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: Wild Sea, Eco Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias

Last updated on March 28, 2024.

Cover of Wild Sea book

Published in 2011, author Serge Dedina writes about corporations’ attempts at destruction along the US and Mexican Baja California coastlines. These types of endeavors happen regularly and indicate how greed and human selfishness challenge natural ecosystems and environmental protections.

Dedina grew up surfing in Southern and Baja California and holds a doctorate in geography. He is the co-founder and executive director of Wildcoast, an international nonprofit that combines environmental issues with cultural values to protect coastal areas and marine ecosystems. I’ve featured just a few of his stories from this book.

Image of a gray whale breaching
Gray whale breaching. Image by Eric Neitzel on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Natural Resources

Dedina began the international campaign against Exportadora de Sal’s proposal to develop the world’s largest salt production facility. This company, jointly owned by the Mitsubishi Corporation and the Mexican government, would have built its facility adjacent to San Ignacio Lagoon. This is the world’s last undeveloped gray whale birthing lagoon. This project would have destroyed more than 500,000 acres in the reserve and prevented gray whale breeding and calving. Fortunately, the Mexican president canceled it in 2000 as a result of the campaign against it. Today, Wildcoast exhibits its progress with gray whale protection on its website.

Google map screenshot of Baja California with the San Ignacio Lagoon indicated with a red marker.
Google map screenshot of Baja California with San Ignacio Lagoon indicated.
Gray whale in San Ignacio lagoon
Gray whale in San Ignacio Lagoon. Photo by Ryan Harvey on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0).

“From 2001 to 2008, as a result of the explosion of energy development and hotel, condo, and housing construction in the United States, the landscape of coastal protection suddenly changed: for activists to keep pace with development threats to the coast became almost impossible.” -Serge Dedina

Energy Production

In the early 2000s, Dedina worked against the proposals of Shell, Chevron-Texaco, Sempra, BHP Billiton, and Marathon Oil to build a network of eleven liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals between Tijuana and Ensenada. They were supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the George W. Bush administration. The biggest threat was Chevron-Texaco’s plan to build its $700 million plant adjacent to the Coronado Islands, which are home to elephant seals and the threatened sea bird, Xantus’s murrelet.

Google map screenshot showing the short distance between Tijuana and Ensenada; Coronado Islands on the left
Google map screenshot showing the short distance between Tijuana and Ensenada; Coronado Islands on the left.

In 2007, Chevron-Texaco announced that it was abandoning the project in the Coronado Islands. By 2009, all but 3 of the LNG projects had been abandoned. Costa Azul LNG opened in 2008, located 15 miles north of Ensenada, and was the first LNG terminal on the North American west coast. Sempra LNG and IEnova announced in March 2020 that they plan to add liquefaction facilities to the existing Costa Azul terminal. Environmental and conservation issues continue as many LNG’s exist all over the world, many of them on or near coastlines.

Image of northern elephant seals
Northern elephant seals by Elaine Calvert on Flickr, Creative Commons license 2.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

“The U.S.-Mexico border can no longer be a no-man’s-land that provides refuge for corporations seeking to escape U.S. environmental laws and elected officials seeking to blame Mexican migrants for our nation’s problems.” -Serge Dedina

Image of a Xantus's Murrelet swimming in greensih water.
A Xantus’s Murrelet by Stonebird on Flickr, Creative Commons license 2.0 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Human Recreation

In 1999, the City of San Diego proposed dredging a tiny beach in La Jolla called Casa Beach “to rid the area of a small population of what were supposed to be federally protected harbor seals.” La Jolla is an upscale suburb of San Diego. A small group of its influential and wealthy residents were also irrational, anti-wildlife activists who wanted the seals removed so that humans would have more recreational beach areas. This plan would have violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act enacted by President Nixon in 1972.

Image of a harbor seal in La Jolla, California
Harbor seal in La Jolla, California. Image by Amy the Nurse on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The legal and political dispute over the seal rookery and these beautiful animals inhabiting Casa Beach has continued through the last decade (view the timeline linked under Additional Resources below). Fortunately, beach access is not allowed during harbor seal pupping season, December 15 through May 15.

Unfortunately, humans are sometimes selfish and some continue to disturb the harbor seals. Often this is in the form of photographing people with the animals, a form of wildlife tourism. Other times, the seals are taunted,1 teased,2 and even physically harmed.3

Remember, wildlife viewing is ok from a distance. Give animals plenty of space between you and them so they do not feel threatened and alter their normal activities because of you. Even photography with animals can be harmful and disturbing. Please teach your children this too!

“Conserving marine mammal populations in densely populated urban coastal areas in Southern California is a national test case for our ability to protect coastal and marine ecosystems and the wildlife they harbor.” -Serge Dedina

Many Other Movements

Problems persist with the human quest to exploit natural resources, threatening coastal and marine areas. Dedina worked against a botched sewage treatment facility scheme in Tijuana; a desalination project in Southern California; and the destruction of protected marine areas. Additional projects include LNGs, oil drilling, pipeline installation, border and security wall construction proposals, and human recreation.

“A new generation of pirates has emerged in coastal Southern California. They are bureaucrats, union officials, corporate lobbyists, CEOs, oil company barons, and elected officials who view the natural coastline and ocean of California as an area to be plundered rather than preserved. They do their best to rid Southern California of the shoreline that makes the coast the oxygen that fuels the state’s vibrant culture and economy.” -Serge Dedina

Solutions

Dedina and Wildcoast continue their work to conserve coastal and marine ecosystems. The organization works with local communities to stop poaching, promote conservation, and protect resources. They work to develop systems of marine protected areas, also called MPAs, which help preserve natural coastal and marine ecosystems. You can read more about these on Wildcoast’s website.

There are many ways we can all help! When traveling, educate yourself on the local nature and wildlife protections in place. Clean up trash, track wildlife and fauna through a local group, or lobby for clean air. Teach others about climate change, pollution, endangered species, or any of the important topics surrounding safeguarding our beautiful planet.

I really enjoyed this book and found it worth reviewing. Thanks for reading today, and please subscribe!

 

Additional Resource:

Timeline, “Timeline of Major Events Affecting the La Jolla Seals,” sealconservancy.org, accessed July 17, 2020.

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: