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Enabling a circular economy for plastics in Europe and beyond is an ambitious goal. To reach a fully closed loop, numerous challenges and knowledge gaps need to be overcome. This review provides a list of more than 6000 chemicals reported to be found in plastics and an overview of the challenges and gaps in assessing their impacts on the environment and human health along the life cycle of plastic products. We further identified 1518 plastic-related chemicals of concern, which should be prioritized for substitution by safer alternatives. At last, we propose five policy recommendations, including the need of a global and overarching regulatory framework for plastics and related chemicals, in support of a circular economy for plastics and of target 12.4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

State of knowledge of chemicals in plastics

Overview of chemical additives

The production of chemicals for plastics is continuously increasing in terms of both quantity and diversity, with several thousand chemicals used across many material applications. Estimating global additives production is not an easy task, because these data are usually not publicly available. However, with a global plastic production of 368 Mt in 2019, and assuming 1–10% additives mass fraction for nonfibre plastics, the total amount of additives used in 2019 might be around 20 (3.6–36.8) Mt. If plastic production follows current increasing trends, it is estimated that we will have produced 2000 Mt of additives by the end of 2050. Plasticizers are the most used additives and together with flame retardants cover almost 50% of globally applied additives. Owing to their wide-ranging application and high-production volumes, these two types of additives have been receiving special attention (e.g. Commission Regulation (EU) 2018/2005).

Additives are applied during the production process at different concentrations based on the specific function that they need to fulfil. It provides an overview of functions, typical material application, chemical classes, and application ranges. For example, plasticizer application ranges vary across materials, and can reach up to 60–70% of the plastic mass in soft PVC resin products. Other additives are usually applied at much lower concentrations, such as 0.7–25% for flame retardants or 0.05–5% for stabilizers and antioxidants. The concentration of unintentional residues is typically <1%. Generally, it is accepted to consider as NIAS only compounds with a mass <1000 Da, assuming that substances with a higher molecular weight cannot be absorbed in the body (EU No 10/2011, although there might be some uptake in the gut).

Challenges and gaps in assessing plastic-related chemicals’ impacts in a circularity context

The goal of a circular economy is to move.

Sodium carbonate, activated carbon and copper-impregnated aluminium are used to absorb the sulphur without the use of water. They give efficiencies of absorption of 85–90% and have the advantage of not cooling the stack gases. The gases will then rise upwards from the top of the stack and disperse more widely in the atmosphere.

Food packaging is of high societal value because it conserves and protects food, makes food transportable and conveys information to consumers. It is also relevant for marketing, which is of economic significance. Other types of food contact articles, such as storage containers, processing equipment and filling lines, are also important for food production and food supply. Food contact articles are made up of one or multiple different food contact materials and consist of food contact chemicals. However, food contact chemicals transfer from all types of food contact materials and articles into food and, consequently, are taken up by humans. Here we highlight topics of concern based on scientific findings showing that food contact materials and articles are a relevant exposure pathway for known hazardous substances as well as for a plethora of toxicologically uncharacterized chemicals, both intentionally and non-intentionally added. We describe areas of certainty, like the fact that chemicals migrate from food contact articles into food, and uncertainty, for example unidentified chemicals migrating into food. Current safety assessment of food contact chemicals is ineffective at protecting human health. In addition, society is striving for waste reduction with a focus on food packaging. As a result, solutions are being developed toward reuse, recycling or alternative (non-plastic) materials. However, the critical aspect of chemicals for food safety is often ignored. Developing solutions for improving the safety of food contact chemicals and for tackling the circular economy must include current scientific knowledge. This cannot be done in isolation but must include all relevant experts and stakeholders. Therefore, we provide an overview of areas of concern and related activities that will improve the safety of food contact articles and support a circular economy. Our aim is to initiate a broader discussion involving scientists with relevant expertise but not currently working on food contact materials, and decision makers and influencers addressing single-use food packaging due to environmental concerns. Ultimately, we aim to support science-based decision making in the interest of improving public health. Notably, reducing exposure to hazardous food contact chemicals contributes to the prevention of associated chronic diseases in the human population.

We supply innovative specialty chemicals for textile leathe and related industries that include dyes, pretreatment, bleaching, finishing, coating and special effects products. Our commercial and technical teams will provide you with unparalleled sales support to fit your needs and keep you in the loop with the latest market developments.

Indeed, water treatment technologies, such as chemicals for water treatment, are now using novel physical treatment methods. Membranes largely replaced granular filtration, and UV is paving the way towards minimization or elimination of the use of classic disinfection chemicals, such as chlorine and its derivatives. Yet, far from the “high-tech” revolution in water treatment technologies actually reducing the use of chemicals, the latter has in fact been significantly increased. The “conventional” chemicals used for pre-treatment, disinfection, corrosion prevention, softening and algae bloom depression are all still in place. Furthermore, new groups of chemicals such as biocides, chelating agents and fouling cleaners are currently used to supplement them. These latter are the chemicals needed to protect the high-tech equipment, to optimize the treatment, and to clean the equipment between uses.

Employees in printing industries can be exposed to multiple solvents in their work environment, like all sorts of chemicals for paint and print. The objectives of this study were to investigate the critical components of chemical solvents by analyzing the components of the solvents and collecting the Safety data sheets (SDSs), and to evaluate the hazard communication implementation status in printing industries.

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