The Chemicals in Plastic and Why it Matters, Part 1

Colorful plastic bottles, from products such as shampoo and household cleaners.
Image by ds_30 from Pixabay

Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum.

I have found that most people don’t know that, or don’t care to know. Many plastics are full of potentially toxic chemical concoctions, and knowing what makes up plastics is key to understanding how dangerous those chemicals are. Once you know that, it’s hard to understand why would the FDA, EPA, and other government regulatory agencies allow them to be used in, well…everything.

The short answer is, they just don’t regulate that many chemicals.

But plastics are all around us in everyday life, and thus we are regularly exposed to these chemicals. This is one reason I’m anti-plastic, at least in the way we overuse and overconsume it in daily life.

How Plastic is Made

Colorful plastic nurdles close-up.
Plastic nurdles. Image by feiern1 from Pixabay

“Most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking.” -Jennie Romer, sustainability expert and attorney1

Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, such as crude oil and natural gas. It is then processed at a refinery into ethane and propane. Next, they go to what are called cracker facilities that “crack” or break down these molecules. They turn ethane into ethylene, which is a building block of most common plastics. Propane becomes propylene. They are mixed with a catalyst, or chemical additive, that links the molecules together and forms polymers. Polymers are long, repeating chains of molecules that are chemically linked, or bonded, together. Harken back to chemistry class and this process is called polymerization.

But “polymers alone rarely have the physical qualities to be of practical value, so most plastics contain a multitude of chemical additives to facilitate the manufacturing process or produce a particular desirable property, such as flexibility, toughness, color or resistance to UV light.”2 This process forms different resins, or types of plastics, and are generally categorized by Resin Codes (those little numbers on plastics with the recycling symbol around it).

Oil pump with bright blue sky and white clouds background
Image by John R Perry from Pixabay

Plastic is Toxic

These chemical additives are usually what is most harmful to our health and the environment, as they leach over time and under certain conditions such as heat or UV exposure. Additives include dyes, “fragrances” or phthalates, plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA), fillers, fluffers, hardeners, stabilizers, lubricants, fire retardants, blowing agents, antistatic chemicals, and even fungicides and antibacterial agents. “Imagine that, plastics eerily designed to repel insects and bacteria, just like genetically modified cotton or corn!” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, founders of Life Without Plastic.3

Many chemicals are not even regulated. For example, the FDA banned BPA from infant formula packaging, baby bottles, and sippy cups in 2013 because of its toxic leaching. But, there is a whole family of other bisphenols and most of those are still in active and legal use.

Plastic is often intended for single use only because the toxins leach out over time into your water, food, or product. As Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha noted: “We would wash and reuse single-use water bottles over and over, thinking we were being super eco-aware by preventing them from being recycled after a single use or heading straight into the trash and, ultimately, a landfill. We didn’t realize each use and wash was breaking down the cheap, unstable plastic more and more, and increasing the potential for chemicals and microscopic bits of plastic to leach into our drinks.”4 I used to reuse my plastic water bottles too – and I stored mine in the car, where the plastics were exposed to intense heat and sunlight, both factors that accelerate plastic chemical leaching.

Plastic Marketing

Plastic toy cash register, plastic coins and pretend bills
Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

Facing changing public opinion about the harmfulness of plastic in the 1980s, the plastics industry “launched a $50M-a-year ad campaign to improve plastic’s image. Part of the message was ‘recycling is the answer.’ Within the plastics industry, however, it was later revealed that even then there was serious doubt that widespread plastic recycling could ever be made economically viable.”5 They knew then, and they certainly know now, that we cannot recycle all of the plastic. Despite the pollution and toxicity, the plastics industry continues to push, market, and produce excessive plastic products and packaging.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of the Society of the Plastics Industry, now called the Plastics Industry Association6

There are many advocates for plastic production, including the chemical, trade, and petroleum organizations. The global plastics industry is worth between $500 and $800 billion dollars. The plastics industry is not going away while there is that much money at stake.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) is one of the biggest supporters of plastics, and they spend millions each year contributing to political parties in order to fight legislation that would regulate plastic production. Other organizations protective of plastics include (but are not limited to) the Plastics Industry Association, the American Chemical Society, the Manufacturers Association for Plastic Processors, the International Association of Plastics Distribution, the Vinyl Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the Society Of Plastics Engineers.

Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.
Plastics Make it Possible Logo, an American Chemistry Council initiative.

