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This story was originally published by Canada’s National Observer and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
New research has found that eggs eaten by some of the world’s poorest people are poisoned by plastic waste from rich countries like Canada and the United States.
A number of harmful chemicals are added to plastic and food packaging to give it desirable properties such as fat resistance or flexibility. When burned or broken down, these chemicals contaminate the environment and animals that live or eat nearby.
Chickens can ingest the chemicals by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated worms and insects. Eggs are particularly sensitive to toxic chemicals and are widely consumed by humans, according to the report by the International Pollutant Elimination Network (IPEN), a global coalition of environmental organizations.
The problem is most acute for those in low- and middle-income countries who maintain the multi-billion dollar global plastic and e-waste trade. According to the most recent, non-peer review study, people who eat free-range eggs raised near 25 plastic landfills and recycling centers in 14 low- and middle-income countries are exposed to toxic chemicals well in excess of what is found to be human go beyond safe boundaries health.
“I’m really impressed,” said Max Liboiron, a professor of geography at Memorial University who specializes in plastic pollution. (Liboiron was not involved in the research.) “These people look at the mixing of plastic and e-waste under the actual conditions in which the waste is generated, they look at how people actually eat eggs … and they look at a number of Chemicals (that exist) in the real world. “
This is a “really, really rare” approach, explained Liboiron, as most research on the toxicity of plastics only looks at a few selected chemicals in a laboratory setting. This can make it difficult to assess the full human health and environmental impacts of disposal and recycling of plastic waste. The problem is exacerbated by the tendency for chemicals to change – and often become more toxic – when exposed to heat, light, and other chemicals and metals.
“The chemical that goes into plastic isn’t necessarily the same chemical that comes out. It can change if you expose it to air, water, different pH values and different salt content, ”explains Imari Karega Walker, a PhD student at Duke University who studies the environmental impact of plastic additives.
These factors can lead to a range of chemicals that are under industry and government safety controls on new plastic products, but pose a threat to the environment and human health, she said. The IPEN study looked at some of these compounds in its comprehensive assessment of persistent organic pollutants, such as carcinogenic dioxins and biphynols, which result from burning plastic waste.
The study’s decision to evaluate recycling sites as well as open landfills is also important, noted Liboiron. For years, the global plastics industry has promoted recycling as a sustainable and safe way to dispose of harmful plastics. The results indicate that these promises may not be accurate.
They also highlight the persistent problems posed by rich countries’ waste exports to developing countries.
“A lot of our waste management systems rely on exports … the United States, Great Britain, Europe (and Canada) don’t have a functioning waste infrastructure,” explained Liboiron. “(We are) involved because it is literally our waste.”
At the beginning of the year Canada officially joined the Plastic Agreement of the Basel Convention, a global agreement that restricts international trade in plastic waste. However, critics have noted that the federal government tacitly signed an agreement with the United States in the fall of 2020 to allow the free movement of plastic waste between the two countries.
According to the environmental organization Basel Action Network (BAN), around 93 percent of Canadian plastic waste exports go to the USA. Since the US did not sign the deal, it can export Canadian plastic waste to poorer countries.
Every month around 25.7 million kilograms of plastic waste – mainly low-quality, non-recyclable plastic of uncertain origin – leave the US coast in countries such as Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam, reports BAN. While countries have tried in recent years to contain some of the flow that is technically illegal, many have had problems stopping imports of garbage from overseas.
In theory, if the recipient country has signed the Basel Convention – as 188 countries have done – the recipient country cannot accept the waste without a bilateral agreement with the United States. However, economic pressures and lack of enforcement can make it nearly impossible to contain the flow, according to an investigation in December.
“The whole thing can be understood as garbage colonialism,” said Liboiron. “It’s our waste exporting to other places, but the reason they import our waste is because of the existing colonial legacy where we’ve already taken everything else of value out, and now their most viable choice is to import our (garbage) . “