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:

Book Review: “You Wouldn’t Want to Live Without Plastic!”

 

I love books and love sharing books with my son. However, once in a while, we come across a book that offers poor or inaccurate information. This book is one of those. I like to focus on positive reviews, but I feel reviewing this book is important for people to be aware of because it has a lot of misleading information. This is only my opinion.

You Wouldn't Want to Live Without Plastic! book cover.

We know that while there are a few really great uses for plastic in the world, such as plastic heart valves, most plastics are wasteful, full of toxins, and are not reusable. Unfortunately, we humans have gone overboard on plastic consumption and waste, which is why we have to fight so hard to reverse the damage now.

The Good

The book provides a concise history of plastic development and manufacturing, which is helpful for the recommended age range of 8-12 years. The story explains that post-1950s was “the beginning of our ‘throwaway’ lifestyle. Instead of repairing something, we throw it away and buy something new to replace it.” Here is a missed opportunity to express that that is the wrong thing to do environmentally.

The story mentions that certain types of plastics can be used to make strong materials for safety. These include clothing to protect firefighters, race car drivers, and helmets for sports and biking/motorcycling. Some plastic is even made fireproof. As I said, plastics do have their place, sometimes.

The book indicates that there are problems with plastic, but not until toward the end of the story. It mentions that animals ingest plastics and that plastics are polluting the ocean. It offers solutions such as recycling and incineration. But as we know, only about 9% of plastics are actually recycled. Incineration pollutes the air with toxic chemicals released from plastics during burning.

Some extra facts were listed at the end of the book. One of them, which I feel should have been at the beginning or in the part about the future, was: “Plastic takes so long to break down that nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists today.” That’s exactly why we have problems now.

Beach pollution in the Dominican Republic, mostly plastic. Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash.
Beach pollution in the Dominican Republic, mostly plastic. Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash.

The Bad

Since we have such a problem pollution problem now, authors have the opportunity to teach children to look for alternatives in the future. Unfortunately, the majority of the book promotes plastic as a good resource that we NEED. It explains the different methods of plastic production, and how plastic begins as nurdles, although they didn’t use that term. It did not mention the various chemical compositions of plastic, or that they can be toxic to human health.

For example, the book mentions twice that plastic is better for toys because plastic is safer and more durable. Perhaps more durable than glass or porcelain in the hands of a child, but not more durable than metal or wood. And safer is not always true. If you compare it to toys made from lead, yes, because lead is highly poisonous. But we also know that chemicals like phthalates and BPA are found in many plastic toys and infant items. There are other chemicals in plastics that we don’t know the long-term effects of yet.

Another example indicates that synthetic clothing is better because those will not shrink like clothes made from natural fibers. True that they may not shrink, but we know that microfibers from washing synthetic clothing are in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Clothing made from natural fibers is best.

Under a subheading entitled Looking Into the Future: “Most plastics are made from chemicals that come from oil, but oil causes pollution, and it will run out one day. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do without plastic. Future plastics will probably be made from natural materials…” called bioplastics.

If it were that easy, why haven’t we been doing that all along?

The Awful

There were a few parts in this book that I think contain extremely misleading information. One example is that the book suggests that plastic home items, such as doors and windows, are better because they last longer than wood. But sometimes those products contain chemicals banned in the State of California, known as Proposition 65. That legislation requires labeling of such materials now, thankfully, as they have been tied to a number of diseases and cancer.

Here is another example:

If it weren’t for plastic, you’d have to work a lot harder at home…Modern nonstick saucepans are easier to clean than old iron or enamel pans.

Non-stick pans, particularly Teflon, contained dangerous toxins for decades. Those toxins have been linked to thyroid disorders, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, birth defects, and testicular cancer. Only in recent years has that chemical been removed from Teflon, and I’m not convinced that the replacement chemicals in relation to human health have been studied thoroughly. Further, who knows what’s in the non-brand versions of Teflon cookware.

My last example is when the book mentions that credit cards, first issued in the 1950s, are made of plastic. “These plastic cards make it easier for people to buy new products from stores.” Oh my, that is Just. So. Wrong. No, credit cards delude people into buying stuff they don’t need and going into debt. Dave Ramsey and like-minded financial experts would probably drop their jaws if they saw that sentence. I don’t like being so critical, but talk about sending the wrong message to our children!

Photo of credit card. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

The right messages

Plastic is not evil, but the way we use it and waste it is. If we want to protect our children, our health, and our environment, we’ve got great changes ahead of us to make. So let’s stick to books that teach our children the right messages about health and the environment.

I hope this was helpful. Thank you for reading!

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