Global Report Confirms Toxic Chemicals in Plastic Waste Contaminating the Food Chain (EcoWaste Coalition Pushes for Strong Policy Solutions to Curb Toxic Plastic)

A new study released by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) with the EcoWaste Coalition has generated fresh evidence verifying that plastic waste disposal, including the export of plastic waste, leads to the contamination of the food chain, especially in developing countries.

The report "Plastic Waste Poisoning Food and Threatening Communities in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America" shows how common disposal methods of plastic waste such as by burning and dumping, as well as their exportation, end up contaminating the food supply and threatening community health. 

For this study, non-governmental organizations in 14 countries, including the EcoWaste Coalition, collected free-range chicken eggs in the vicinity of various plastic waste disposal sites and facilities. Eggs were used to assess contamination with persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because of their significant lipid content where POPs like dioxins can accumulate, and because eggs from contaminated areas can readily lead to exposures that exceed thresholds for the protection of human health.  The eggs from the Philippines were obtained near a hazardous waste incinerator in Trece Martires City and in a neighborhood in Caloocan City where e-waste dismantling is taking place.

The eggs were then analyzed for dioxins, a highly toxic byproduct POP of open burning, crude recycling, chemical production, and incineration technologies. Additionally, the eggs were analyzed for other POPs known as flame retardants that have been banned or are in the process of being banned globally through the Stockholm Convention on POPs. Even small amounts of these plastic chemical additives and byproduct emissions can cause damage to the immune and reproductive systems, cancers, impaired intellectual functions, and/or developmental delays.

Based on the laboratory analyses, the analyzed eggs from 14 countries contained some of the most toxic chemicals ever studied, many of which are banned or regulated, including chemical additives polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and short-chained chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs), and unintentional byproduct POP like dioxins.

The report found that the levels of dioxin and PCBs in eggs in some locations were so high that residents could not eat a single egg without exceeding the health safety threshold limits for these chemicals established in the European Union.

"This global study provides advocates for a zero waste and toxics-free society in our country with critical data to justify strong policy solutions to curb plastic and chemical pollution, including a ban on hazardous waste imports such as electronic waste and plastic waste often disguised as scraps for recycling, a ban on non-environmentally acceptable products and packaging, and the enforcement of the ban on waste incineration, including proscribing burn or thermal waste-to-energy technologies," noted  Thony Dizon, Chemical Safety Campaigner, EcoWaste Coalition.

Egg samples collected near facilities in seven African and Asian countries where plastic waste is or was either used as fuel or incinerated, often in combination with other waste, were found contaminated with extremely high levels of dioxin.  For example, egg samples obtained near tofu factories using plastic waste as fuel in Tropodo, Indonesia had dioxin levels between 140 to 200 pg TEQ g-1 fat, way in excess of the European Union’s limit of 2.5 pg TEQ g-1 fat for chlorinated dioxins in eggs.  Analyzed eggs from the Philippines had dioxin levels ranging from 5.3 to 53 pg TEQ g-1 fat.

The group pointed out that using non-combustion alternative methods, instead of waste-to-energy incineration technologies, for the treatment of hazardous waste and other wastes can prevent the creation of unintentional POPs formed during the burning of such wastes.

IPEN's POPs Policy Advisor Lee Bell stated: "This report confirms that the harm being caused by plastic waste exports is not limited to visible litter and pollution but includes the insidious damage to human health caused by contamination of the food chain in importing countries. Toxic chemical additives and the world's most hazardous substances are literally bleeding into the food supply of those countries least able to prevent it."

Jindrich Petrlik, study co-author and Toxics and Waste Programme Director of Arnika Association, said: "Dioxins and other POPs remain in the soil for decades or even centuries, creating a reservoir of highly toxic contaminants that poison the food chain now and will continue to do so for a long time into the future."

The report recommends global controls on hazardous chemicals in plastic, including the phase-out on the use of such chemicals in plastic production in any new UN plastic treaty negotiations.

The report urges governments to establish and implement effective policies to reduce plastic production and waste in a real circular economy, including countries ratifying the Basel Convention Ban Amendment and supporting non-combustion technologies for the treatment of medical waste and POP-containing waste.

The report calls on the plastic industry to invest in safe plastic alternatives, eliminate toxic chemical additives to plastics, list plastic ingredients on labels, and create closed-loop systems that don't create toxic waste.

As for the civil society, the report recommends that groups, among other things, raise awareness of the toxic hazards in the plastic life-cycle, promote legislation to ban non-essential and toxic plastics, and promote consumption of reusable and recyclable plastic product substitutes.

Egg samples from the 14 countries, namely Belarus, Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Gabon, Ghana, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mexico, Philippines, Tanzania, Thailand, and Uruguay, were analyzed in European laboratories.

This is the first in a series of IPEN reports on how chemicals used by the plastics industry are contaminating communities in countries with developing economies or economies in transition.