European industry maps chemicals added to plastics

Plastic containers in a tree in Polanco, Mexico
CC BY 2.0 Carl Campbell

A list of chemicals and their uses will support risk assessments and circular economy plans

It has been a decade since Europe started a huge "no data, no market" program requiring the chemical industry to prove the safety of chemicals placed on the market in European Union countries.

The project has produced a treasure trove of information helping regulators to more effectively identify and control chemicals that cause concerns for human health or the environment as well as helping industry to build consumer confidence in the chemicals. But the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) didn't stop there. The most recent project to make use of this wealth of new data targets the chemicals added to plastics.

Chemicals that were once dismissed as eternally trapped in a plastic matrix have raised concerns in recent years about whether they can migrate into our food or bodies, where they end up when plastic products reach the end of their often-too-short lives, as well as how they impact hopes for a circular economy. So the ECHA mined their new database to identify all of the chemicals which had been registered by industry as plastic additives.

The ECHA handed this list over to industry associations, which worked to ensure correct information on the uses of chemicals in plastics is available. Maggie Saykali of the European Chemical Industry Council reflects on how much was learned during this exercise: “It was clear from the start of the project that we needed all project partners to use the same terminology for uses of plastic additives." But in the end it proved worthwhile, again in the words of Ms. Saykali:

"This project clearly demonstrates the value of a collaborative approach. ECHA provided an overview of substances registered under REACH, industry provided the knowledge of their uses and behavior, and academic experts helped develop a model to estimate release potential."

The reinforcement of the communication channels between suppliers and users of plastic additives will also help as plans for a circular economy for plastics proceed. The additives pose one of the major obstacles to the up-cycling of plastics. An agile and responsive supply chain is a key asset for evaluating changes that can favor better recyclability of plastics back into high-value products.

An overview of the results of the mapping exercise for plastics additives has been made public by ECHA, offering consumers interesting insights to what chemicals are in which plastics. Even more data remains in the hands of the regulators of the EU Member States, who take the lead in identifying the chemicals of concern. The model for predicting potential release will also inform decisions about how to prioritize risk assessments for these chemicals.

This plastic additive mapping exercise offers another great example of the value of putting the burden on industry to share information about the chemicals they use in the interest of better protection of public health and the environment. And it is a further step in helping the industry to build trust for the chemicals that provide benefits while eliminating the use of chemicals that don't merit that trust.

A document providing supplementary information on the scope and methods of the Plastic additives initiative offers more details for interested parties.

European industry maps chemicals added to plastics
A list of chemicals and their uses will support risk assessments and circular economy plans

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