There is no question that plastic surrounds us at every given moment. In every imaginable form, the material is in our home appliances, food packaging, electronics, and so much more. We come in contact with plastic on a daily basis and typically don’t think much about it. However, plastic is now filling up all other spaces we can think of — like oceans and landfills. And now it seems to have made its way onto our dinner plates. A new U.K. study shows that plastics extracted from e-waste — the type of plastic that comes in contact with dangerous heavy metals and toxic compounds — is used in black plastic food containers; i.e. the plastic containers used for take out and frozen food items.
The term ‘black plastic,’ is exactly as it sounds — plastic material colored with carbon black which is in many cases produced by burning petroleum byproducts. This material is also not recyclable by regular means: the recycling process we send most of our plastics through works by using near-infrared light radiation to break down the material so we can make it into something else. But, black plastic does not break down under the low-intensity radiation that works on clear or lighter colored plastic bottles. Which means that your average recycling facility in the U.K. or U.S. can’t process black plastic as easily as it can other items. And instead of finding efficient ways of responsibly dealing with the material, more often than not, the material heads for landfills.
Essentially, black plastic is very harmful to the environment. Not only can it not be broken down easily for recycle, but reuse isn’t much of an option as the material cannot be re-dyed. That is, unless you’re looking to reuse e-waste materials.
Black is typically associated with being modern and sleek, therefore it makes sense that the color would be heavily integrated in technology. With a color that is always ‘in vogue,’ how can you go wrong, right? From our televisions to our desktops, laptops, and basically all other electronic devices – black plastic is a key material. However, e-waste is full of valuable and often toxic materials. The plastic that’s used in electronics is treated with chemicals like bromine and antimony and heavy metals like lead, to make it flame-retardant and otherwise suitable for electronics.
Once plastic material is used in the creation of electronics, the plastic is really only suppose to be recycled back into electronics. However, some recyclers try to find other methods of recycling black plastic however unhealthy and dangerous they may be. Some recyclers, many of whom are located in China or in the Middle East, are suppose to separate the plastic according to whether it’s safe or not to be reused in consumer applications. Yet, as we can see with food containers made from black plastic, this is not happening.
Environmental scientist from the University of Plymouth who authored the study, Andrew Turner looked at more than 600 individual items. To figure out 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 coffee mug, clothes hanger, and toy car contained. The results weren’t great: he found more than the legal limits of worrisome chemicals and heavy metals in a number of the items. Given the global supply chains that give us our electronics, toys, and other plastic goods, Turner says he would expect to find similar results in the United States.
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 future research will help them understand the process as well as figure out whether the harmful substances are leaching out and being ingested or absorbed by consumers.
Regardless, the idea of consuming traces of electronic waste as we enjoy a convenient meal is very concerning.