Chemicals in plastics far more numerous than previous estimates

News Excerpt:

A team of European scientists has discovered over 16,000 chemicals in plastics which is a significant increase from the approximately 13,000 previously identified by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Key highlights of the study:

  • Over 3,000 additional chemicals have been identified in plastics, exceeding previous estimates by environmental agencies.
    • These chemicals are present in various plastic items from food packaging and toys to medical devices.
  • Out of the total 16000 chemicals found by the scientists in plastic, approximately one-quarter are believed to pose risks to both human health and the environment.
    • Plastic chemicals can leach into water and food.
    • Currently, hundreds of plastic chemicals have been detected in humans and some of them have been linked  with negative health effects.
    • Such impacts include fertility issues and cardiovascular disease.
  • Approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated annually, highlighting the urgency to address this environmental crisis.

Plastic Pollution:

  • Plastic is a synthetic polymer produced from petrochemicals and is non-biodegradable in nature. 
  • Plastic pollution is a serious health hazard that is reaching epic proportions. 
  • Discarded plastic items often find their way into terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems where they affect wildlife. 
    • Polythene bags dumped in landfills are often ingested by animals who mistake it for food. 
  • Discarded plastic breaks down into micro plastics which are ingested by living organisms and accumulate and amplify in the food chain, all the way up to our platter. 
    • Disposable single-use plastic items are of particular concern since they are produced in large quantities and are discarded as soon as they are used.
    • These include polythene bags, plastic glasses, potato wafer packets, sachets, straws and plastic bottles. 

Way forward:

  • While the plastics industry has said any global treaty should promote recycling and re-use of plastic, only addressing plastic waste doesn't go far enough to protect people.
    • Greater transparency is necessary regarding the chemicals, such as additives, processing aids, and impurities, that are incorporated into plastics, including those used in recycled products.
    • A significant portion (a quarter) of the identified chemicals lacks essential information regarding their basic chemical identity.
  • Only 6% of the chemicals discovered in plastics are subject to international regulation, indicating a lack of incentive for disclosure without regulatory pressure.
  • These issues can be tackled by a plastics treaty. 
    • Negotiations on a plastics treaty are ongoing, with the next round scheduled for next month in Ottawa, Canada, aiming to finalize the treaty by December in the South Korean city of Busan.

Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution:

  • In March 2022, the UN Environmental Assembly convened in Nairobi to debate the global plastic crisis.
    • 175 nations voted to adopt a global treaty for plastic pollution.
    • They agreed upon an accelerated timeline so that the treaty could be in place by as soon as 2025.
    • The UN is aiming to finalize the treaty by December 2024 in the South Korean city of Busan.
  • This treaty is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a global solution to this worsening global crisis.
  • Unless governments agree on an ambitious and fair treaty with legally binding global rules, plastic pollution is likely to triple by 2040, accumulating in our food and water and exacerbating the risk of flooding and other human and environmental hazards.

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