Plastic: a chemical cocktail

With nurdles in the news and new legislation on single-use products the plastic problem is impossible to ignore. Thanks to volunteers, like our Nurdle Hunters, who scour beaches for plastic and enlightening documentaries like Blue Planet II it’s now easy to see the scale of plastic pollution and the harm it causes.  But among the visible litter and industrial waste there is also an overlooked environmental issue: chemical pollutants. You’ll notice wildlife presenters will tell you ‘plastics concentrate chemicals that can harm wildlife’ but what are these chemicals, where do they come from and what are they doing to wildlife, our environment and us?


A growing chemical concern

Here at Fidra we have been investigating the harmful chemicals that end up in our environment as part of our chemical pollutants programme. Scientists and NGOs are researching this issue and new evidence is emerging every day. Plastics are a common source of many of the harmful chemicals that are damaging our environment. Some of these chemicals are well studied. If the harm a chemical can cause is established, and the routes of exposure identified, this can lead to bans and restrictions. But new chemicals and products are constantly being developed and current legislation is struggling to keep up.  Most products we use are not regulated and their chemical content is untested.  Potentially harmful chemicals are being found in everyday products and our environment. In the EU consumers have the right to ask retailers if certain substances of concern are used in the products they buy, but in practice this system rarely works and we simply do not know what is in our products.


Plastic as a source of chemicals of concern

Plastic is a complex chemical mixture. Most plastics are made from oil-based raw materials, or feedstock.  Additives are included to make this raw material flexible, colourful or even flame retardant. The oil-based feedstock can contain chemical contaminants including metals like lead and arsenic.  A new database of the chemicals associated with plastic packaging has shown there are thousands of chemicals that could be appear in packaging and 148 of these chemicals are known to be hazardous[i].  Each piece of plastic is a chemical cocktail and we don’t know what ingredients are in it. Common additives like bisphenols and phthalates have been shown to effect hormone systems and evidence of exposure has been found in wildlife and people’s blood and urine[ii].  While the concentration and amounts of many of these chemicals are often low in any given product there is growing evidence that for some chemicals that interfere with your hormones (endocrine disruptors) even a low dose may be cause for concern [iii].  But it is not just the amounts of harmful chemicals we need to consider, it is the complex chemical mixture combined with the frequency of exposure that has some toxicologists worried. It all adds to the chemical burden our environment and our bodies bear.

Dr Anna Watson, Head of Advocacy at CHEM Trust, said:

“Over 4000 chemicals have been identified that could be used in the manufacturing of plastic packaging and in the final packaging itself.

But in the end packaging product there will be many more unidentified chemicals – the so called non-intentionally added substances that we have next to no information about, including information on their hazards.

We cannot say that any plastic packaging is safe without this information. We really need to see the regulators and the industry taking action on this issue. The plastic packaging industry can lead by using fewer chemicals and avoiding groups of chemicals of concern such as the bisphenols and phthalates.”

Carriers for chemicals

Whilst plastics are practically indestructible they do age and fragment.  During the different stages of a plastic’s long life there is the potential for chemicals to latch on to and leach out of plastic. Old and degraded plastic is particularly susceptible to leaching and has lots of nooks and crannies for chemicals to cling on to. Any bacteria or other organisms that have grown on the plastic overtime can affect how toxic a piece of plastic is. Banned chemicals which are known to be toxic, like pesticide DDT, have been found on marine plastic and in sensitive ecosystems[iv]. Plastic is a vehicle for some of the world’s worst pollutants.

What is Fidra doing about chemicals and plastic?

We are investigating the additives of environmental concern in plastic. While many plastics are untested we believe it is preferable to adopt a precautionary approach to chemicals of concern. We are keen to ensure that when harmful chemicals are restricted we avoid ‘regrettable substitution’ . This can be achieved if legislators adopt a class-based approach and restrict chemicals of similar structure to a known hazard unless their safety can be proven. We want to see transparency around the chemicals in use in our products.   In the UK we’ve written to the Treasury to raise our concerns and ask them to look into the way plastics and additives can be taxed or reformed to address this issue.

What can you do?

To help limit the loss of plastic and its chemical companions you can take part in a Nurdle Hunt. Nurdles are the first stage of a plastic’s life, these plastic pellets are melted down to make different plastic products, but they leak out right along the plastic supply chain eventually reaching our oceans, beaches and wildlife. If you spot any nurdles please log them at www.nurdle so that we can demonstrate to government and industry the scale of this issue.

[i] Ksenia J. Groh, Thomas Backhaus, Bethanie Carney-Almroth, Birgit Geueke, Pedro A. Inostroza, Anna Lennquist, Heather A. Leslie, Maricel Maffini, Daniel Slunge, Leonardo Trasande, A. Michael Warhurst, Jane Muncke , Overview of known plastic packaging-associated chemicals and their hazards. Stoten (2018), doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.10.015


[iii]  Pfeifer D. et al. (2015). Effects of low-dose bisphenol A on DNA damage and proliferation of breast cells: the role of c-Myc. Environmental Health Perspectives 123:1271–1279.


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