“We are not out to destroy the plastics industry, but we must embrace change.”7

The Overproduction of Plastic

Greenpeace scuba diver holding up a Coca-Cola bottle and sign: "Coca-Cola is this yours?" Found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A Greenpeace diver holds a banner reading “Coca-Cola is this yours?” and a
Coca-Cola bottle found adrift in the garbage patch. The crew of the Greenpeace ship MY Arctic Sunrise voyage into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch document plastics and other marine debris. CREDIT: © Justin Hofman / Greenpeace, October 1, 2018. Image used with written permission from Greenpeace media.

“Many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.”8

There are a few plastics that have an important place on our planet and in our lives, but most do not. Single-use disposable plastics are the major culprits of our plastic pollution problem. The companies we purchase products from are now producing it at such a high rate that we cannot recycle the problem away. Plastic production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015, and it is expected to double by 2050.9 “Plastic is too microscopically dispersed around the world to try and clean it all up at this point…Prevention and avoidance should be engraved in our minds,” wrote Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha in Life Without Plastic.10 Companies and manufacturers must stop producing so much of it!

“Half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years.”11

Watch this short film about plastic from The Story of Stuff Project:

“We have polluted the planet with indestructible plastic to such a degree that plastic may serve as a fossil marker in our strata to indicate a new era – the way dinosaurs indicate the Mesozoic one – until Big Oil digs the last of those reptiles up to produce more Coke bottles.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of The Zero-Waste Chef12

What To Do

Whatever it takes to slow or stop the neverending barrage of chemical toxicity and plastic pollution being perpetrated on our planet by profit-driven entities, you can start at home and start small. You can avoid and refuse single-use plastic, changing your habits surrounding it one step at a time. I offer many ways to eliminate plastic on my site in my articles such as “11 Ways To Go Plastic-Free With Food,” and under Resources, where there are lists of books, films, and other websites that offer good information.

You have to eliminate plastics in your life in small manageable chunks, because there’s just so much of it. As the founders of Life Without Plastic wrote, “As excited as you may be to embark on this journey, be careful about fully embracing plastic-free living cold turkey, and trying to do it all at once. Once you start noticing the plastic around you, it could overwhelm and discourage you quickly…Take it one step at a time. This is all about changing habits, and that takes time, effort and patience.”13 This will protect you and your family from potentially toxic products entering your body and harming your health.

Contact companies whose products you consume and ask them to switch to responsible packaging. Switch the products you use with items that don’t have plastic. Support legislation like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.14 Getting manufacturers and companies to stop the overproduction of plastics will be key, and to do so we will have to force them through purchase power and legislation.

“We are surrounded by the toxic polluting conundrum that versatile convenient plastic has become. But . . . there are lots of ways to avoid plastics in everyday life – wherever you are, whatever you do. All it takes is a little awareness and initiative. Educated actions, we like to call it.” –Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha, Life Without Plastic15

Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “Plastics 101,” National Geographic, May 18, 2018.

Guide to My Packaging Industry Series.

Footnotes:

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food, Part 1

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Black Styrofoam take out container
Photo from www.webstaurantstore.com

Take-out has definitely increased in popularity since the onset of COVID-19 and often take-out and leftovers are transported and served in what we colloquially refer to as Styrofoam containers. These containers present several problems because they largely cannot be recycled or composted. These items clutter up landfills, litter rivers, and pollute oceans. They are extremely dangerous to marine life because the containers break down into small pieces that many species ingest. Worst of all, these containers leach toxins into our food, and those toxins are poisonous to humans.

This is the first of a five-part series to explain the dangers of putting food into said containers. I want to acknowledge that I am neither a physician nor a scientist. I am, however, a concerned environmentalist, mother, and friend, and as such I must inform you that I feel it is imperative to stop eating and reheating food in Styrofoam/polystyrene containers immediately.

Styrofoam vs. Polystyrene

Foam take-out containers are actually made of polystyrene, which is how I’ll refer to them in this post. Though it has become a genericization, Styrofoam is a trademarked brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS), commonly called “Blue Board” and used in building materials and insulation. This material is light blue in color and is owned and manufactured by The Dow Chemical Company. The kind used for take-out and food packaging is actually Expanded Polystyrene, or EPS. Both types have insulating and cushioning properties.

“Polystyrene is the name for a whole family of plastics … but the foam forms have [a] disproportional environmental impact.” -Joseph A. Davis, Society of Environmental Journalists

Styrofoam food container
Styrofoam food container. Image by Aislan Máximo “Max” on Pixabay

What is Polystyrene?

