The Chemicals in Plastic and Why it Matters, Part 2

Colorful plastic litter organized by color on a beach.
Image by Filmbetrachter from Pixabay

Plastics are made from chemicals and petroleum, which you read about in Part 1 of this series. Today, I want to tell you about the chemical contents of plastics by resin code, the number on the bottom surrounded by a triangle. More importantly, I want to inform you of the ways they may be toxic to our health.

Resin Identification Codes (RICs)

Resin symbol for #1 plastic, or PET.
Image by OpenIcons from Pixabay

The plastics industry created RICs in 1988 as part of their campaign to boost plastic’s image. They even lobbied to have state legislatures adopt them. But this little symbol on almost all plastic packaging is misleading. Many assume that the recycling symbol or RIC means that a package is automatically recyclable. However, that is not true, it actually only refers to the type of plastic resin used.

To reduce confusion, ASTM, the organization that regulates the RIC system, updated the symbol from the chasing arrows to a solid triangle in 2013. “However, manufacturers aren’t required to change their equipment to incorporate the new symbol, which is why you still see the arrows on many plastic products,” according to an article on Oceano.org.1 So it’s still easy for people who don’t know to mistake the RIC as a recycling symbol versus an industry tag for the plastic.

Graphic comparing the types of recycling symbols used with RICs.

A clear plastic PET food container showing the updated symbol, a numbe 1 inside of triangle.
Example of a plastic PET food container showing the updated symbol. Photo by me

The RICs / Types of Plastics

Resin Identification Coding System graphic
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Next, let’s look at the 7 RICs and types of plastics, what they are used for, their characteristics, their chemical contents, and their potential toxicity. Note that this is not an exhaustive list; nor is each category exhaustive in the standard products or characteristics.

#1 PET/PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate

Standard products: Water bottles, soda bottles, food containers such as cooking oil and peanut butter, wrinkle-proof clothing, fleece blankets, padding in pillows and comforters, carpeting, other polyester fabrics.

About: PET is the most valuable type of plastic and the most recycled. There are typically two types: one is made with a blow molding machine; the other is thermoform which is made by heating a plastic sheet until pliable and then molded into a specific shape. The main difference is in molecular weight. Higher molecular weight items, such as bottles and jugs made from blow molding, are more valuable than their thermoform counterparts. Thermoform, though more difficult to sell, is often recycled into carpeting.2

Chemical content: “A chemical called antimony trioxide is used as a catalyst and flame retardant in making PET, and this antimony additive is considered a possible carcinogen.” The amount in one single water bottle is minimal, but leaching increases with heat. Think of those water bottles stored in the car during the summer. “There is research showing that PET may leach phthalates too, even though the plastics industry says that phthalates are not required to make PET.”3 Regardless, think about switching to metal or glass containers whenever possible.

Close-up of clear blue water bottles
Image by pasja1000 from Pixabay

#2 HDPE: High-density Polyethylene

Standard products: Milk jugs, water bottles, juice, bottles, bleach, dish and laundry detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, cleaner containers, over-the-counter medicine bottles, cereal box liners, Tyvek home insulation, plastic-wood composites, snowboards, 3D printing filament, and wire covering. It is even used in some plastic surgery procedures.

About: This is one of the most widely used plastics because of its versatility. It is strong, flexible, cost-effective, moisture-resistant, and resistant to most chemical solvents. It has high tensile strength and has both a high-impact resistance and melting point. “The polyethylene polymer has the simplest basic chemical structure of any polymer, making it easy to process and thus extremely popular for low value, high volume applications.”4

Chemical content: While this is considered a ‘safer’ plastic for food and drink use, there is evidence that these release endocrine-disrupting chemicals, especially when exposed to UV. “The main leaching culprits are estrogen-mimicking nonylphenols and octylphenols, which are added to polyethylene as stabilizers and plasticizers.”5 Those chemicals disrupt the body’s hormones and can cause cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

Angled photo of plastic milk jugs at the supermarket.
Milk jugs are typically #2 HDPE. Photo by me

#3 PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride

Standard products: Think all vinyl products. Shower curtains, medical bags, medical tubing, shrink wrap, children’s toys, binders, school supplies, plastic furniture, garden hoses, vinyl clothing and outerwear, wire and cable insulation, vinyl records, carpet backing, flooring, credit cards, clamshell packaging, plumbing pipes, vinyl siding, window frames, fences, decking, other construction materials.

