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 7

Last updated on August 23, 2021.

Bell pepper and green beans in convenient plastic packaging
These food items do not require this much packaging. Photo by me

In my last article, I introduced take-back programs. Today we will continue that topic and look at programs that are a bit more successful, meaning that the rate of recycling is high.

Snack bag found on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

“Plastic packaging for food makes up the majority of municipal waste in America.” -A Plastic Ocean

TerraCycle programs

I love TerraCycle’s entire concept of making new things from waste, and I think its mission of recycling everything and eliminating waste is brilliant. Many companies sponsor take-back programs through TerraCycle at no cost to the consumer.1 These are awesome for waste streams in which there is no recycling option. There’s one for instrument strings, pens and writing tools  (which has a waiting list), and Brita filters. I participate in Bausch + Lomb’s free program to recycle contact lenses and their blister packs (and they accept all brands, not just Bausch + Lomb).2 This particular program has drop-off sites all over the place, usually at eye care offices. I love this one because I have to wear contact lenses for vision correction.

Though these programs encourage recycling and keep waste from littering the environment, they actually discourage companies from exploring new packaging options. A company can sponsor a recycling stream, such as waste from applesauce packets, juice pouches, snack bags, cosmetic and personal care items, and pay TerraCycle to recycle the items. In this way, the companies can take a passive approach and not have to deal with the problem directly. It gives consumers the impression that those companies are taking sustainable actions, but it really makes waste the consumer’s problem. It takes a lot of time and effort to clean, save, and ship the items; and even if the program is free, not everyone can or will voluntarily do it. These programs are a band-aid for the gushing wound of pollution.

“These programs are often funded by consumer product brands and are usually just a mechanism for the company to claim their non-recyclable products are recyclable.” -Jennie Romer, attorney and sustainability expert3

Again, I love what TerraCycle is doing! But I think it gives companies a reason to not be more active in their sustainability efforts. I think it’s a way for companies to take a NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach but not have to do much more than cover the minor costs. TerraCycle should be used for things people cannot avoid using, such as Brita filters, contact lenses, laundry detergent waste, shoes, and school supplies. But there are alternatives for things like snack bags, applesauce pouches, and coffee pods. Consumers should seek alternatives for those rather than trying to recycle them.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Glass Bottle Exchange

Homestead Creamery returnable milk bottles
This type of milk bottle used to be commonplace. Photo from Homestead Creamery

Historically, the bottled beverage industry used take-back programs during the twentieth century. This system of using returnable glass bottles for milk and soft drinks was better than recycling because it was truly a circular economy system. It is also the most sustainable type of container deposit program. Bottles were washed and refilled as many as 20-50 times. While a few companies use this system today through a deposit program, like Homestead Creamery (sold at some Kroger’s grocery stores), this system of glass bottle exchange has largely disappeared in the United States. However, you can check Drink Milk In Glass Bottle’s website to see if there are any options in your region.4

Glass Coca-Cola bottles in red carry cases
Remember these? Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

Container Deposit Programs

A very successful type of take-back program is the container deposit program. While sometimes controversial, they reduce litter and environmental pollution and improve recycling rates. The consumer is charged a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents per bottle or can. When the consumer returns that item for recycling, they get their deposit money back. This can include glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. Some call this system a tax, but it is clearly a deposit – when you return the container you get your money back, unlike with taxes.

Soda can with container deposit information engraved.
Many cans and bottles feature container deposit information as shown here. Photo by me

Benefits

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system internationally.5 There are so many benefits to this system, as CRI President Susan Collins noted:6

      • Dramatic reductions in litter and marine debris
      • Reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions due to fewer containers that need to be made from virgin materials
      • Additional jobs in recycling
      • More high-quality scrap for manufacturers
      • Extra income for consumers, charities, and community groups

Here’s a great short video from CRI explaining the system:

These systems are not meant to replace curbside recycling, but to supplement them to increase overall recycling. Curbside recycling is still not available to 50% of the American population, and curbside doesn’t address away-from-home consumption. Even where it is available, recycling rates have gradually dropped. “This decline is due in part to the increase in consumption of beverages away from home, and in public places where there are few available collection outlets for recycling. The drop in the recycling rate is also due to the shift away from aluminum to PET, which has a lower recycling rate,” according to Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010).7