Polystyrene is a chemically produced plastic that can be a hard or foam plastic. The foam is created by expanding the styrene (plastic), a petroleum by-product, which is accomplished by blowing various gases into it. Polystyrene is made from ethylene and benzene, both hydrocarbons derived from petroleum and natural gas, also known as petrochemicals. So those fast-food containers are made from fossils fuels and mixed with chemicals. That doesn’t sound too appetizing, does it?

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), promoters of all plastic despite the human health and environmental problems it causes, infers that polystyrene is natural when it is far from it: “Polystyrene is made by stringing together, or polymerizing, styrene, a building-block chemical used in the manufacture of many products. Styrene also occurs naturally in foods such as strawberries, cinnamon, coffee and beef.”1 They are referring to the minuscule amounts in those natural items, which are not mixed with additional additives and chemicals that are potentially dangerous. I find it appalling that the ACC makes such a comparison.

Added Chemicals

Many sources indicate that polystyrene is made up of mostly air, but that’s not completely accurate. The plastic is expanded into foam by creating air pockets between the polymers, but a gas or a chemical is used in expanding it. The industry formerly used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a blowing agent, and as you may know, CFCs deplete the planet’s protective ozone layer. Most CFCs have been removed worldwide following bans in the late 1980s.2

Today, there are two principal methods of production for polystyrene in the United States, according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The primary method uses ethylbenzene; the second is created through a series of chemical reactions using ethylbenzene, propylene, propylene oxide, and α-methyl phenyl carbinol.3

Chicken, rice, and vegetables in polystyrene container
Image by Vitalis Arnoldus from Pixabay

Use of Polystyrene Containers

Polystyrene is used for packaging materials, insulation, fiberglass, automobile parts, plastic pipes, carpet backing, boat hulls, and food packaging and containers. There are two types of EPS food containers. The rigid form is used for clear food containers, plates, bowls, beverage cups and lids, utensils, and straws. The foam form is used to make plates, insulated beverage cups, soup bowls, ice cream cups, clamshell food containers, meat trays, and cafeteria trays. These containers are everywhere: restaurants, fast-food restaurants, cafeterias, buffets, coffee shops, ice cream shops, movie theaters, grocery stores, supermarkets, etc.

Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging.
Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging. Photos by me

Keebler ice cream cones, packed in #6 polystyrene packaging.

Inexpensive but Harmful

This material is inexpensive to manufacture. It is also cheap to ship because polystyrene is so light, but it also makes it easy for the pieces to take to flight, littering our roads, rivers, and ocean. The ACC really promotes the use of material despite environmental and human health hazards: “Polystyrene foodservice packaging typically insulates better, keeps food fresher longer and costs less than alternatives.”4 But the true cost is devastating when considering the pollution, human health effects, and harm to wildlife.

“When considering the cleanup costs, carbon emissions, environmental costs, and potential health effects, the hidden cost of Styrofoam comes out to $7 billion, annually.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis

Looking Forward

The world produces more than 14 million US tons of polystyrene each year according to earthday.org and the Green Dining Alliance. Most of that ends up in the trash or worse, our land, rivers, and ocean. Polystyrene is the most common type of #6 plastic and is largely not recyclable because of food contamination. I will explore these topics more in Part 3 of this series. For now, please know this, these containers leach harmful chemicals into your food, especially when heated. The best thing you can do is not to use them.

When ordering take-out, you can always ask the restaurant if they use “Styrofoam” or polystyrene containers. If they do, you can either ask if they have an alternative or decide to order from somewhere else. When bringing leftovers home from a restaurant, keep a glass or metal container in your car specifically for such occasions. It’s also a good idea to bring your own reusable coffee mug to coffee shops. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, please try to avoid eating food in polystyrene, and definitely stop reheating your food in polystyrene containers in the microwavePolystyrene is toxic to human health. I will cover this in more detail in my next post, Part 2.

Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to keep up with this short series and others to come!

 

Additional Resource:

Article, “Is the 30-Year-Long Styrofoam War Nearing Its End?” by Katherine Martinelli, JSTOR Daily, 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 8

Last updated June 9, 2021.

