Worrying insights into the chemicals in plastics
More potentially hazardous chemicals are lurking in plastics than has been assumed
Plastic is practical, cheap and incredibly popular. Every year, more than 350 million tonnes are produced worldwide. These plastics contain a huge variety of chemicals that may be released during their lifecycles – including substances that pose a significant risk to people and the environment. However, only a small proportion of the chemicals contained in plastic are publicly known or have been extensively studied.
A team of researchers led by Stefanie Hellweg, ETH Zurich Professor of Ecological Systems Design, has for a first time compiled a comprehensive database of plastic monomers, additives and processing aids for use in the production and processing of plastics on the world market, and systematically categorized them on the basis of usage patterns and hazard potential.
The study, just published in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, provides an enlightening but worrying insight into the world of chemicals that are intentionally added to plastics.
A high level of chemical diversity
The team identified around 10,500 chemicals in plastic. Many are used in packaging (2,489), textiles (2,429) and food-contact applications (2,109); some are for toys (522) and medical devices, including masks (247).
Of the 10,500 substances identified, the researchers categorized 2,480 substances (24 percent) as substances of potential concern.
“This means that almost a quarter of all the chemicals used in plastic are either highly stable, accumulate in organisms or are toxic. These substances are often toxic to aquatic life, cause cancer or damage specific organs,” explains Helene Wiesinger, doctoral student at the Chair of Ecological Systems Design and lead author of the study. About half are chemicals with high production volumes in the EU or the US.
“It is particularly striking that many of the questionable substances are barely regulated or are ambiguously described,” continues Wiesinger. In fact, 53 percent of all the substances of potential concern are not regulated in the US, the EU or Japan. More surprisingly, 901 hazardous substances are approved for use in food contact plastics in these regions. Finally, scientific studies are lacking for about 10 percent of the identified substances of potential concern.
Plastic monomers, additives and processing aids
Plastics are made of organic polymers built up from repeating monomer units. A wide variety of additives, such as antioxidants, plasticisers and flame retardants, give the polymer matrix the desired properties. Catalysts, solvents and other chemicals are also used as processing aids in production.
“Until now, research, industry and regulators have mainly concentrated on a limited number of dangerous chemicals known to be present in plastics,” says Wiesinger. Today, plastic packaging is seen as a main source of organic contamination in food, while phthalate plasticisers and brominated flame retardants are detectable in house dust and indoor air. Earlier studies have already indicated that significantly more plastic chemicals used worldwide are potentially hazardous.
Nevertheless, the results of the inventory came as an unpleasant surprise to the researchers. “The unexpectedly high number of substances of potential concern is worrying,” says Zhanyun Wang, senior scientist in Hellweg’s group. Exposure to such substances can have a negative impact on the health of consumers and workers and on polluted ecosystems. Problematic chemicals can also affect recycling processes and the safety and quality of recycled plastics.
Wang stresses that even more chemicals in plastics could be problematic. “Recorded hazard data are often limited and scattered. For 4,100 or 39 percent of all the substances we identified, we were not able to categorize them due to a lack of hazard classifications” he says.
A lack of data and transparency
The two researchers identified the lack of transparency in chemicals in plastics and dispersed data silos as a main problem. In over two and a half years of detective work, they combed through more than 190 publicly accessible data sources from research, industry and authorities and identified 60 sources with sufficient information about intentionally added substances in plastics. “We found multiple critical knowledge and data gaps, in particular for the substances and their actual uses. This ultimately hinders consumers' choice of safe plastic products”, they say.
Wiesinger and Wang are pursuing the goal of a sustainable circular plastic economy. They see an acute need for effective global chemicals management; such a system would have to be transparent and independent, and oversee all hazardous substances in full. The two researchers say that open and easy access to reliable information is crucial.
Other news from the department science
Blue-green algae sugar instead of glyphosate
Cooperation project develops environmentally friendly glyphosate alternative
Using clay to combat eternal toxins
TU Freiberg clarifies basis for innovative PFAS filter made of clay
Unveiling a new era of imaging: Boston University engineers lead breakthrough microscopy techniques
Researchers made significant advancements in the field of vibrational imaging
Phasing out fossil fuels could save millions of lives
The mortality burden attributable to air pollution from fossil fuel use is considerably higher than most previous estimates - a phaseout of fossil fuels would have tremendous, positive health outcomes
Replicating the structure of bird feathers
The new material could be used in batteries or filtration
Quantum tool opens door to uncharted phenomena
Method can contribute to a better understanding of quantum materials
Recovering instead of shredding: recycling batteries more efficiently
KIT researchers are working with industry to develop a more sustainable recycling process to recycle materials from lithium-ion batteries more effectively
Industry 4.0: No impact on energy consumption?
To what extent does the digitalisation of industrial and manufacturing processes (Industry 4.0) improve energy efficiency and thus reduce energy intensity?
