Some of the planet’s rarest metals – used in the manufacture of smartphones and other electrical equipment – are increasingly being found in everyday consumer plastics, according to new research.
Scientists from the University of Plymouth and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested a range of new and used products including children’s toys, office equipment and cosmetic containers.
Through a number of detailed assessments, they examined levels of rare earth elements (REEs) but also quantities of bromine and antimony, used as flame retardants in electrical equipment and a sign of the presence of recycled electronic plastic.
The results showed one or more REEs were found in 24 of the 31 products tested, including items where unregulated recycling is prohibited such as single-use food packaging.
They were most commonly observed in samples containing bromine and antimony at levels insufficient to effect flame retardancy, but also found in plastics where those chemicals weren’t present.
Having also been found in beached marine plastics, the study’s authors have suggested there is evidence that REEs are ubiquitous and pervasive contaminants of both contemporary and historical consumer and environmental plastics.
The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, is the first to systematically investigate the full suite of REEs in a broad range of consumer plastics.
While they have previously been found in a variety of environments – including ground water, soils and the atmosphere – the study demonstrates the wide REE contamination of the “plastisphere” that does not appear to be related to a single source or activity.