Exterior of a Walmart superstore
Image by jimaro morales from Pixabay

In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Take-back programs. It’s hard to talk about packaging without addressing two giant corporations that sell the most goods to consumers and thus the most packaging, Walmart and Amazon. These are huge companies that can make a big difference in packaging waste. There are thousands of companies that follow the practices of these businesses, so they are also influential. I’ll cover Walmart in this post and Amazon in the next. 

Walmart started looking at packaging early

The company has made some positive changes in the packaging world over the last 15 years. From redesigning shoeboxes to use less paper, to lightweighting wine bottles to use less fuel, and to reducing the number of wire ties in toy packaging, Walmart has made some differences. In some ways, they’ve led the way in packaging innovations.

“When we first began in product sustainability, one of the first things we started on was packaging, because packaging cuts through every category.” -Laura Phillips, Senior Vice President of Sustainability, Walmart

Walmart’s vision for sustainability began in 2005 when the company partnered with suppliers to improve packaging on its private-label toy line. “By reducing the packaging on fewer than 300 toys, Wal-Mart saved 3,425 tons of corrugated materials, 1,358 barrels of oil, 5,190 trees, 727 shipping containers and $3.5 million in transportation costs, in just one year,” according to the 2006 press release.1 The company took what it learned from that and developed its Packaging Scorecard in 2006. That was later embedded in the company’s Sustainability Index.

The Sustainability Index, developed by The Sustainability Consortium2 collects and analyzes information about a product’s life cycle. This includes sourcing, manufacturing and transporting, selling, customer usage, and end of life. Walmart uses the data to identify key social and environmental issues. Suppliers can view their scores, see how they rank relative to the field, and gain insight into opportunities for improvement.

“Wal-mart sparked much of the interest in packaging sustainability with the introduction of its Packaging Scorecard in 2006.” – Lisa McTigue Pierce3

New sustainability model

Today, Walmart has three tiers in its sustainability model for its brands, suppliers, manufacturers, and package designers to develop more efficient and sustainable packaging.4 These tiers are optimizing packaging design, sourcing packaging materials sustainably, and supporting recycling in packaging. They encourage the suppliers and brands they work with to follow this model for their packaging.

Walmart chart

How2Recycle label

Walmart argues that consumers are confused about recycling. This is because recycling systems are inconsistent, the packaging is not correctly labeled, and there’s too much of it. So Walmart encourages its suppliers to use the How2Recycle label. This is a consistent labeling program that clearly shows consumers what is and is not recyclable. How2Recycle’s “mission is to get more materials in the recycling bin by taking the guesswork out of recycling.”5 While this labeling does help with recycling confusion, it shifts the responsibility of disposal to the consumer.

Walmart’s aspiration is Zero Plastic Waste

Walmart’s goal is zero plastic waste, and they acknowledge the challenges of this on their sustainability website.6 They recognize that around 35% of plastic produced is used in packaging and that most of that is thrown away after a single-use. While plastic packaging can protect products, it is mostly a means of transporting products. But then it becomes waste. Project Gigaton is the “Walmart initiative to avoid one billion metric tons (a gigaton) of greenhouse gases from the global value chain by 2030.”7 Walmart believes that sometimes plastic is the most practical solution for packaging in terms of overall carbon footprint. But they want to find end-of-life solutions.

Walmart shifts responsibility 

Walmart interior
Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Walmart has shifted some of the responsibility of packaging waste to the consumer and municipal recycling systems. The company claims, “Society’s ability to collect and recycle plastic waste has failed to keep up with exponential increases in plastic production.” The company recognizes that there are huge challenges in the recycling industry. But they claim that recycling infrastructure is weak and that less than half of US households have access to recycling. While the latter part is absolutely true, the recycling industry simply can’t keep up.

The overproduction of plastic for the last four decades has been perpetuated by companies and corporations, manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council, and the petroleum industry. They produced so much at such an exponential rate and then shifted the burden of that waste to municipalities and the recycling industry. The U.S. was so overwhelmed that they had to ship that waste to foreign countries, like China, which has since banned the practice due to human health concerns from plastic pollution. Recycling is not the answer. We cannot possibly recycle all of the plastic away.

Walmart can do better

Walmart is in a unique position as a global top retailer. They began looking at packaging sustainability earlier than many companies and made early changes in packaging. But they’ve continued to promote single-use disposable items and other cheap “throw-away” merchandise. I viewed this month’s Walmart ad and it promotes picnic season items. Sale items include single-use items like polystyrene plates, plastic cups, packages of plastic forks, as well as cookies, chips, soda, and water in single-use plastic containers. Of the approximately 119 items pictured in the sales ad, about 82 had plastic packaging or were made of plastic.

