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Dangerous Chemicals From E-Waste Found in Black Plastics From Toys to Drink Stirrers

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Marco Verch / CC BY 2.0

Recycling is often touted as a universal environmental good, but a new study from the University of Plymouth found that improper recycling of electronic waste means that dangerous chemicals are finding their way into black plastics used in consumer goods, with potentially negative consequences for human health and marine life.


The study, published in Environment International, found bromine and lead in some of 600 consumer black plastic products tested, ranging from cocktail stirrers to children's toys.

"There are environmental and health impacts arising from the production and use of plastics in general, but black plastics pose greater risks and hazards," study author Dr. Andrew Turner said in a University of Plymouth press release.

Those risks come because, while black plastics make up 15 percent of domestic plastic waste, they are difficult to recycle effectively. Because of this, plastic casings from recycled electronics are used to manufacture new black plastic products. The chemicals used as flame retardants or pigments for the electronic goods then make their way into consumer goods that use black plastic.

"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. That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this," Turner said.

Since the majority of black plastic is used as food packaging or trays, the study has frightening implications for human health. It also raises concerns about what happens when the contaminated black plastics make their way into the oceans as whole pieces of plastic pollution or broken-down microplastics.

According to the study's abstract, the chemicals found in black plastic litter on beaches in southwest England were similar to the ones found in black plastic consumer goods and recycled electronic waste.

One of the chemicals turned up by the study, bromine, is often used in electronic plastics as a flame retardant. A 2014 study published in Chemosphere found that bromine flame retardant exposure in children could be linked with cancer, diabetes, developmental disorders, reproductive issues and changes in thyroid function, but that more research needed to be done to confirm human health impacts. Turner found bromine in plastic jewelry, garden hoses, Christmas decorations, drink stirrers, coat hangers and tool handles at levels potentially illegal even in electronic goods.

Lead, which poses well-documented health risks, is also often found in electronic goods, and Turner recorded it at illegal levels in toys, office supplies and storage containers.

As a result of his findings, Turner called for further research and the development of new recycling techniques.

"[T]here 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," he said.

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