On America Recycles Day, What Goes Around Comes Around, & It Might Be Toxic

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By Joe Charbonnet, PhD, Tom Bruton, PhD, Arlene Blum, PhD, and Barbara Kyle

Thursday, November 15 is America Recycles Day, when we celebrate the individuals, recycling companies, and governments that are diverting millions of pounds of materials otherwise headed to landfills.

But there can be a hidden danger in recycling. For example, millions of pounds of toxic flame retardants are added to furniture foam, plastic TV cases and other electronics.  Recycled plastic containing flame retardants can end up in unlikely and undesirable places. Flame retardants have been found in lunch boxes, children’s toys, and even soup ladles.  What’s worse, they can move from the ladle into the broth, making “toxic chemical soup” less of a metaphor and more of a frightening reality.

The answer, of course, isn’t to stop recycling. The answer is to stop using toxic chemicals in the first place. We at the Green Science Policy Institute have identified Six Classes of chemicals of concern that are used in many products. These chemicals are often not needed, especially given the potential for harm. The Six Classes approach can prevent the cycle of “regrettable substitution,” in which a phased-out harmful chemical is replaced with a closely related chemical which may cause similar harm.

The Six Classes of chemicals of concerns are:

  • Highly fluorinated stain and waterproofing chemicals (PFAS)
  • Antimicrobials used in soaps, body washes, building materials etc.
  • Flame retardants (organohalogen and organophosphate)
  • Bisphenols and phthalates
  • Some solvents
  • Certain metals (Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, and Cadmium)

Four-minute-long videos and more information at www.SixClasses.org.

Many of our planet’s resources are in short supply. Innovative designers are looking towards the circular economy, in which products are meant to be reused, recycled, or repurposed rather than landfilled or destroyed.  Adding toxic chemicals to products throws a wrench into the circular economy.

To keep toxics out of our world, we should not add them to products in the first place. So while we celebrate recycling, let’s remember another of the “three Rs”: reduce. By reducing our use of the Six Classes of chemicals of concern, we can move towards an economy that is healthier and more circular.

Learn more and sign up for a monthly newsletter on reducing toxics for a healthier world at www.SixClasses.org

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