“Using only single-stream curbside recycling (blue bins) fails to achieve even half of the recycling rate of container deposit laws. While curbside programs should be part of the recycling equation, because 30 percent to 50 percent of beverage containers are consumed away from home, residential programs alone can’t possibly be expected to produce high recycling rates.” -Susan Collins, CRI President

Container Deposit Programs are Quantifiably Successful

The first US beverage container deposit laws were passed in the early 1970s in Oregon and Vermont. Currently, this program exists in 10 US states and Guam, and 30 other countries around the world. “States with container deposit laws capture beverage bottles for recycling at a significantly higher rate, and the quality of recycled materials (meaning the level of contamination) is superior to materials collected from curbside recycling programs.”8 The overall recycling rate for bottles and cans with a deposit is 59%, compared to only 22% for bottles and cans without a deposit. Clearly, this system works well. The graph below shows the rates:

Graph from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI)

The participating states are California, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Oregon’s bottle capture rate is 81%. Sadly, there are no states in the southeast or states that border the Gulf of Mexico that participate. These are missed opportunities to protect our oceans and rivers.

Examples

Oregon’s BottleDrop Refillables program is a successful, circular loop between the program and craft breweries. Consumers pay a deposit and return the bottles to get the deposit back. Bottles are sorted, washed, inspected, and delivered back to Oregon’s craft beverage producers. According to their website, 598,755 bottles have been saved from being crushed and recycled.9 An example in Europe is Germany, where almost 46% of all drinks are sold in reusable bottles which are refilled 40-50 times before being sent for recycling.

Container Deposit Programs as Law

Legislation for this system is commonly referred to as “Bottle Bills.” A national bottle bill could be implemented as part of the recently proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. This would make the collection, redemption, and recycling of bottles and cans regulated and consistent and could increase the recycling rate to 80%!

“For the sake of our climate, our oceans and our future generations, we must do more to collect high-quality recyclable bottles and cans that can be used to produce new products. A national container deposit-refund law can make that happen.” -Susan Collins, CRI President10

Unfortunately, bottlers are usually against such bills because they do increase costs for them, though only slightly. Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania, wrote that every time a new Container Deposit bill is introduced or an expansion is proposed for an existing one, “Coke, Pepsi, and other bottlers hire lobbyists and run ad campaigns designed to stop them. And they usually do.” But the companies making so many single-use disposable containers need to step-up and be part of the solution.

Containers as Litter

I personally grew up in a container deposit state that also had curbside recycling, and never even thought to question it. It was just what we did (in addition to curbside recycling). Our family brought back bottles and cans to the grocery store each week, and we’d receive either the cash or a credit on our grocery total. I continued this practice into my adulthood. I didn’t see as much litter on the sides of the roads. In Tennessee, I feel like I see trash on every street, playground, and parking lot; much of the litter is from single-use beverage containers. According to CRI, beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter.

Image of plastic container art dolphin shaped to represent percentages of plastic containers recycled.
See this and additional plastic art projects by clicking on the image. Photo from CRI

“There are many quantifiable but just as important benefits of increased container recycling: the cleaner roadways, the healthier waterways, the growth in local jobs and green businesses and the satisfaction that we are doing what’s right not only for the planet but for future generations.” –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010)11

Solutions

Some companies use greenwashing and ‘sustainability’ to make consumers buy more. However, as long as packaging remains the responsibility of the consumer, we must consume less and buy more consciously. Companies must invest in better packaging and establish Extended Producer Responsibility programs. States must implement Container Deposit Programs to curb the impact of single-use disposable beverages. These systems reduce litter and increase recycling rates. Ultimately, though, ceasing the use of single-use disposable containers is one of the most impactful things we can do for the environment.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a link to the first post in this series in case you missed it. In my next post, I’ll explore companies that are already making recycling and reduction part of their mission.

“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

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post; all links are for informational purposes only.

 

Additional Resource:

Publications, Data Archive, Container Recycling Institute, accessed February 28, 2021.

Footnotes: