Sometimes, the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. The second step is naming the problem. And the third step can finally be finding a solution.
New research has determined that the so-called “Plastic Soup” our families live in contains over 10,000 chemicals. The report examines the problem of plastics and production. The research identifies an issue: we don’t have sufficient understanding of just exactly what makes up the problem, and we don’t know how big the scope of the problem is. The hope is that by beginning to track it, we can find a path forward.
The report examined a variety of chemical substances that are used in plastics and the production of plastic materials in order to begin to assess what we do know. It identified over 10,000 relevant chemicals gleaned from publicly available industrial, scientific, and regulatory sources. While the report describes this as a “deep dive” into the chemicals and additives used in making plastics, the authors acknowledge that this may be the tip of the iceberg, because there is a worldwide lack of transparency around chemical production and plastic manufacturing.
In their examination of the chemical data, the authors found 2,368 substances demonstrate a toxicity concern. 1,646 can cause chronic toxicity to aquatic life, 951 are CMR toxicants (chemicals that are categorized as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic for reproduction), 891 chemicals may cause specific organ toxicity with repeat exposure, and 30 are listed as endocrine disrupting chemicals.
Furthermore, 2,486 (24%) of substances were identified as ‘potential concern’, meeting at least one of the Persistence, Bioaccumulation, or Toxicity thresholds named by the European Union. They showed that 12% of the total chemicals can be identified as HPVCs (high production volume chemicals), and thus categorized as a high-level of concern.
This means most of the remaining substances are fine. While 3,950 of the original data set do not meet any of the hazard standards considered by the authors and are considered of lower concern, there are many more that may still turn out to be problematic. The data concludes that we simply don’t know yet–either due to an overall lack of data about them or they are not regulated in certain parts of the globe, or they may be approved for certain uses in some parts of the world while restricted in others.
Part of what the data shows is that the rules on these plastic chemicals (often known as monomers or intermediates), additives (such as antioxidants, colorants, flame retardants, plasticizers and more) or processing aids (catalysts, antistatic agents, solvents, stabilizers, etc.) are varied in different parts of the world. The researchers call for solutions that will require cross-nation regulatory standardizations.
Although the report is imperfect by the authors own admission, it is an impressive starting point to document, track, and monitor these chemicals, so that we can begin to benchmark both their use AND their toxicity. It’s an impressive effort that should be applauded. At the same time, we need more pressure on our legislators to hold industry accountable.
What the report sees as possibilities for the future include:
- International coordinated efforts to establish a central database for chemicals and inputs that include very detailed tracking throughout the supply chain.
- Ways to ensure that there is a safe and sustainable transition from the hazardous chemicals in use to ones that are not harmful and are designed with circularity in mind. This will require an innovation and different kinds of chemical management than we tend to see today.
- A more harmonized regulatory effort to take hold globally.
We live in a world literally choking on plastics and the micro and nano pollutants that they create. It’s a massive and pervasive problem of our own doing, yet we must begin to undo it– somehow, someway. This report, with its worrying long list of chemicals gives us a glimpse at the problem, and a place to begin.