Scaremongering about recycled plastics misses the real issues 

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Senior Director and Principal Analyst

On May 31, trade publication Resource Recycling ran an article with the headline “Study: Recycling, reusing plastics pose chemical risk.” The article drew primarily from a study by the Food Packaging Forum (FPF, a nonprofit based in Switzerland) published in Cambridge Prisms. This is not the first such article drawing on the work of the FPF; despite the strong claims by this article (and others), the methodology of the FPF has real flaws, and the reporting on it goes far beyond what’s provable by the data presented. 

The study in question was written by employees of the FPF, using their database of mentions of chemical contaminants in plastics. The standard for inclusion in this database is extremely low: Any detection of the material of concern in any study, regardless of level of contamination or the kind of study conducted, warrants inclusion. For example, one Italian paper was the source of data entries on 19 different chemicals found in PET bottles. The study, however, was focused on developing analytical methods and only tested six PET bottles total — far from a representative study of PET products. There’s no evidence that the chemicals are being found consistently in food packaging or at levels meaningful to human health, and there’s seemingly no attempt to answer this question. Moreover, the assessment of recycling or reuse seems to rest on a handful of case studies, not the database. The study speculates that reuse or recycling could make the issue of chemical migration worse but provides no evidence that meaningfully supports this conclusion. 

Despite that, the conclusions presented in the media are far more dire and straightforward. The article in Resource Recycling contains this line: “After examining over 700 publications, researchers concluded that reused and recycled plastics are likely to transfer toxic chemicals to the foods they contain,” but this is entirely unsupported by the text of the FPF study. A similar study by FPF using the same database was picked up by the Guardian last year, which ran with the headline “More than 3,000 potentially harmful chemicals found in food packaging.” Again, the title implies these chemicals are prevalent in packaging, but this supposition is not supported by the data or the approach. 

Tainted at the source

The FPF is presented as a neutral source: The Guardian describes it as “a Switzerland-based nonprofit,” the Resource Recycling article describes it as a “nonprofit foundation that shares information on chemicals in all food packaging materials and their impacts on human health.” This is missing crucial context: The FPF is supported by donors, listed on its website as Bucher Emhart Glass, Consol, OI, Vetropack, Verallia, Vidrala, and BA Glass — all manufacturers of glass packaging. The most recent PFP study includes the line: “Alternatively, a shift towards materials that can be safely reused due to their favorable, inert material properties could be a promising option to reduce the impacts of single-use food packaging on the environment and of migrating chemicals on human health.” in the conclusion. While the article doesn’t name glass, it’s the only material that really meets those criteria. The donors — and their possible influence — are not mentioned in any of the reporting. In addition, FPF describes the recent study as peer reviewed and having undergone “review by experts,” but it has only undergone Cambridge Prisms’ “open peer-review” process in which the article is published, and people can leave comments. This is not peer review as is normally understood. 

Real risks ignored

There are real health risks with plastics: We saw this earlier in the year when a train derailment in Ohio led to a major fire and contamination incident, with vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, at the heart of the issue. There’s a lot that can be done — mandating harmful chemicals like VCM be used on site, for example, or even outright banning PVC. Chemical migration is another real concern — but it warrants meaningful, larger-scale testing, not a shambolic literature review. The goal of these studies seems to be to create headlines rather than bring any clarity to the issues. Higher-quality science reporting would engage with the methods and ask about the motivations of the researchers. Publications like The Guardian do impact the shape of public discourse and policy; trade publications can also be directly read and acted upon by companies in these spaces. 

I’m not averse to criticizing the chemicals industry, but the push for sustainable packaging requires real understanding of the risks and tradeoffs of different materials — not blatant scaremongering. 

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