• Could a Circular Economy for Plastics Mean More Microplastics?

Fuel for Thought

Could a Circular Economy for Plastics Mean More Microplastics?

Jun 02 2023

For years, groups and institutions concerned with increasing plastic pollution have pinned their hopes on an industrial model with recycling at its heart, believing that this would reduce the piling up of stubborn plastic waste and curtail the subsequent leakage of toxic microplastics into the environment. Such a model, often called a ‘circular economy’, has even been championed by the Executive Director of the United Nations’ Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, as recently as the Programme’s latest report investigating whether plastic pollution could become a thing of the past by 2040.  In recent times, the sustainability of the circular economy in plastics is being critically examined due to alarming revelations suggesting that recycling processes may be contributing significantly to microplastic pollution. These groundbreaking studies have intensified concerns over the escalating plastic pollution crisis, urging swift international action. 

An international collaborative study, spearheaded by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has shed light on the daunting reality of microplastic emissions inherent in the recycling process. The researchers meticulously analyzed wastewater from a technologically advanced recycling facility located in the UK. The unsettling discovery was that approximately 13% of the processed plastic was discharged back into the environment as microplastics. 

Despite being regarded as a best-case scenario due to its state-of-the-art filtration system, the facility was found to be releasing an estimated 75 billion plastic particles for each cubic meter of wastewater. Intriguingly, over 80% of these particles were observed to be less than five microns in size, roughly equivalent to the diameter of a human red blood cell, and easily ingestible by many organisms, including humans. 

Expressing shock at these results, lead researcher Erina Brown highlighted the troubling irony of the situation. Recycling, initially conceived as a strategic intervention to alleviate environmental degradation, appears to be unwittingly exacerbating the issue. Further enhancing the risk profile, the study also revealed elevated microplastic concentrations in the air in the vicinity of the facility, posing potential health hazards to nearby inhabitants. 

This study's sobering revelations from a single, albeit modern, plant have sent ripples through the global plastic recycling sector. It has unearthed pressing questions about the potential scale of emissions from plants worldwide, many of which may not even have rudimentary filtration systems in place. 

In tandem with this, another report, released by the renowned environmental NGO, Greenpeace, issued a stark warning that the recycling process could unintentionally lead to an increased toxicity of plastic. It proposed that plastics that have undergone recycling processes end up with higher concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals, thus multiplying their detrimental impact on human, animal, and environmental health. 

According to the Greenpeace report, recycled plastics often contain elevated levels of toxic chemicals, such as flame retardants, benzene, and other carcinogens, in addition to various environmental pollutants, including brominated and chlorinated dioxins. Additionally, they are found to contain a host of endocrine disruptors, which have the potential to cause dramatic shifts in the body's natural hormone levels. 

The Greenpeace report paints a rather grim picture of the compatibility of plastics with the ideals of the circular economy. It presents an extensive overview of numerous studies, each corroborating that even the meager 9% of the globally produced plastic that gets recycled ends up being more harmful due to increased concentrations of toxic chemicals. 

This sentiment was echoed by Dr. Therese Karlsson, a science adviser with the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). She declared plastic recycling as a toxic endeavor that continues to harm the environment and our health. She called for urgent global controls on chemicals in plastics and substantial reductions in plastic production, to rectify the situation. 

With predictions indicating that plastic production is set to triple by 2060, the clarion call for action grows louder. Lobby groups such as Beyond Plastics are urging for a paradigm shift in plastic usage, underscoring the disturbing implications of these latest findings. 

As representatives from 173 countries prepare for the international plastics treaty negotiations in Paris, Greenpeace advocates for an immediate, significant reduction in plastic production. It proposes a radical shift towards the total elimination of the manufacture of virgin plastic, moving towards sustainable, reusable materials. 

Moreover, Greenpeace is championing the development and promotion of environmentally friendly waste disposal technologies. They call for strategies that do not merely involve incinerating or burying waste, but that seek to repurpose it, reducing overall waste production. 

In conclusion, the widely propagated narrative of recycling as the panacea to the plastic waste problem is being fundamentally challenged by these bombshell reports. They underscore the urgent necessity to re-evaluate our dependence on plastics, promote reduction in consumption, and develop toxic-free materials. These findings indicate a critical need for a global, concerted effort towards sustainable alternatives, all of which form the core tenets of a true circular economy. 


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