Recycled electrics leak hazardous chemicals into everyday items

Hazardous chemicals are finding their way into food-contact items, toys and jewellery because manufacturers are using recycled electrics as a source of black plastic, a new study has reported.

Bromine, antimony and lead have been found in a range of everyday products because manufacturers are using recycled electrical equipment as a source of black plastic.

The hazardous substances are generally applied to devices as flame retardants, but remain within the products when they reach the end of their useful lives.

Now, scientists at the University of Plymouth have shown that the growing demand for black plastic and the inefficient sorting of end-of-life electrical equipment is causing contaminated material to be introduced into the recycled products.

According to their findings, despite black plastics constituting only about 15 per cent of the domestic waste stream, this waste material is not readily recycled due to the low sensitivity of black pigments to near infrared radiation used in plastic sorting facilities.

Dr Andrew Turner, who led the study, explained in a statement that as well as posing a threat to human health, the contamination could have harmful effects for the marine and coastal environment either through the spread of the products as litter or as microplastics.

He used XRF spectrometry to assess the levels of a range of elements in more than 600 black plastic products such as food-contact items like cocktail stirrers, clothing, toys, jewellery, office items and new and old electronic and electrical equipment.

In many products, including coat hangers, Christmas decorations and tool handles, concentrations of bromine potentially exceeded legal limits for electrical items, while in various toys, storage containers and office equipment, concentrations of lead exceeded the legal limit.

According to the scientists, there is a need for increased innovation within the recycling industry to ensure harmful substances are eliminated from recycled waste and to increase the recycling of black plastic consumer products.

Photo credit: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/ CC BY-ND 2.0

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