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:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 3

Last updated on September 12, 2021.

Image of a green earth with green recycling arrows
Image by annca on Pixabay

In my first article, I introduced the topic of packaging – its history, the current problems with packaging, and I introduced greenwashing. In my second article, I wrote about the terms biodegradable and compostable, and how those terms are often misused. Now we will explore bioplastics.

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are used in packaging which is then marketed as sustainable, and even as biodegradable. “Most biodegradable and compostable plastics are bioplastics, made from plants rather than fossil fuels.” Mike Manna of Organic Recycling Solutions explained just that in his appropriately titled essay, “The Myth of Biodegradability” in The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular.

But biodegradability hinges on two key factors. First, that raw materials used in bioplastics are more sustainably sourced than petroleum-based plastic. Second, there would be less concern about pollution since these items would naturally degrade. “The latter factor, however, has mobilized a torrent of misinformation, misplaced optimism, consumer confusion, and headaches for recyclers and composters alike,” Manna wrote. They must be sent to an industrial compost facility to break down. As you know from my previous article, these facilities are few and far between. So bioplastics that require industrial composters are far from guaranteed to make it to one.

“Many bioplastics are not 100 percent made of natural biomass. To be called a bioplastic, they generally have to be at least 20 percent derived from natural sources. What about the other 80 percent? Excellent question. Many bioplastics contain fossil fuel-based plastic resins and numerous synthetic additives – such as fillers, softeners and flame retardants – just like conventional plastics.”1

Green plastic bottle
Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay

Biodegradable plastics that do make it to an industrial compost facility will not create usable soil. It lacks the macro and micronutrients of regular compost. “It just doesn’t make environmental sense to take a plant, turn that pant into a highly refined petrochemical, only to then use it once and have it turn into something effectively worse than soil,” wrote Manna.

Bioplastics are made of either polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), both of which are #7 plastics. These cannot be recycled and therefore contaminate single-stream recycling systems, making entire loads of recycling unrecyclable. In many ways, bioplastics are worse for single-use disposable items than traditional fossil fuel plastics. 

Plastic bottles floating in water
Bioplastics will not break down in nature or water. Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay

“Sadly, bioplastics do not present a solution for plastic soup or for reducing plastic litter.” -Michiel Roscam Abbing2

Renewable Sources?

Bioplastics are plastics made from natural, renewable sources, such as corn, sugar cane, or potatoes. “The thought is that plastics made with plants, as opposed to fossil fuels, will sustain the unstoppable trajectory of the world’s consumption with a more sustainable material,” Manna wrote. But bioplastics only have to be composed of as little as 20 percent of renewable material to be marketed (or greenwashed) as such, and can still contain a majority of fossil fuel-based plastic.3

Most importantly, renewable sources have to be grown and produced, and agriculture requires a ton of energy. “The corn that is used to make the bio-plastics is not organic,” so there are a lot of pesticides used. “The end result is that valuable agricultural land was used to create something that just gets thrown away,” said Céline Jennison, the founder of Plastic Tides.4

“As of now, turning plants into plastic remains more energy-intensive than recycling used plastic.”5

Corn is a crop used to supplement lots of resources such as gasoline (ethanol), agricultural feed, paper goods, and now plastics. While corn is not a fossil fuel, critics of it suggest that corn creates more problems by contributing to global warming, chemical pollution, and energy waste. It demands more nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides than other crops, and which are made from natural gas and oil. “Runoff from these chemicals finds its way into the groundwater and, in the Midwestern corn belt, into the Mississippi River, which carries it to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has already killed off marine life in a 12,000-square-mile area,” wrote author Michael Pollan.6

 “America’s corn crop might look like a sustainable, solar-powered system for producing food, but it is actually a huge, inefficient, polluting machine that guzzles fossil fuel—a half a gallon of it for every bushel.” -Michael Pollan

Cornfield
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Corn is hardly sustainable, not the way it’s grown in this country. Farmed at an industrial scale, corn requires vast amounts of herbicides and fertilizer. With heavy rain, these inputs run into waterways and pollute drinking water.” -Elizabeth Royte7

Example: Coca-Cola Plant Bottle

Coca-Cola plantbottle advertisement
Coca-Cola introduced the PlantBottle in 2009.

“We replaced up to 30% of the petroleum used to make PET plastic bottles with material from sugar canes and other plants. The result? You’d have to take nearly 1 million vehicles off the road to achieve the same reduction in CO2 emissions that PlantBottle™ has achieved since 2009.”8

These claims are questionable. Supposedly, this particular alternative to traditional PET (#1) plastic can be recycled with regular PET plastics. However, how much petroleum does it take to produce sugarcane? As for the CO2 reduction, how did they come up with this calculation?

Empty Coca-Cola bottle lying on the beach
Photo by Maria Mendiola on Unsplash

The company has vowed to “use at least 50% recycled material in our packaging by 2030.”9 Why haven’t they been doing this all along? Coca-Cola released an advertisement about a “Coke Bottle Made With Plastic From The Sea,” which was made with plastics picked up by volunteers on beaches on the Mediterranean Sea.10 Volunteers who used their free time to pick up trash on beaches because it’s the right thing to do. Coca-Cola easily has enough money to pay employees to do the same thing. A true solution would be to stop pollution by eliminating this type of packaging.

What about other real solutions, like reverting back to glass bottles? We know that glass is 100% recyclable and does not leach toxins and chemicals. Glass can also be managed through a container deposit system, and can truly be a part of a circular economy.

Example: Procter & Gamble

Advertisement for Head and Shoulders bottle made from recycled beach plastic

Proctor & Gamble designed a shampoo bottle using recycled beach plastic. They partnered with TerraCycle and SUEZ, a waste management firm. Again, it was using volunteer labor for the collection of plastic polluting beaches. “Sourced through partnerships with beach cleanup organizations already picking up litter on the shores of oceans and other waterways, ocean plastic originally headed for landfills was used to establish a new supply chain,” wrote Virginie Helias at Procter & Gamble. But ‘plastic originally headed for landfills’ is misleading. Much of this plastic had likely already been sent to the landfill or recycling center before and then ended up in the ocean anyway! “Ocean plastic products are seen by many as a distraction that takes attention and resources away from source reduction, while only cleaning up a tiny fraction of ocean plastic,” wrote Jennie Romer, lawyer and sustainability expert.11

Proctor & Gamble’s goal is to make 100% of its packaging recyclable and reusable by 2030. While this is a respectable goal, it should focus on reusable packaging since recycling is not the answer. If we stop the disposable stream at the source, that would be far more impactful than all of the recycling systems combined. P&G can do better and have the resources to do much more.

Are there other solutions?

“The key takeaway about bioplastics: They are NOT the solution to plastic pollution and toxicity problems. They will likely play a role, but given their mixed character and the chemical additives most of them contain, relying on them is not a replacement for making a concerted effort to reduce all plastic use at the source.” –Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha12

Plastic substitutes are not the answer, just as synthetic biodegradable materials and recycling are not the answers. We also cannot possibly recycle all the plastic away at this point. We know that only 9% of plastic sent to recycling facilities is recycled.

But there are other packaging innovations out there. We’ll explore those in my next post, Part 4. Please subscribe and share, and thanks for reading!

 

“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

Additional Resources:

Article, “What you need to know about plant-based plastics,” by Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic, November 15, 2018.

Post, “The Truth & Consequences of Bioplastics,” EcoLunchbox.com, accessed July 5, 2021.

Article, “Why biodegradables won’t solve the plastic crisis,” by Kelly Oakes, BBC Future, November 5, 2019.

Footnotes: