The truth about chemicals in plastics

Want to know the reality of how chemicals in plastics are a major issue for sustainability? Recent research reveals some alarming truths.

by Betsy Murry, Director, Product and Programs

Last year, The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) published the Chemicals in Plastics: A Technical Report.  They highlighted the increasing volume of plastic use, the shocking number of chemicals in plastics, the impact they have on human health and the ecosystem, and the actions we should take to address their negative impact. Here, we highlight some key statements from the report and the impacts for each. 

Based on the latest studies, more than 13,000 chemical substances have been identified as associated with plastics, known for use in plastic production, or detected in plastics materials.

Of these 13,000+ chemicals, just over half had been assessed for their hazardous properties. Out of that 7,000 assessed, more than 3,200 chemicals were identified as having characteristics of concern, almost half. This begs the question: what about the remaining 6,000 chemicals that weren’t assessed?  

While we know Chemical Hazard Assessments (CHAs) are resource intensive, we also know that they are the most effective way to identify any negative impacts on human health or the ecosystem. 

Global plastic production has increased exponentially since the 1950s, reaching about 460 million tonnes in 2019.

This increase also means an increase in chemicals – some new – and the associated adverse impacts on human health and the environment. 

Recent data suggests that over 30 million tonnes of processing aids and plastic additives are used each year

We must ask, can the chemicals used in these processing aids and plastic additives be safer? 

The report speaks in detail about the negative impact of plastics on the ecosystem, human health, the environment, consumers, workers, and those in waste management. The impact of problematic chemicals occurs throughout the entire lifecycle of the material. 

Chemicals in plastics_process
Introducing screening into the production process means safer chemicals and greener recycling and disposal.

Essentially, companies need efficient and effective ways to screen for problematic chemicals and identify safer alternatives. This should be based on the broader implications for human and environmental impacts from chemicals, rather than solely on compliance and regulation requirements.

A decrease in hazardous chemicals in the value chain would in turn reduce negative impacts on human health and the environment. It would also make disposal and waste management processes safer, easier, and more efficient because the chemical coming through the process would be safer and circular. 

Plastics across sectors

Plastics aren’t just used in one industry or product type. They and the chemicals used to produce them are found across various sectors and across the supply chain. The report prioritized 10 industry sectors and products value chains for action: 

  • Toys and other children’s products 
  • Packaging, including food contact materials 
  • Electrical and electronic equipment 
  • Vehicles 
  • Synthetic textiles 
  • Furniture 
  • Building materials 
  • Medical devices 
  • Personal care and household products 
  • Agriculture, aquaculture, and fisheries 

What this means is that humans and the environment are exposed to a wide range of problematic chemicals in almost every use case. And it’s not just consumers or post-production impact. Workers are often exposed to these chemicals of concern (regardless of PPE measures) during the production and waste management processes. 


Reversing the trend and removing chemicals of concern from plastics as early as the design phase will, on the contrary, ensure a toxic-free circular economy, and allow for reuse, remanufacturing, or refurbishing of plastic products and materials, and recycling of plastic waste.

Woman putting empty plastic bottle in recycling bin in the kitch

These issues with waste management, recycling and more can be reduced by selecting safer chemicals at the start of the process. This requires strong efforts in supply chain transparency, so companies (and consumers) know and understand the chemicals being used in their products and processes – going beyond testing for a certain few chemicals, SDS or questionnaires for disclosure. 

It’s critical that each player in the value chain understands the impacts of the chemicals being used in products and processes – and has the ability to choose or identify safer chemicals. While the definition of safer chemicals is difficult to nail down and agree on, there are some basic principles that can and should be accepted and adopted. Starting with using Chemical Hazard Assessments to identify problematic chemicals and safer alternatives. 

The plastics industry isn’t the only one dealing with these challenges, but it’s a pervasive problem that will take many parties coming together to solve. There are no easy answers to this. However, it’s clear that knowledge and increased transparency is crucial to protecting people’s health and the environment. This is a shared problem, and the solution must also be shared. 

Preventative and precautionary approaches to minimizing chemicals of concern in plastics, starting from chemical, plastic, and product (re-)design, should be at the very core of efforts to address the plastic crisis.

Regulations around PFAS and other chemicals of concern in plastics are increasing. And more information comes to light about the true impact of the chemicals in our products and processes. It’s therefore important to ensure you have the tools that will help you build transparency, gather the right information to make safer chemicals decisions, and prioritize your actions. 

See what action you can take now 

With the right information and insight, you can not only screen your chemicals for compliance but also be well prepared for the future of sustainability requirements, and make sure your products and processes are as safe as possible – reducing the negative impact throughout the supply chain and lifecycle. 

How to make plastic safer and sustainable

Conduct Chemical Hazard Assessments (CHAs) to understand which chemicals may need substituting in your processes, using our Assess solution. To further engage with your supply chain, use Connect to ensure your suppliers are also using safer, greener chemicals.