Recycled black plastic could be hiding a serious health hazard

31 May 2018

Image: Josu Ozkaritz/Shutterstock

Black plastics made from recycled materials are not only contributing to our domestic waste problem, but are potentially damaging to our health.

Those who count themselves as regular recyclers will know that black plastic remains a problem in our lives because, in many instances, it has to go straight into the non-recycled domestic waste bin.

In fact, right now it is estimated that black plastics contribute up to 15pc of all domestic waste due in part to the fact that the low sensitivity of black pigments to near-infrared radiation makes them undetectable to conventional plastic-sorting facilities.

However, new research conducted by a team from the University of Plymouth has found that not only is black plastic harmful to the environment, but the recycled plastics used to create it could be damaging to our health.

The study published in Environment International found that hazardous chemicals such as bromine, antimony and lead are finding their way into food-contact items and other everyday products.

This is down to the fact that the plastic manufacturer is sourcing its recycled plastic from electrical equipment – ranging from laptops to music systems – containing flame retardants and pigments that stay with the plastics even when they reach the end of their useful lives.

Adding further worries, the study said that the plastic is potentially harmful to marine and coastal environments through it spreading as either litter or microplastics, a term now familiar across the world.

Exceeding legal limits

To come to this conclusion, the team used a technique called x-ray fluorescence spectrometry to assess the levels of a range of elements – such as food-contact items, storage, clothing, toys, jewellery, office items, and new and old electronic and electrical equipment – in more than 600 black plastic products.

Both bromine and lead were found extensively in non-electrical consumer products tested, and they are definitely considered undesirable in black plastics.

In some seemingly innocuous products – such as cocktail stirrers and Christmas decorations – concentrations of bromine were found to be exceeding legal limits for electrical items, while in other products, such as toys and office equipment, a similar saturation of lead was also identified.

“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 Andrew Turner of the research team.

“That is something the public would obviously not expect or wish to see, and there has previously been very little research exploring this. In order to address this, further scientific research is needed.”

This isn’t the first time that Turner has identified problems with things we find in the kitchen, having shown late last year that a number of drinking glasses could contain dangerous amounts of toxins.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic