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 2

Last updated on September 9, 2021.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.

Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

A person holding 'compostable' plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York.
‘Compostable’ plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York. Don’t buy these! Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“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, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.

Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.

Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.

Footnotes:

Plastic Free July!

Hi everyone, July is almost here! What does that mean for you? Hotter weather, fireworks and barbecue, maybe a new fiscal year?

Well, did you know it could also mean PLASTIC FREE JULY?!

What is Plastic Free July?

“Plastic Free July is a global yearly challenge where millions of people give up single use plastic during the month of July. It aims to raise awareness of the amount of single-use disposable plastic items in our lives and challenges people to do something about it.” 1millionwomen.com.au

I wanted to write a short post to introduce you to this annual challenge. It was created by the organization plasticfreejuly.org.

Why Go Plastic Free and Not Just Recycle?

Because only 9% of plastic sent to recycling actually gets recycled.

Because recycling is NOT the answer.

Because plastic has entered every ecosystem across the planet.

Plastic containers of convenience food at the supermarket.
Plastic is embedded in our culture, especially surrounding convenience foods. Photo by me.

Let go of Shame

Are you just discovering the ramifications of disposable plastics? Or are you still struggling to take your first step toward eliminating disposable plastic from your house and life? Or have you already gone plastic free?

Whichever situation you find yourself in, the first thing you need to do is let go of any guilt or shame. I don’t want you to feel those emotions when it comes to your habits surrounding plastics, because negative feelings won’t propel you to action.

I want you to feel enlightened, hopeful, enthusiastic. If you’re just starting and you’ve already thought about these issues then you’ve already consciously taken the first step. Go you!

Sign up to take the Challenge!

Resources

There are many organizations, websites, films, and social media groups dedicated to the plastic crisis and about going plastic-free. I’ve listed my favorites on my Recommended Websites page. Please check out some of my other posts related to plastic here and here.

Sea turtle on beach sand.
Image by Amanda Martino on Pexels.

Beyond July

July is a great month to become aware of the problems and to start. However, once July is over you can keep going! You can help prevent the plastic crisis from getting worse. Be the change!

Before you go, if you have four minutes, please watch this video from The Story of Stuff Project:

Thanks for reading, Happy July!

Inspiration abounds on Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island after sunrise
Hilton Head Island just after sunrise.

If you read my post about my family’s weekend trip to Hilton Head Island last fall, then you already know how much we love the island. We recently returned from a week-long trip there, and inspiration was all around! Besides the natural beauty of the island and the gorgeous beaches, there are many environmentally conscious things I appreciate about Hilton Head Island.

My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.

Plastic bag ban in Beaufort County, South Carolina

They implemented a plastic bag ban last fall, and I am here to tell you that from a tourist’s perspective, businesses have not been hurt by this. People were shopping in all the shops and supermarkets and the plastic bag ban did not seem to deter anyone from spending money. I have not found any studies on the result of this ban in the last 8 months, but I imagine the impact has been huge!

Unfortunately, I did find one article indicating that Target and Walmart are using supposedly “reusable” plastic bags. But since they are made of the same material as regular plastic bags, they defeat the whole purpose. I did not happen to shop at either store while there so I did not witness this first hand. As the article noted, that is disappointing.

At the other shops and stores I visited, I personally received only paper bags when I didn’t have my cloth bags with me. I love it! Can’t we do this everywhere?

Dunes with a palm tree.
Gorgeous dunes on HHI.

Wildlife

There’s a lot of cherished and protected wildlife on the island. We saw all types of birds, including pelicans – my favorite! We saw dolphins, tons of fish, and several types of crabs. There are also bald eagles, alligators, and turtles living on the island but we didn’t personally get to see those this time. The local government’s website educates on sustainable living, the types of local wildlife, native plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, and how everyone can help protect those things.

Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Baby crab, dark gray.
Baby crab!

Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts

Although we did not see sea turtles this trip, we saw at least 7 cordoned loggerhead sea turtle nest areas. They were marked with orange signs provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which alerts the public about the protection of this endangered species through federal and state laws.

Loggerhead sea turtle nest sign, cordoned and marked by the South Carolina department of Natural Resources.
Loggerhead sea turtle nest, cordoned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area), cordoned off by the SC Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area). The SC Department of Natural Resources cordoned the nests.

Many Atlantic coast towns have laws, regulations, and organizations to protect sea turtle nests. On Hilton Head Island, lights on buildings and hotels cannot shine in the direction of the beach. People are only permitted to use red or “turtle-safe” flashlights on the beach between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. between May and October. They have a volunteer organization that patrols, monitors, and reports on sea turtle nests. They also clean up beach litter and plastics.

I read this article about a Kemp’s Ridley turtle making a nest on Hilton Head Island, a first-time event for the most endangered of all the sea turtle species! Wow!

The Coastal Discovery Museum has an “Adopt-a-Nest” Program, which not only sponsors the protection of a sea turtle nest but also supports the museum’s educational programs. Of course, this idea excited me so I absolutely adopted a nest while writing this post! They emailed me to let me know that my nest will be the 277th one this year and that they’ll keep me informed on the progress of my adopted nest.

Can I inspire you to adopt a nest as well? Just use the link above!

Baby sea turtles on the beach.
Photo by Skeeze on Pixabay.

Coastal Discovery Museum

The Coastal Discovery Museum on the island is a great non-profit and Smithsonian Affiliate, dedicated to educating and protecting the natural resources, history, and ecosystems of the region. Their mission “inspires people to care for the Lowcountry,” through their many programs, exhibits, talks, and tours. What a great organization.

We’ve visited several times in past years but this year we did a Dolphin and Nature Cruise with the museum and really enjoyed it. And yes, we did see dolphins! The museum docent provided a dolphin skull replica and spoke about the anatomy, diet, and lifestyle of the local dolphins. The captain provided a rich tour about the history and nature of the island. Both the captain and museum docent were very knowledgeable and kept the passengers engaged for the entirety of the cruise. They even let each of the kids drive the boat for a few minutes!

My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.
My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.

Beach Trash

Hilton Head Island’s beaches are very clean and well maintained. And there are both trash and recycling cans up and down the beach. Even so, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these through Litterati (see also my post on Litterati). My next post will be about the types of trash I found and what you can do to prevent beach trash and ocean pollution!

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

All photographs in this post were taken by me except where otherwise indicated.