New approach to the sensible utilisation of carbon dioxide from car exhaust gases
"A method has been discovered that uses impure CO2 streams and enables a breakthrough in the synthesis of valuable chemicals and pharmaceuticals"
Boosting PET recycling with higher standards for laboratory experiments
New study shows how enzymatic plastic degradation could be brought one step closer to commercialisation
Innovating Optoelectronic Components with Phosphorus
Significant breakthrough: phosphorus chemists develop new method to selectively introduce phosphorus and nitrogen atoms into polyaromatic systems
Artificial intelligence finds ways to develop new drugs
The chemists tested the process using borylation – a reaction that activates hydrocarbon scaffolds
X-rays reveal how glasses lose their stability
PETRA III experiment shows how atoms in glass behave as weaknesses appear
Most read news
Plastic-eating bacteria turn waste into useful starting materials for other products
Microbial Upcycling of Waste PET
Microbes could help reduce the need for chemical fertilizers
A coating protects nitrogen-fixing bacteria: Start-up to commercialise coated bacteria for large-scale use in regenerative agriculture
New designs for solid-state electrolytes may soon revolutionize the battery industry
Scientists achieve monumental improvements in lithium-metal-chloride solid-state electrolytes
Dow and Evonik announce startup of hydrogen peroxide to propylene glycol (HPPG) pilot plant
Innovative technology offer flexibility, lower costs, and a smaller environmental footprint
Inauguration of the world’s first pilot plant for the cost-efficient production of green methanol
Start-up C1 Green Chemicals AG and research partners develop fundamentally new production process
This is a battery
Two colored liquids bubbling through tubes: Is this what the battery of the future looks like?
Converting PFAS “forever chemicals” into valuable compounds
Scientists develop a new method to incorporate harmful perfluoroalkenes into N-heterocyclic carbene ligands
Not so silver lining: Microplastics found in clouds could affect the weather
Low-altitude and denser clouds contained greater amounts of microplastics
Graphene's proton permeability: A switch for future energy technologies
This discovery could lead to the development of more efficient hydrogen fuel cells and solar water-splitting devices
Lithium-ion batteries are no longer the gold standard in battery tech
On the way to safer and more powerful energy sources
CO2-free hydrogen: BASF receives funding approval for 54-megawatt water electrolysis plant
Proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer expected to produce up to 8,000 metric tons of hydrogen per year
More news from our other portals
Bowel cancer: aspirin activates protective genes
Researchers have identified a signaling pathway by which aspirin can inhibit colorectal cancer.
Dunning-Kruger effect with muesli bars
Those who know the least consider themselves highly competent
Autonomous measuring instruments systematically detect new materials
A new algorithm measures materials libraries up to four times faster than before: It’s based on machine learning
New drug delivery system could reduce daily diabetes shots to just three a year
Dietary management drugs have transformed Type 2 diabetes care, but daily injection routines are challenging for some patients
Naked Clams: The New Superfood Sensation Emerging from the Depths
Researchers found Naked Clams contain almost twice the amount of Vitamin B12 as blue mussels and have developed an efficient way to farm them
Researchers discover new ultra strong material for microchip sensors
A material that doesn't just rival the strength of diamonds and graphene, but boasts a yield strength 10 times greater than Kevlar
Pushers, overcrowded trains and phone zombies
Sprite presents the world's first vending machine that responds to the things that bother Generation Z the most
Aston University technology to combat the not-so sweet practice of honey fraud
Light technology to be used to detect if honey is blended with cheap additions
How stem cells and immune cells communicate
Lisec Artz Award for Simon Haas: Groundbreaking discovery of an unknown protective mechanism against blood cancer from stem cells
Scientists use quantum biology, AI to sharpen genome editing tool
"This study represents an exciting advancement toward, understanding how we can avoid making costly ‘typos’ in an organism’s genetic code"
From the trough to the plate - digitally calculated
Computer program "ConTrans" estimates how much of an undesirable substance is transferred from animal feed to food
Viral Impostors: Breakthrough for Virus Research
The penetration of viruses into cells can now be tracked with unprecedented accuracy thanks to innovative design for pseudoviruses
Fatty acid factory filmed at work
High-resolution images provide new insights into cellular fatty acid production: Potential for medicine and biotechnology
Textbook knowledge turned on its head: 3-in-1 microorganism discovered
Newly multifunctional bacterial species
Tönnies Group launches first nationwide "Meat Climate Platform"
100 guests at the Future Forum for Agriculture
Tracking down Environmental Toxins
Detection of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) by interrupted energy transfer
Could eating turkey ease colitis?
According to data in mice, extra tryptophan could reduce the risk of future colitis flares
The weight of pollution: exposure linked to obesity
Chronic exposure to environmental pollutants found to increase risk of cardiovascular disease
Are healthy foods automatically sustainable, too?
Perceptions about sustainability and healthy food choices are closely linked