About: “PVC can take on a staggering variety of personalities – rigid, filmy, flexible, leathery – thanks to the ease with which it can be blended with other chemicals.”6 PVC is versatile as it can be adapted to many applications depending on the plasticizing additives. It is strong and resistant to moisture and abrasion. It can be produced clear or colored. About three-quarters of all vinyl produced goes into construction applications.

Chemical content: PVC is known as the poison plastic because it leaches toxins for its entire life cycle and should be avoided whenever possible. Vinyl is manufactured by polymerizing a chemical called vinyl chloride. It can contain up to 55% additives, mainly phthalates. The chemicals it may release during its lifetime include cancer-causing dioxins, endocrine-disrupting phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), lead, mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals. “The problem with PVC is that its base monomer building block is vinyl chloride, which is highly toxic and unstable, thus requiring lots of additives to calm it down and make it usable. But even in its final ‘stabilized’ form, PVC is not very stable.”7 The additives leach out and you can inhale and ingest them.

White PVC pipes stacked at a manufacturer or store.
PVC pipes, photo by Dennis Hill on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

#4 LDPE: Low-density Polyethylene

Standard products: Film applications like bags, such as those used for bread, shopping, dry-cleaning, newspapers, frozen foods, produce, and garbage. Also used for shrink wraps, linings for cartons and cups, container lids, some squeeze bottles, orthotics, and prosthetics.

About: LDPE is a soft, flexible, lightweight plastic material, known for its low-temperature flexibility, toughness, and corrosion resistance. But it is not recyclable in any practical sense. Citing data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one large recycling corporation noted that “the overwhelming majority of products made from LDPE end up in landfills…Dumping tons of LDPE in landfills can have devastating consequences…plastic buried in landfills can leach into the soil and introduce chemicals into the groundwater.” They can threaten marine life in coastal areas, and “lightweight plastic bags can be blown great distances by the wind, ending up in bodies of water where animals eat them or become tangled in them.”8 Plastic bags causes huge environmental problems.

Chemical content: These can leach some of the same chemicals as #2 HDPE plastic. It is a thermoplastic made from the polymerization of ethylene. While ethylene is considered a building block of plastic, it is highly flammable and reactive. It is created by Ethane Cracker Plants, which use an environmentally questionable process to extract the ethane to make ethylene. While difficult to avoid, steer clear of this plastic whenever possible.

Angled photo of the bread aisle at the supermarket.
Bread bags are typically #4 LDPE. Photo by me
Blue plastic cap from a gallon milk or water jug, #4 LDPE plastic.
Blue plastic cap from a gallon water jug, #4 LDPE plastic. Photo by me

#5 PP: Polypropylene

Standard products: Polypropylene is used in packaging, yogurt cups, sour cream and soft cheese containers, prescription bottles, butter/margarine containers, plastic to-go containers, leftover containers, freezer meal containers, the filter cases of some disposable home water filters, electrical wiring, and plastic bottle caps because polypropylene can withstand pressure. It is also used in vehicles for bumpers, carpets, and other parts. Polypropylene allows moisture to escape and stays dry, making it ideal for use in disposable diapers.

About: Polypropylene is sometimes referred to as the “safe” plastic, but there really is no safe plastic when it comes to food. All plastic has the capacity to poison us in certain circumstances. Polypropylene is a stronger plastic than other types, but it is generally not recyclable because there isn’t sufficient reprocessing capacity. Polypropylene is more stable and resists heat better than other plastics. So it is generally considered safer for foods and hot liquids because it leaches fewer chemicals (though it still does leach, which is why you should use glass or metal containers for your food).9 However, this is what many leftover and freezer meal containers are made from. Have you ever noticed rough patches or surface defects in your leftover containers? Any disruptions on the surface mean the polypropylene has been compromised, which increases the chances that it will leach chemicals into your food, especially when heating it.

