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29 Jul 2020

Plastic Chemicals – The Unseen Contaminants

Fidra-Environmental Charity

Despite huge public concern, plastic production is still on the rise, with approximately 350 million tonnes of plastic produced globally in 2018. Plastic’s lightweight, flexible and long-lasting features continue to hold a strong allure, but with so many chemicals needed to achieve these desired traits, does plastic pollution go beyond what meets the eye?

Plastic Chemistry

The word plastic describes a group of materials made from a mixture of chemicals. Plastic contains both additives (intentionally) and contaminants (non-intentionally) added during the production process, as well as contaminants that come from raw materials.

To produce plastic with the desired properties, such as flexibility, colour or flame retardancy, producers introduce additives, many of which can be harmful to wildlife, humans and the environment. Those of particular environmental concern include phthalates, bisphenols, flame retardants and organotins. Other damaging chemicals might also end up in plastic unintentionally during production, such as per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals are often more reactive and mobile than the plastic polymer itself, giving them a tendency to leach out and into the environment throughout production, use and disposal of plastic products.

A Source and Sink for Environmental Contaminants

Plastics have also been identified as carriers of toxic chemicals, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). These pollutants are attracted to oily substances, such as plastic, and so have a tendency to attach onto plastic surfaces once in the environment. This is especially true for microplastics because of their large surface area. These plastics, already latent with their own chemical additives, then allow further transport of contaminants, including entry into food chains. Humans and wildlife are then once again exposed to an ever-mixing chemical cocktail created off the back of plastic.

Recognising the need for a holistic approach to pollution, Fidra works on numerous projects including plastic, micro-plastic and chemical pollution. Our Cotton Bud Project led retailers and manufacturers to change cotton bud sticks from plastic to paper, one of the first successful single-use plastic actions in the UK. We’ve seen supermarkets and department stores commit to removing PFAS from their school uniforms, and every year around 1,000 people get to take part in our Great Global Nurdle Hunt.

An Overlooked Concern

Plastic clearly threatens the long-term health of both the public and the environment, but the chemicals plastics harbour pose a further risk which, although maybe less obvious, is no less pertinent.

Many questions remain over the ecological importance of this toxic transfer and chemical pollution is becoming a growing concern to many in the scientific community. The increasing amount of both plastic and chemicals in the environment means that the issue isn’t going away and prevention of further plastic and chemical pollution is now paramount.

For more on Fidra’s work on both plastic and chemical pollution, visit our website: