Toxics Link report calls for strict vigil on plastic recycling market

NGO finds toxic chemicals in toys and food containers collected from Delhi's markets

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Toxics
The informal sector and marginalized groups play a pivotal role in recycling in India, contributing a substantial 70% to the overall recycling efforts

A report by non-profit Toxics Link, which found toxic chemicals in recycled products in Delhi’s local markets and informal recycling units, suggests a set of remedial measures, including strict regulations on the recycling of plastic in Delhi and across India.

The report, titled ‘Is Plastic Recycling Safe?’, says even though plastic recycling mitigates pollution from incineration, reduces the burden on landfills, and generates opportunities for small and big recyclers, there is a matter of concern – the downcycling of recycled plastic products, which results in lower quality compared to virgin plastic.

Another concern relates to the efficiency of the chemical process – the presence of often toxic chemicals in the plastics, which remain through the recycling process, ending up in finished products, explained Priti Mahesh, chief program coordinator at Toxics Link..

For the study, the organization collected samples such as toys and unbranded food and drink containers mostly from Delhi’s local markets and a few from informal recycling units in Daya Basti, Inderlok, and Narela between 11th October 2023 and 12th December 2023.

Most of the toxic chemicals detected were higher than the permissible limits, the report said. Among the toys, rubber ducks contained single-chain chlorinated paraffins, cadmium, nonylphenol, and high levels of DEHP and DINP phthalates. A mouth organ contained bisphenol A, nonylphenol, and DEHP phthalate.

On the other hand, water bottles and masala boxes were found to contain bisphenol A, while casseroles showed the presence of single-chain chlorinated paraffins.

According to the study, 86% of toys and 67% of plastic materials that come in contact with food contain one or more of the five toxic chemicals. Phthalates, chlorinated paraffins, heavy metals, bisphenol A, and nonylphenol can lead to long-term health impacts, including on the reproductive system and pregnancy, respiratory issues, dermal effects, and even DNA damage.

The recycling units visited by the team during the study did not follow any established safety norms or standards related to the recycling process. In molding units, where recycled pellets are used for manufacturing new products, quality and safety checks are not being conducted on the possible chemicals in the recycled pellets nor their suitability for manufacturing.

When these units recycle plastic material into pellets, there are no processes to remove any chemical additives, which end up in these pellets. These are then used to make a range of new consumer products, such as toys, food containers or kitchen utensils,” the report says.

Based on the study, the NGO issued a set of recommendations.

Quality Control: Quality-control measures are essential in the recycling process to minimize the presence of contaminants and ensure the recycled plastic meets specific standards.

Regulatory Compliance: Government and regulatory bodies should set more guidelines and standards for recycled plastic to ensure its safety and sustainability for various applications.

Compliance with regulations helps in mitigating health and environmental risks associated with recycled plastic. The same chemical safety standards should be applied to material made with recycled plastics as well as products made from virgin plastics.

Manufacturing: The manufacturers should be encouraged, through policy and other measures, to redesign products to allow for a toxics-free circular economy, including the phase-out of toxic chemical additives.

Application-specific considerations: The suitability of recycled plastic for specific applications depends on its purity and the presence of certain chemicals. For example, food-grade recycled plastic requires proper testing and evaluation to be deemed safe.

Transparency and traceability: There is a need for plastic producers and plastic product manufacturers to list plastic ingredients, including additives, on labels. Chemical contents of plastics need to be traceable throughout their entire lifecycle.

Awareness campaigns: Initiating awareness campaigns is essential to enhance public consciousness about the health impacts associated with recycled plastics.

In-depth research and studies: The promotion of research and studies is crucial to heighten awareness and transparency concerning the chemicals present in recycled plastic.

The report quoted past studies that have stated the presence of toxic chemicals in recycled plastic products.

In India, according to the Plastic Waste Management Rules, any plastic waste that can be recycled should be channelized to registered plastic waste recyclers, and all recycling of plastic has to conform to the Indian Standard: IS 14534:1998. BIS has issued standards (IS 14534: 1998 and IS 14535: 1998) for the recovery and recycling of plastic waste, as well as the products that can be manufactured using recycled materials.

According to a report by www.techsciresearch.com, India’s plastic recycling market achieved a total market volume of 54.7 metric tons in 2023 with a projected compound annual growth rate of 10.57% through 2029. It says, at present, 1,419 registered plastic waste processors are operating as per the Plastic Waste Management Rules.

The informal sector and marginalized groups, however, play a pivotal role in recycling in India, contributing a substantial 70% to the overall recycling efforts, the Toxics Links report says. Itinerant waste buyers collect approximately 6.5 to 8.5 tons of plastic waste per day, with household waste collectors accounting for a significant portion. Remarkably, 50-80% of this waste is projected to be recycled, Toxics Links says, quoting a CSE report.

It was, however, not known or stated in the report if the recyclers in the samples were registered or had the requisite permission or expertise to set up recycling units. 

Priti Mahesh told Packaging South Asia that the problem with recycled products is that they are most downcycled, which means they are converted into a different product or into some form of resin, and could have chemical contaminants in them. “There is often no proper labeling on recycled products to indicate information about their sources. We need mandatory standards on labels and the recycling process.”

Asked about big recycling with modern plants and technology, she said even though recycling is projected as an answer to tackle plastic pollution, there are global studies to show the presence of contaminants. “Many companies are not open about the chemical recycling process and the onus lies on the companies to follow all safety protocols.”

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