Chemicals of Concern in Packaging: Effects on the Circular Economy

maggieArticle Author: Maggie Hurley, Science Coordinator, POB Executive Board

While “reduce, reuse, recycle” is a well-known mantra pertaining to the elimination of waste in the circular economy, achieving environmental sustainability is not realistic without first addressing chemicals of concern in current material flows. Recently, the International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec) published a report investigating chemicals of concern in the context of recycling and their effects on human health. The report titled “What goes around: Enabling the circular economy by removing chemical roadblocks” describes the goals and challenges of achieving a successful circular economy. In an ideal circular economy, materials continuously cycle through the stages of manufacturing, consumption and use, and recycling. The continuous reuse and recycling of the same materials over time contributes to the elimination of waste and pollution as well as the regeneration of natural systems. However, as the ChemSec report details, chemicals of concern obstruct the safety and longevity of a material’s life cycle in the circular economy. 

How do chemicals of concern impact recycling flows? Chemicals of concern accumulate over time. The chemical content of a recycled item is dependent not only on the chemicals already present in virgin material, but also on the chemicals that are added during the reproduction process. In the process of being recycled, chemical additives may be utilized to improve the characteristics and functionality of the original product. These include plastic polymers, plasticizers, stabilizers, and surfactants. Many of these additives are made of known endocrine disruptors or carcinogens such as BPA, phthalates, lead, and PFAS. Additionally, non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) include reaction by-products, break down products, and contaminants. The combination of various substances may elicit adverse chemical reactions, ultimately contributing to the combination of harmful chemicals present in recycled materials.

Currently, the main recycling method is mechanical recycling, which processes materials into secondary raw materials without significantly changing the chemical structure. This means that the chemicals in a recycled product will persist as long as that product remains in the circular economy. Alternatively, chemical recycling methods such as solvent-based purification, chemical depolymerization, and thermal decomposition use chemical processes to purify or break down plastic or textiles. Though these processes may remove some contaminants, no method can fully remove chemicals of concern from recycled material. 

The accumulation of chemicals of concern in recycled materials impacts both human health and the circular economy. In humans, higher levels of chemicals in consumer products expose us to concerning endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. In the circular economy, materials contain chemicals that make them unusable for the production of new products, thus shortening the sustainability of the recycling process. There are currently no viable technologies to remove problematic chemicals from waste, therefore the phaseout of chemicals of concern must be considered at the design and manufacturing stages. Safe-by-design is the primary intervention necessary to eliminate chemicals of concern in plastic and other packaging materials in the circular economy. As consumers, we can apply this critical information into our daily lives by opting for products and brands that offer minimal and safer packaging options, in addition to supporting efforts for stricter legislation of chemicals in food packaging. 


International Chemical Secretariat. “What goes around: Enabling the circular economy by removing chemical roadblocks”. February 2021.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein is the author’s opinion. Our authors are not scientists. We are not providing medical advice, but simply sharing publicly available information. When we reference data and databases, we do so with the caveat that most are only as good as the data they are based on. While POB strives to make the information as timely and accurate as possible, we make no claims, promises, or guarantees about the completeness, or adequacy of the contents of any site that is shared, and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in the contents of these sites.  POB goes to great lengths to avoid declaring shared products as “safe” as there is no legal definition of the word “safe” at this time. 

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