New research finds that hazardous chemicals are making their way to everyday items because manufacturers are now using black plastics from e-waste to make them. What kind of harm can the high demand for black plastics do?
There is a high demand for black plastics that are desired by many manufacturers for its color and durability. They are colored using a type of industrial pigment called carbon black, and is used in various products such as plastic utensils, coffee cup lids, CDs, and food containers. However, the thing that makes black plastics so desirable is also the same thing that makes it rather difficult to recycle.
Because of its dark color, optical sensors in recycling plants are unable to detect the type of plastic and hence cannot sort them out for proper recycling. When this happens, the black plastics are sorted as regular waste and end up in landfills. In fact, in the UK, black plastic accounts for 15 percent of all plastic waste.
The problem is that even as regular black plastics tend to go directly to waste, the demand for it remains high. Because of this, manufacturers turn to recycled e-waste to supply the demand for black plastics.
Every year, the world generates about 50 tons of e-waste coming from electrical equipment that are already considered outdated. Some of these items end up being recycled but according to researchers, such a practice may pose health risks because it may still contain toxic chemicals such as lead, bromine, and antimony that eventually get into the manufacturing of everyday items.
These chemicals are often added to electrical devices as flame retardants and pigments, and remain within the product even after they’re deemed as no longer useful. For the research published in Environment International, Dr. Andrew Turner, a researcher at the University of Plymouth and author of the study, tested the element content of over 600 black plastic products using XRF spectometry. The items included food-contact items, jewelry, office items, clothes, and even old and new devices.
What Dr. Turner found was that many of the products including Christmas decor, jewelry, coat hangers, cocktail stirrers, and even tools, had extensive amounts of bromine and lead. In fact, some toys, containers, and office equipment even had concentrations of lead that exceed its legal limit.
“Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products,” said Dr. Turner.
What Can Be Done?
It is the combination of the large demand for black plastics and inefficient sorting of e-waste that may have contributed to this growing problem. Apart from potential health hazards, marine life could also be affected by the increasing amount of plastic waste in the ocean.
“In order to address this, further scientific research is needed. There is also a need for increased innovation within the recycling industry to ensure harmful substances are eliminated from recycled waste and to increase the recycling of black plastic consumer products,” said Dr. Turner.