If you have polypropylene leftover containers from before 2013, replace them. These contained phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). And if you do replace them, please buy stainless steel or glass containers and just avoid the chemicals in plastic altogether.

Chemical content: Polypropylene is a rigid and crystalline thermoplastic made from the polymerization of the propene monomer. There is ongoing research about the health effects of certain additives leaching from polypropylene, such as oleamide, a polymer lubricant and a bioactive compound. Oleamide does occur naturally in the human body, but the long-term effects of synthetic oleamide are not yet known. In a 2021 study entitled “Plastic additive oleamide elicits hyperactivity in hermit crabs,” scientists found that it may be perceived as a feeding cue by marine species, thus increasing the consumption of microplastics.10

Angled photo of the yogurt shelves at the supermarket.
Yogurt and other dairy containers are typically #5 polypropylene. Photo by me

#6 PS: Polystyrene

“Most recognizable when puffed up with air into that synthetic meringue known technically as expanded polystyrene and popularly by the trademark Styrofoam.” -Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story11

Standard products: The foam form, called Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), also known as Styrofoam, is used in egg cartons, meat trays, single-use food and take-out containers, coffee cups, vehicles, bike helmets, packing peanuts, and home insulation. The rigid form is used for single-use food containers, cutlery, CD and DVD cases, disposable razors, etc. “It is also combined with rubber to create an opaque high impact polystyrene used for model assembly kits, coat hangers, electronic housings, license plate frames, aspirin bottles and medical and lab equipment, including test tubes and petri dishes.”12

About: It may be difficult to avoid this stuff in home insulation, vehicles, and bike helmets, but it should be avoided at all costs when it comes to food and beverages. I wrote a lot about polystyrene in my series on Styrofoam and polystyrene food containers. These containers and cups leach styrene into food and beverages and thus enter your body. Styrene is known to likely be carcinogenic. It is considered a brain and nervous system toxicant and causes problems in the lungs, liver, and immune system.

Chemical content: Polystyrene is a synthetic polymer made from the polymerization of styrene. It is a chemically produced plastic that can be made into a hard or foam plastic. The foam is created by expanding the styrene by blowing various chemical gases into it. Polystyrene is made from ethylene and benzene, both hydrocarbons derived from by-products of petroleum and natural gas (also known as petrochemicals).

Take-out in polystyrene containers
Image by albedo20 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

#7: OTHER Plastics

This is the catch-all category for all ‘other plastics.’ Any plastic items not made from the above six plastic RICs are grouped together as #7’s. These include acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, epoxy resins, polylactic acid (PLA), and multilayer combinations of different plastics. These are never recyclable except through a few rare and expensive take-back programs, because of the vast array of resins and chemicals mixed together. Below are some of the individual plastic types that fall under #7.

Acrylic: This is a rigid thermoplastic that is strong, diverse, and resilient; and it can be clear or solid colored. Acrylics are used to make bulletproof windows, LEGOs, dental fillings and dentures, airplane windows, aquariums, shower doors, vehicle parts, helmets, and even textiles such as clothing, tents, and sails. This is a stable plastic and is considered a ‘safer’ plastic, except for certain ones used in dental applications. Those, specifically acrylic methacrylate resins, are suspected to be cytotoxic (toxic at the cellular level) because they leach chemicals such as formaldehyde and methyl methacrylate.13 That being said, keep those LEGOs out of your toddler’s mouths.

Red, blue, white, yellow, and black Legos in a small pile.
Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Nylon: This belongs to a group of plastic resins called polyamides that include Kevlar and Velcro. Invented by DuPont in the 1930s, nylon was originally invented to be a synthetic alternative for silk, for example, stockings. Nylon can be fiber, solid, or film. Items made from it include clothing, toothbrush and hairbrush bristles, rope*, instrument strings, tents, parachutes, carpets, tires, food packaging, boat propellers, skateboard wheels, and mechanical and automotive parts.

DuPont advertisement for Nylon from 1949, showing woman pulling up her Nylon stockings.
DuPont advertisement for Nylon from 1949. Image by clotho98 on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

*NOTE: Most rope and nets used in commercial fishing are made from nylon and present a huge problem in the oceans. The rope and nets break away from the fishing vessels and become threats to fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals who get entangled in them. Since nylon is plastic, it will not decompose and will remain in the ocean for decades or longer.

