• Is Plastic Recycling Harmful to Humans?

Fuel for Thought

Is Plastic Recycling Harmful to Humans?

Dec 16 2022

As fossil fuel firms struggle to deal with the backlash against the industry, which is only gaining in intensity, many are betting on plastic production as the only means of future-proofing their companies. If these plans go ahead in their current form, production is expected to increase by 400%, hitting 1.8bn tonnes in annual product by the middle of the century. The backlash against this strategy, in turn, is forcing investment into recycled and recyclable plastics. But the million-dollar question, of course, is: just how clean is plastic recycling? Sometimes, the cure is worse than the illness. 

New research on the hazardous waste produced by plastic recycling took a look at the methods that have been ear-marked for generalised usage. Its findings aren’t all too favourable for the emerging industry. Most readers will know that commercial plastics are full to the brim with various chemicals that are toxic to humans but add value to whatever the product might be, enabling its flexibility, durability or coveted non-stick characteristics. There’s been a lot of press about the ways in which consumers can be exposed to these chemicals, mostly by leakage. Understandably, then, when these plastics are dismantled as part of a recycling process, workers will necessarily be exposed to the toxins released.  

The report stresses that there are different levels or types of danger, depending on the particular method for waste management. Take chemical recycling, a range of different processes (pyrolysis, hydrocracking, and gasification) that use chemistry to alter the polymeric structure of waste to render it re-usable. One of the by-products of these processes is a sort of paste with a high concentration of toxins, which is either dumped or re-used for landscaping and construction. In either case, the environment is slowly but surely polluted.  

There’s a similar story with mechanical recycling, which compounds these additives that are toxic to humans into the recycled products in a process akin to bioaccumulation. In a plant designed for mechanical recycling, waste plastic undergoes shredding before it is liquified to be re-cast as a new commodity – not the most cost-effective process, it should be said. 

A long way to go, then, before plastic recycling can become commonplace, but just as long of a way to go before plastic recycling is no longer needed. A rock and a hard place. Perhaps, regulators will have to explore methods for scaling down the production of plastics by disincentivising investment in the sector – guaranteed to be an unpopular move, of course. Nevertheless, the fact is that whether it’s recycled or simply manufactured, plastics remain toxic sources of environmental pollution. The cure may not be any worse than the illness, but it’s just as painful. 

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