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UNEP Technical Report: Chemicals in Plastics Require Immediate Action

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a technical paper titled “Chemicals in Plastics” on May 3, 2023. The report urges nations to act quickly to address the chemicals found in plastics as part of global action against plastic pollution. It bases this demand on convincing scientific data. It aims to educate the global community about chemical-related problems that are frequently disregarded when it comes to plastic pollution, particularly the negative effects on human health, the environment, resource efficiency, and the recycling industry. It also supports the negotiation process for the creation of an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution (hereinafter referred to as the international instrument).

In addition to outlining the current level of knowledge on chemicals in plastics, the paper also makes a strong case for immediate action to address chemicals in plastics as part of the worldwide effort to combat plastic pollution.

Overview of the report

The “Chemicals in Plastics: A Technical Report” aims to educate the public on the frequently disregarded chemical-related problems associated with plastic pollution, particularly their negative effects on resource efficiency and circularity as well as on human health and the environment. It emphasises the urgent need to go further and provides potential areas for action based on convincing scientific evidence. Additionally, it aims to aid in the development of the plastic pollution instrument based on resolution 5/14 of the United Nations Environment Assembly. The paper describes a number of reliable and openly accessible scientific projects and studies pertaining to chemicals in plastics and the intersection of science and policy.

The report was created by UNEP in collaboration with the Basel Convention Secretariat, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The International Panel on Chemical Pollution provided the reports lead authors, and other authors contributed as well.

Important points

● Based on the latest studies, more than 13,000 chemicals have been identified as associated with plastics and plastic production across a wide range of applications.

● Ten groups of chemicals (based on chemistry, uses, or sources) are identified as being of major concern due to their high toxicity and potential to migrate or be released from plastics, including specific flame retardants, certain UV stabilizers, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), phthalates, bisphenols, alkylphenols and alkylphenol ethoxylates, biocides, certain metals and metalloids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and many other non-intentionally added substances (NIAS).

● Chemicals of concern have been found in plastics across a wide range of sectors and products value chains, including toys and other children's products, packaging (including food contact materials), electrical and electronic equipment, vehicles, synthetic textiles and related materials, furniture, building materials, medical devices, personal care and household products, and agriculture, aquaculture, and fisheries.

● Chemicals of concern in plastics can impact our health and our environment: Extensive scientific data on the potential adverse impacts of about 7,000 substances associated with plastics show that more than 3,200 of them have one or more hazardous properties of concern.

● Women and children are particularly susceptible to these toxic chemicals. Exposures can have severe or long-lasting adverse effects on several key period of a women’s life and may impact the next generations. Exposures during foetal development and in children can cause, for example, neurodevelopmental / neurobehavioral related disorders. Men are not spared either, with latest research documenting substantial detrimental effects on male fertility due to current combined exposures to hazardous chemicals, many of which are associated with plastics.

● Chemicals of concern can be released from plastic along its entire life cycle, during not only the extraction of raw materials, production of polymers and manufacture of plastic products, but also the use of plastic products and at the end of their life, particularly when waste is not properly managed, finding their way to the air, water and soils.

● Existing evidence calls for urgent action to address chemicals in plastics as part of the global action on plastic pollution, to protect human health and the environment, and transition to a toxic-free and sustainable circular economy.

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