Plastic pollution: Researchers warn of 'toxic threat' as a million tonnes of plastic additives leak into seas

The chemicals added to plastics during manufacturing are often unregulated, researchers say, and some are linked to human health concerns

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A million tonnes of chemicals added to plastic during the manufacturing process leak into the seas every year, a new report suggests.

The study, published on Thursday (8 November) by Swiss research organisation EA Earth Action, discovered that 116 kilotons – with one kiloton equalling a thousand tons – of plastic additives in the sea came from packaging. Researchers also found that everyday items like textiles and vehicle tyres contribute to the leakage in the ocean of around 37 and 35 kilotons a year respectively.

EA Earth Action also warned that the vast majority of additives in commercially available plastics were untested and unregulated, while some have been linked to a range of health concerns including obesity, fertility issues and cancer. The organisation is calling for increased transparency on what plastic products are made up of, as well as for effective waste management practices to be scaled up globally, ahead of the upcoming United Nations Global Plastic Treaty negotiations.

One million tons of plastic additives leak into oceans each year, according to new research (Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire)One million tons of plastic additives leak into oceans each year, according to new research (Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire)
One million tons of plastic additives leak into oceans each year, according to new research (Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire)

The UN adopted the historic resolution to develop a global plastics treaty last year, the Lancet reports, to reduce plastic pollution - as well as dealing with issues like microplastics and ocean plastics - across the entire plastic manufacturing cycle. While negotiations are ongoing, the project is on a fast track, with a draft expected to be ready by the end of 2024.

EA Earth Action founder Julien Boucher told PA their report showed just how urgently a comprehensive approach to tackling the twin challenges of plastic pollution and plastic additive leakage was needed. "The widespread inclusion of potentially harmful additives in plastics combined with substantial amounts of mismanaged plastic waste worldwide have created the toxic threat we face today," he continued.

“Addressing the problem with additives must be on a key talking point[at treaty negotiations] if we are to protect the eco-system and human health from its detrimental effects.” The group has made several recommendations for policymakers in its report, including selecting materials that are easily reusable or recyclable to reduce waste, as well as more research into how and when additives are released into the environment and human bodies.

Anti-plastic pollution and marine conservation nonprofits have called for action on the back of the report. Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the Plastic Health Council, told PA: “The omnipresence of plastic in our lives today belies its danger. Plastic is not on the periodic table, like cobalt or copper. It is a mixture of chemicals, many of them toxic to human health.

"In only a few decades we have infected every inch of our planet with such chemicals, leaching into our environment at escalating levels," she continued. "The danger to (the) next generations is clear and strong policy is urgently needed. But for policy to change, we need clarity on the extent of the crisis.”

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