughly seven months after a separate Greenpeace report that alleged no plastics in the U.S. meet the definition of “recyclable”. It brings together peer-reviewed studies from around the world to make claims about how chemicals in plastics, especially recycled plastics, affect human health and the environment.  


Plastics contain more than 13,000 chemicals, with more than 3,200 of them known to be hazardous to human health. Even when they are recycled, these substances don’t simply go away. Recycled plastics often contain higher levels of chemicals that can poison people and contaminate communities. 

“The plastics industry—including fossil fuel, petrochemical, and consumer goods companies—continues to put forward plastic recycling as the solution to the plastic pollution crisis. But this report shows that the toxicity of plastic actually increases with recycling,” says Graham Forbes, Global Plastics Campaign Lead at Greenpeace USA. “Plastics have no place in a circular economy and it’s clear that the only real solution to ending plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production.” 

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

  • 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. 
  • Leaching of toxic substances into plastic waste: Plastics can absorb contaminants through direct contact and through the absorption of volatile compounds. 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.
  • 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.

The process of recycling plastic material is poorly regulated, if it happens at all. Today only 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide and that is putting people and the planet at risk. Recycled plastics usually contain higher levels of chemicals like 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. 


Moreover, plastic production, disposal, and incineration facilities are most often located in low-income, marginalized communities across the world, which suffer from higher rates of cancer, lung disease, and adverse birth outcomes associated with their exposure to toxic chemicals. This is why the environmental group argues that discussions around the upcoming Treaty shouldn’t center only around the interests of corporate players but also take into account marginalized waste pickers and communities from developing countries involved in the hazardous process of plastics recycling. 

Greenpeace has asserted that the only way to truly manage the plastic crisis is by putting a cap on plastic production and a smooth transition for workers in the plastics industry. There should be extended producer responsibility on a wider scale while remaining plastic stockpiles should be handled with non-combustion technologies. Stopping and reducing excess production at source and reusing is the only way forth.

At negotiations for the Paris treaty which is set for next week, representatives from 173 countries would meet to develop a legally binding treaty that covers the “full lifecycle” of plastics from production to disposal. Greenpeace is advocating for a seven-point plan that the Global Plastics Treaty should: 

  • Achieve immediate, significant reductions in plastic production, establishing a pathway to end virgin plastic production. 
  • Promote a shift to refill and reuse-based economies, creating jobs and standards in new reuse industries and supporting established zero-waste practices. 
  • 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. 
  • Promote non-combustion technologies for plastic waste stockpiles and waste disposal. 
  • Institute the “polluter pays” principle for plastic waste management and for addressing the health and environmental costs throughout the plastics life cycle. 
  • Significantly improve regulation, oversight, safety, and worker protections for existing recycling facilities. 
  • Require transparency about chemicals in plastics and eliminate all toxic additives and chemicals used in the plastics’ life cycle. 

While most stakeholders have widely supported Greenpeace in its cause, those disputing the claims have argued about the benefits that plastics bring to modern society and argued about the lack of a viable alternative. Issuing a response to the report, the American Chemistry Council (ACC), said, “If Greenpeace had its way, modern life would be dramatically different. People across the world, particularly in developing countries, would have less access to clean drinking water, safe food supplies, sanitary medical and personal care products, and renewable energy.”

Further, the ACC has argued that the proposals made in the report would disrupt global supply chains, hinder sustainable development, and substitute plastics with materials that have a much higher carbon footprint in critical uses.

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