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:

Bar Soap & Why It’s Better than Liquid Soap

Last updated on December 26, 2020.

Bar soap is often plastic free, less expensive than liquid soap, and usually has safer ingredients. Photo by silviarita on Pixabay
Bar soap is often plastic free, less expensive than liquid soap, and usually has safer ingredients. Photo by silviarita on Pixabay

Bar Soap can be plastic free

Switching to bar soap is one big change you can make right away. Stop buying liquid soap that comes in plastic bottles, even the large refill bottles. Yes, those bottles are recyclable but please know that recycling isn’t what we think it is. If those items make it to the recycling center, they will be down-cycled (the chemical composition of plastic changes when heated) and cannot be a soap bottle again. So the answer is almost always to refuse plastic. Just stay away from it.

Unfortunately, many soaps at the local supermarket are plastic wrapped. Ugh! So you’ll likely need to find a moderately priced soap. You can find one or two brands that are plastic-free at Publix. I usually find bar soaps for our hands at Earthfare or Whole Foods, and again, I only buy the brands that have no plastic packaging. It’s just not necessary. For the rest of my body, I use Nourish brand bar soaps.

There are many bar soap choices, but most are wrapped in plastic. There's really no need for this. Photo by me.
There are many bar soap choices, but most are wrapped in plastic. There’s really no need for this. Photo by me.

Microbeads in body wash (liquid soap)

If you are or were using body wash with “exfoliating” features, please know that what you were most likely using to scrub your skin was little, tiny plastic beads. And those beads are now found in the ocean and the Great Lakes. When microbeads go down the drain, they pass unfiltered through sewage treatment plants and end up in rivers and canals, and eventually the ocean. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was passed in December 2015, and it amended the “Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ban rinse-off cosmetics that contain intentionally-added plastic microbeads beginning on January 1, 2018, and to ban the manufacturing of these cosmetics beginning on July 1, 2017. These bans are delayed by one year for cosmetics that are over-the-counter drugs.” It was a fight to get rid of them, so thank you and congrats to everyone who contributed to that cause!

Is bar soap hygienic?

I have heard that some people believe that bar soap is less hygienic than liquid soap. I also believe that large companies have promoted this myth to consumers in order to make a higher profit. It’s likely cleaner and safer! The fact is, most dispensers, in the places your fingers and hands touch, are not clean. Think about that – do you sanitize your dispensers? If you do, congratulations on being so hygienic! But public restroom soap dispensers are often not sanitary. Have you ever noticed that most hotels provide bar soap and not liquid soap in the rooms? I imagine that has a lot more to do with cost than sanitation, but I’ll give them credit for both! I’ve also read that hotels take the leftover bar soap and melt it down to remake into new soap bars, although I have not verified this myself.

Upon an internet search, I discovered that the question about germs on bar soap is common, but most articles I’ve come upon indicate that the risk is low, perhaps lower than liquid soap in a dispenser. Many articles and posts cite a 1988 study done by the Dial Corporation, which found that bacteria did not spread through washing with bar soap. But sometimes companies drive profit up through fear. Regardless of that study, many companies encouraged the idea that using liquid soap was more hygienic and sanitary – and the idea stuck!

“Liquid soap requires about five times more energy to produce than a bar of soap, and it is almost always sold in a plastic bottle.” –Living Without Plastic: More Than 100 Easy Swaps for Home, Travel, Dining, Holidays, and Beyond 

Take care of your bar soap

So make the switch, and here’s the advice I’ve found online: First, let your bar soap dry in the open (as opposed to a closed soap dish). Second, if the soap is moist, run the bar under the water for a few seconds to rinse off the outside “slime.” Third, if you are sharing bar soap, you’re likely only sharing it with family members, and you share many microorganisms with them anyway. Last, if you are washing your hands the way you’re supposed to and for the amount of time you’re supposed to, you’re washing any residual germs away anyway.

Image of bar soap, Photo by Paul Gaudriault on Unsplash
Photo by Paul Gaudriault on Unsplash

Cost

Bar soap is significantly less expensive when compared to liquid soap because the amount of uses from bar soap is higher than with liquid soap. Cost analyses on the internet mostly show that bar soap is cheaper. I am no mathematician so I am not going to attempt the figures. But I will tell you that since I switched solely to bar soap in my household, we’ve seen a savings! Even with the moderately priced soaps we use. And it was one more step toward plastic free! Yay!

Safe Ingredients

I will not reinvent the wheel on this part – there is so much written about the ingredients in so many of our products, including liquid soaps. First, always check products through the Environmental Working Group‘s (EWG) website. They are a non-profit dedicated to being a consumer advocate, testing and reviewing products so that people can look up and understand what’s really in their products. They have guides to cosmetics, sunscreens, cleaners, food, personal care products, and even tap water!  They’ll be able to show you what’s really in that soap, liquid or bar, for many major products.

Second, Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com wrote about body wash and liquid soap compared with bar soap. She also reviewed some of the problems of liquid soaps including that soaps can contain toxic ingredients. I don’t see the need to reinvent the wheel since her article is so well written and thorough. Please read it!

DIY

You can even make your own bar soap, any shape or color you want! Photo by pixel2013 on Pixabay
You can even make your own bar soap, any shape or color you want! Photo by pixel2013 on Pixabay

Although I have not ventured into soap making yet, I likely will one day (and I’ll be sure to blog about it). There are probably hundreds of ideas on the internet for DIY soap. Making your own soap could be a new hobby, a family project, or a challenge among friends to see who makes the best soaps! Get your creativity on with different shapes, scents, and colors. I imagine Pinterest is bursting with ideas on soap-making!

I hope this post has been helpful to you. If you have questions or ideas, I’d love to hear them! Please leave me a comment below! Thank you for reading.

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to recommend certain products.