Seal on beach with nylon fishing net entangled around its neck.
Nylon fishing net entangled around the neck of a seal. Image by Noutch from Pixabay

Polycarbonate: Originally designed as an engineering plastic to compete with die-cast metal and substitute glass because it is lightweight, strong, transparent, and shatter-proof. In the past, it was used in reusable water bottles and baby bottles until bisphenol A (BPA) was ruled toxic. “It is still a favorite for rigid products including CDs and DVDs, eyeglass lenses, dental sealants, lab equipment, snowboards, car parts and housing for cell phones, computers and power tools.” It is also still used in the large, blue water containers common in offices.14 This type of plastic is good for items not related to food or beverage. However, we should use it less overall in other applications when possible to reduce waste, because when polycarbonate breaks it cannot be recycled.

Epoxy resins: Known for high strength, low weight, temperature and chemical resistance. Used in many applications: high-performance adhesives, coatings, paint, sealant, insulators, wind turbine blades, fiber optics, electrical circuit boards, and parts for carts, boats, and planes. They are also used on the interior lining of most canned goods. Avoid these when possible, especially with food and beverage containers because they contain chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and epichlorohydrin. The latter likely causes blood, respiratory, and liver damage and is a probable carcinogen.15

Polylactic Acid (PLA): This is a bio-based plastic made from lactic acid, which is a fermentation product of corn or cane sugar. This is the most common bioplastic, used in a variety of products including clothing, bottles, weed cloth, gift and credit cards, food packaging, diapers, wipes, and disposable dishes. PLA is advertised as compostable but it is only biodegradable under industrial composting conditions, which is still largely unavailable.16

Polyurethanes

This large family of plastics was introduced in 1954. Polyurethanes do not have an assigned RIC, but they are worth mentioning because they are so common. They come in foamed versions that are soft and flexible for uses in mattresses, cushioning in furniture, cars, and running shoes, spray foam insulation, and carpet underlay. They can take on a flexible form for hoses, tubing, gaskets, seals; and they can be tough and rigid for items such as insulating lining for buildings and refrigerators. Polyurethane can also be made into thin films or coatings, such as adhesives for food packaging and waterproof coatings for wood. When it is spun into fibers, it makes Spandex, Lycra, and even latex-free condoms.17

Polyurethane is made from isocyanates, a chemical that is potentially toxic, as it is the leading cause of occupational asthma. “As for our day-to-day use, polyurethanes have also been linked to a skin irritation known as contact dermatitis through direct contact with such polyurethane items as a toilet seat, jewelry and Spandex tapes sewn into underwear.” It is highly flammable and may contain flame retardant additives that go in mattresses and spray foam insulation. Flame retardants are full of chemical combinations that are considered trade secrets, so the public does not know what potential toxins are present in their items. Spray foam insulation, even once cured, can off-gas isocyanate methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI), which has been linked to asthma and lung damage.18

Person in white Hazmat suit applying purple spray foam insulation.
Image by justynkalp from Pixabay

What You Can Do

The best thing you can do is to keep learning, which you’re already doing if you’re reading this article. Stay informed and be aware of what chemicals you’re exposed to through plastics, packaging, and additives. Avoid those which are documented as toxic or even potentially toxic. Additionally, remember that few plastics are actually recycled, so reducing the plastics you purchase is essential to the environment and your health. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

“We all need to separate the hopeful and increasingly fantastical act of recycling from the reality of plastic pollution. Recent data indicates that our recycling wishes, hopes, and dreams – perhaps driven in part by myths surrounding RICs – will not stop plastic from entering our oceans. Instead, if we truly want to protect the environment and marine life, we need to campaign for more plastic-free choices and zones, and for the reduction of plastic production and pollution.”19

 

Additional Resources:

11 Ways to Go Plastic-Free with Food

To learn more about Bioplastics: The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 3

The different types of plastics used in packaging: Guide to my Packaging Industry Series

More about polystyrene #5: Guide to my Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers are Poisoning Your Food Series

Footnotes:

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 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:

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: