This article will address typical regulations associated with thermoplastic compounds and answer some common questions about the environmental aspects of plastics.
Thermoplastics include many different types of plastics commonly used in food packaging, children’s toys, medical devices, and many other consumer and industrial products. Different plastic compounds have been tested and found to be safe for their specific applications. A plastic compound in a medical device that will be implanted in the body, for example, has different safety requirements than a plastic compound that will be used to cover an electrical cable to protect its conductive properties and prevent it from becoming a fire hazard.
Although there are no environmental regulatory restrictions on the polymers themselves, there are regulations that govern the chemical additives mixed into the plastic compounds to give them special properties. Chemical regulations are region-dependent. Companies in the plastics industry have developed materials that are compliant with these regulations and that do not use the restricted chemicals. The following sections describe some of these regulations.
What chemical regulations in the EU apply to plastic compounds?
The broadest of the European Union’s (EU) chemical regulations is REACH, which stands for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals. The REACH regulations consider potential concerns for the environment and for human health for chemicals produced and used in the EU. Suppliers keep track of what is included in the REACH restrictions so that they don’t use these additives in the EU.
The EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive and the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive both relate to what can be used in electrical and electronic equipment, including wire and cable. Products must be RoHS compliant in order to carry the CE mark for use in the European Economic Area. Additives such as some halogenated flame retardants, for example, are not allowed. Other chemicals may be added to the list of restrictions; for example, medium-chain chlorinated paraffins could be restricted in the future. These chemicals can be used as lubricants in plastics, but companies have already been finding and using alternative lubricants instead. Antimony oxide, which is widely used in wire and cable compounds as a synergist with brominated flame retardants, may be restricted in the future. If it becomes restricted, companies that make wire and cable products will have to find alternatives.
Four phthalate plasticizers (BBP, DEHP, DBP, and DIBP) have been added to the list of restricted substances under RoHS, effective in 2019 for electrical and electronic equipment and in 2021 for medical devices.
What chemical regulations in the US apply to plastic compounds?
In the United States, chemicals are regulated by the federal government, and in some cases by state governments. In 2016, the US government passed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (LSCA), which amended the existing US Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Manufacturers need to make sure that any chemical they use is on the approved inventory, which is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). To date there have not been any significant changes affecting chemicals used in plastic compounds.
Another US government agency, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), regulates chemicals in food-contact and medical applications. FDA considers the impact of chemicals on human health. Medical devices are regulated by FDA. You can read further information on the subject from a previous article we published on using Polymer Compounds in Medical Devices
Although the US federal government does not have a law restricting flame retardants, several individual states have restricted some flame retardants, particularly in children’s products and upholstered furniture and textiles. These are typically different flame retardants from those used in wire and cable compounds.
What is Prop 65?
The state of California’s Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986)—commonly called Prop 65—is a requirement for labeling end-use products that contain any of 600 substances that are on a list maintained by the state as probable carcinogens or as reproductive toxins. It is not a ban that prevents legal use of these substances, but a labeling requirement so that consumers are aware of what is in their products. In order to make the label on the end-use product accurate, suppliers up the supply chain must also notify their customers if a product contains any of the substances on the list. Substances on the list that are used in some plastic compounds include some flame retardants and some phthalate plasticizers (for example, DEHP). Plastic compounds that do not contain Prop 65 substances are also available.
What are conflict mineral regulations?
Conflict minerals are not an environmental or human health issue. The US has restricted use of minerals, including tin and gold, that are mined and refined in regions of the world, such as Central Africa, where there are certain ongoing military conflicts. The US requires suppliers to identify and report if any of the materials they use come from these regions. A few plastic compounds may contain tin-based additives, but suppliers can provide documents to certify that the source of these minerals is not a restricted region.
Other environmental concerns
The regulations we have discussed include those intended to ensure safety for people’s health and the health of our environment. Scientists continue to study and learn about how we can use plastics and the additives that go into plastic compounds in a responsible and sustainable way.
Are thermoplastics toxic? Is PVC toxic?
Some types of thermoplastics include polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). As mentioned previously, these materials are designed to be safe for people to use as they are intended.
Some have said that PVC is toxic because vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) is used in its production. However, in today’s manufacturing processes, the release of VCM is very low, and the level of residual VCM left in the polymer is so low that it is not detectable. Some websites say that PVC “contains chlorine.” Although there are chlorine molecules that are part of the solid PVC, these are not the same as the liquid chemical chlorine used to disinfect a pool, for example. Others have said that because of the chlorine content, incineration of PVC releases dioxins. However, studies have found that dioxin formation in municipal waste incineration is more related to the temperature and oxygen concentration in the process, not how much PVC is in the waste stream (1).
There are two categories of PVC: rigid and flexible. Rigid PVC is widely used in building and construction (for example, pipe or vinyl siding). Flexible PVC, which contains plasticizers to make it flexible, has a range of applications from covering electrical wire and cable to bags for intravenous medical fluids. There are many types of plasticizers. Some types of phthalate plasticizers have been restricted because of health concerns.
Reference: 1. PVC.org FAQs: PVC FAQs
What materials can be recycled?
Because thermoplastics can be melted and reshaped, they have the potential to be recycled. In reality, recycling is a complex issue that is affected by many factors, including consumer behavior and the need for markets for recycled plastics. The plastics industry is committed to increased recycling, and the Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe has committed to the objective of Zero Plastics to Landfill (1).
Reference: Zero plastics to landfill
What about marine litter?
A problem of growing concern is the plastic bottles, straws, bags, and containers that are not recycled or disposed of properly, but are discarded by people as litter. Besides being an eyesore, plastics litter ends up in the world’s waterways and eventually in the oceans. Marine litter is a complex problem, but the good news is that people, companies, and organizations are coming together to solve the problem by addressing it from many angles (1-3).
- Marine Litter
- Connecting Expert Communities to Address Marine Litter in Life Cycle Assessment
- Eliminating Ocean Plastics
Using environmentally friendly thermoplastics
Thermoplastic compounds are helping people live in a more environmentally friendly way. Because thermoplastics are lightweight materials, plastic packaging takes less energy to transport, and thermoplastics in vehicles increase fuel efficiency. Thermoplastic food packaging helps prevent food waste. Plastics in building and construction can reduce energy consumption (1).
In whatever industry you are in, plastics can provide many benefits. You should have an understanding of the regulations that affect your products and your markets so that you can determine what materials are fit for use in your products. Your material suppliers can provide information to help you make good decisions.
Source # 1:
How plastics tackle climate change