Plastic Waste: Should It Be Classified Hazardous?


Un-recycled plastic packaging and non-recyclable packaging like the Capri-Sun drink pouch can release toxic chemicals as they decompose. Credit: Damian Cox

A call by scientists to classify plastic waste as hazardous is elevating the urgency of our Waste program, which is focused on getting companies to take responsibility for their post-consumer packaging.

Researchers argue in Nature that plastics accumulating in the ocean should be reclassified as hazardous waste. Dead killer whales that wash up on shore are so filled with toxic chemicals that they must be dealt with as hazardous waste.

Lab tests have shown that ingredients in four widely used plastics—polyvinyl chloride, polystyrene, polyurethane, and polycarbonate—can be carcinogenic. Research is under way to determine if these chemicals are being absorbed by fish and other animals in the food chain.

Only about 8% of the 30 million tons of plastic produced annually in the U.S. are recycled; the remainder is landfilled or littered. Classifying plastic waste as hazardous would give environmental agencies the power to reduce plastic in the oceans and restore damaged habitat.

The potential toxicity of plastic waste expands our focus on packaging waste from a waste of valuable resources to a higher level of public concern as a threat to human health. Our Waste program has pressed Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s to stop using polystyrene foam beverage cups, a leading component of ocean debris.

Now we are putting new emphasis on engaging consumer goods companies to phase out non-recyclable packaging. Flexible plastic laminate pouches, used in products like Capri-Sun drinks, are gaining popularity. Global sales are $137 billion and significant future growth is expected in emerging markets.

It’s already challenging to get easily recyclable plastics like PET and HDPE to be collected and recycled at high levels. Continuing to put non-recyclable packaging on the market increases the chances that more of these materials will end up in the waterways and leach toxics.