Plastic is Oil

Plastic is an oil-based product, historically and today. In the last 100 years, something that has been concealed underground for thousands of years has ended up as an ingredient in virtually every product we make. Not only does oil have a high energy value, it is also very pliable and easily adapted for many different purposes. A common purpose is making plastic. If we compiled a list of all the additives used in plastics, it would be a long one. Many of these additives are hazardous to both our health and the environment.

To give a material the properties and looks we desire, we use additives. We have colourants and glossing agents for the finish, softening agents to make it pliable, flame retardants to minimize the risk of the plastic catching fire if it overheats, and antioxidants to extend its life-cycle. The list of additives is endless. Many of them have also proved to have considerable negative effects on our environment and health. Certain brominated flame retardants do not biodegrade when they end up in nature. Toxic substances bioaccumulate and spread between species and generations of animals.

Regulations for additives in plastics

For the last 20 years, the EU has worked to reduce the spreading of these hazardous substances. After the Reach Regulation (2007), finding information on the chemical content of materials and products has become easier. The RoHS Directive (2012) limits the chemicals allowed in production. And the POP Regulation (2004) limits the use of persistent organic pollutants.

Parallel with the more stringent legislation, many electronics producers have initiated their own programmes for reducing or replacing chemicals (hazardous metals in particular). Substances that are commonly recognized as being hazardous – like cadmium, lead, mercury and many of the brominated flame retardants – have disappeared from many products.

There are still numerous substances whose effect on the environment we have not yet fully grasped, but which producers have listed as ones to be phased out. Some examples are PVC, beryllium and brominated flame retardants.

Hazardous Substances in Imported Plastic Products

Laws and directives decide the rules for product manufacturers. There are also different types of standards to aid them with procurements and other purchases. But things can also go in the other direction: We may receive products which include chemicals that have been banned.

Results from analyses made by the Swedish Chemicals Agency show that almost 50 per cent of the products imported over the Internet from non-EU countries contain banned substances, most commonly lead, cadmium and brominated flame retardants. There are also e-merchants in Sweden and the EU who sell products containing banned substances, but not quite to the same degree. The same conclusion was drawn by the National Electrical Safety Board, which investigated products with respect to safety (with a primary focus on health and flammability). Products that would have been banned in the EU are sold via e-merchants based outside the EU.EU.