The company could do so much more, and they even acknowledge that on their sustainability page:

“We recognize that these aren’t challenges we can solve alone and we want to open our doors to a more collaborative approach within the industry. We want to look for and share new solutions to reducing the use of ‘avoidable’ plastic as well as improving recyclability and the use of recycled plastic in our Private Brand packaging.”

This gives me the impression that they want to do better. While I respect the company’s initiatives, I know that the environment will always come second to profit. Remember that Walmart is a global top retailer and profit is always going to be their first priority. Walmart wants to be sustainable IF they can still turn a profit; IF they can get consumers to pay for it; and IF it will encourage more buying. Overall, I think Walmart can do more to prevent plastic waste.

“No need to recycle something that doesn’t exist in the first place!” -Dougie Poynter8

Walmart (Sam's Club) water bottle on the beach in South Carolina.
Walmart (Sam’s Club) water bottle on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe. In my next post, we will look at the packaging practices of the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Footnotes:

Bag It: The Movie

Bag It the movie film cover art

Have you seen this documentary? Bag It is an excellent film, and I wholeheartedly recommend it! It’s a great introduction to not only the problem of plastic bags but of plastics in general. Please check out the trailer:

A must-see documentary

I cannot say enough good about this film. It really hits on all the topics, from the perspective of an everyday person like you or me. Before I saw this film myself a couple of years ago, I had only limited knowledge of plastics, recycling, and toxic products. This film was like my gateway to bigger individual topics – like plastic bag usage; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; toxins in food from plastic packaging; and single-use disposable plastic…everything. I had thought about those things, but I hadn’t researched them or even read much about them. I love this film! And Jeb Berrier is pretty funny too.

The film also introduced me, through interviews in the film, to a variety of plastic experts, ocean and marine life experts, and organizations trying to make the world a better place. To name a few: Beth Terry of myplasticfreelife.com; Annie Leonard of the Story of Stuff Project; Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue; Algalita (founded by Captain Charles Moore); the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; Oceana; the Environmental Working Group; authors Elizabeth Royte and Daniel Imhoff; and so many more that I’m forgetting to include. The filmmakers’ requests for interviews with the American Chemistry Council and others in the plastics industry were denied or received no response. Unfortunately, that has been fairly typical with films that investigate and educate the public on the plastic problem.

Plastic bags that have somehow made it into my home. I'm saving these for trash clean ups when I go hiking. Photo by me.
Plastic bags that have somehow made it into my home. I’m saving these for trash clean-ups when I go hiking. Photo by me.

So how can you watch it?

Well, I was able to watch this documentary through the public library where I live, so always check with your library first! But I have found it is available on Amazon for purchase or streaming (see link above) if you subscribe to a certain Amazon prime program. You can rent it on iTunes as well! The film is also available on the film’s website for DVD purchase or hosting a screening (more on that in a minute).

plastic bag collection on cart, Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash
Photo by Lance Grandahl on Unsplash

Take action with Bag It The Movie

I was completely inspired by this movie! As I mentioned above, this film is one that led me to other important films, authors, individuals, and organizations that are all making a difference and trying to educate people. I consider Bag It to have been a core part of our household’s path to great changes.

I looked up the film’s website in anticipation of writing this post, and I was even more inspired! Most of their site is dedicated to using the film as a tool to educate schools, communities, and whole towns. They offer the ability for any person or organization to host a screening for a fee and have a free downloadable pdf Screening Tool Kit, which has step by step instructions and resources for screening Bag It. They also have a free downloadable pdf to initiate a Bag It Town campaign, meaning a plastic bag ban.

In my post about a weekend trip to Hilton Head Island, where I discovered that that town is implementing a plastic bag ban this month, I mentioned that I might try to propose one where I live! Between both, I’m SO moved and even more encouraged. If I do propose one in my town, I definitely know where to start now. With the tools provided by Bag It!

Thank you to Reel Thing Productions films, Director Susan Beraza, actor Jeb Berrier, the writers, all participants and interviewees from this film!

And thank you for reading! Stay inspired and be the change!

Plastic Bag Ban map, screenshot taken November 27, 2018. Link found on Bag It! the Movie's website. Map powered by Google.
Plastic Bag Ban map, screenshot taken November 27, 2018. Link found on Bag It! the Movie’s website. Map powered by Google.

 

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