You Could Be Eating a Side of E-waste with Your Takeout
Science & Tech / /
Plastic is all around us, including the Arctic. But while most plastics follow a particular breaking down cycle doing damage at every point still not all of the plastics are the same. A recent UK study claims that some plastic products, including children’s toys and takeout containers, are made from black plastic e-waste, which is contaminated with dangerous heavy metals.
Carbon black which in many cases is the substance used in coloring the black plastics is produced by burning petroleum byproducts. These plastics are not supposed to be recycled by regular means, under the low-intensity radiation that works on clear plastic bottles. That means regular recycling facilities in North America and the United Kingdom can’t break down black these plastic items. Instead, that stuff heads for the landfill.
A thing about black plastic is that it can’t be re-dyed into another color: once it’s black, it’s black.
Black is, however, an aesthetically attractive choice. Items like keyboards and monitors have evolved from ‘90s beige to, today’s black. “There is a demand for black products,” says Andrew Turner, an environmental scientist from the University of Plymouth, author of the study, “so perhaps a convenient source of black plastic is an electronic waste.”
E-waste from all the old cell phones, computers, televisions, and other gadgets, is full of often toxic materials. The plastic that’s used in electronics is treated with chemicals like antimony, bromine and heavy metals like lead, to make it flame-retardant and suitable for electronics.
Once the plastic is used for electronics, it’s only supposed to be recycled into other forms of electronics. Recyclers of black plastic, mainly located in China or the Middle East, “are supposed to separate the plastic according to whether it’s safe or not safe,” Turner adds. But the evidence he gathered proves it is not exactly like that.
The study was based on more than 600 individual items in the United Kingdom. To see what each one contained, he bombarded them with X-rays and studied the reflected light. Different compounds light up at different wavelengths, so he could tell what each plastic item contained. The results were surprising in a negative way: he found more than the legal limits of worrisome chemicals and heavy metals in a number of the items.
“At the moment, there’s no way to know exactly where in the supply chain the black plastic from e-waste is entering the manufacturing process for non-electronic household items”, Turner says. He’s hoping that his further research will help them understand whether the harmful substances are being ingested by consumers.
“The evidence that plastic casings from waste electronic and electrical equipment are being recycled into other materials where consumers may be exposed to toxic additives is very concerning,” said chemist Jeffrey Weidenhamer, who also uses the same technique in his researches, “and certainly calls for additional research and actions to prevent this contamination.”