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 5

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Calvin Klein Men's underwear plastic packaging
Calvin Klein Men’s underwear in an unnumbered plastic box. Photo by me

In Part 5 of my series about the packaging industry, I explain corporate responsibility. You can read my first article on packaging and follow the series from there.

There are many ways that companies can take responsibility for the waste they create. But it often becomes the consumers’ problem. What kind of impact could we make if we change that?

Calvin Klein: Not an Example of Company Responsibility in Packaging

A couple of years ago, we ordered some Calvin Klein Men’s underwear, which arrived in an unnumbered plastic box. Plastic without a number cannot be recycled, anywhere. So I wrote to the company to see if they’d take the packaging back to reuse. They responded, “I regret to inform you that our warehouse will not reuse the packages.” They did not provide a reason, nor did they express interest in more sustainable packaging. I asked if they would stop using plastic packaging, or if they would at least switch to numbered plastic so that I could recycle it. They responded that they’d pass my comments on to their Product Development Team.

This left me with no option but to throw the packaging in the trash or find a way to reuse it. I ended up using it a couple of times as a gift box, and now it is in my collection of “plastic that I must pay TerraCycle to recycle.” Hence, the onus is on me, the consumer. We stopped buying from Calvin Klein.

This has got to stop.

Image of my own trash audit from 2017, when I started trying to go plastic free. Notice that most of my trash is packaging waste.
Image of my own trash audit from 2017, when I started trying to go plastic-free. Notice that most of my trash was packaging waste. Photo by me

There is a way to make companies responsible for their own packaging

It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). It is a policy concept that makes it the manufacturer’s responsibility for reducing packaging waste and improving packaging. Companies would have to have to rethink packaging, recyclability, and end-of-life impacts. There are four ways that EPR can work:

      1. EPR extends the manufacturer’s responsibility from the design and marketing to the post-consumer stage (meaning when the consumer is finished with a product).
      2. Producers either physically take items back through take-back programs, or they pay a third party for those services.
      3. Individual governments set standards for the responsible party, defines what materials should be collected and avoided, and require data collection. This model sometimes involves taxation or fees.
      4. EPR can go beyond packaging and address the post-consumer stage of items beyond packaging, such as electronics, batteries, cars, tires, etc.

It can be a combination of those as well. Here’s a video that explains EPR from Washington State, as the idea can apply anywhere:

The Costs of EPR

Extended Producer Responsibility would cost the manufacturers and companies a nominal amount of money, and they would likely shift that cost to the consumer. “But perhaps this cost is better incurred at checkout than in…greenhouse gas emissions, marine debris, resource scarcity, toxicity, and food and drinking-water pollution,” wrote Scott Cassel, founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, in The Future of Packaging.

In our current system, the true cost falls on taxpayers because we are paying for our municipalities to haul our waste, whether it goes to a landfill or a recycling center. And then we pay again when those systems fail, and the cost becomes an environmental issue.

There currently are no laws and no economic incentives in the United States to make companies responsible for the waste they sell or for the waste they create. However, when the same US companies conduct business internationally, they follow EPR regulations in countries with those laws, showing that EPR can be successful.

“Unlike in many other developed countries, in the United States manufacturers and brands are not responsible for their packaging once the consumer buys the product.” – Scott Cassel, founder & CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute

Beth Porter noted in Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine that one challenge with EPR is that if companies take control of the waste stream, it could take decision-making power about waste management away from communities and result in the incineration of many materials. “Good EPR would include strong recycling targets and a stated zero-incineration policy. It would result in shifting some responsibility of disposal back onto producers, urging them to rethink designs of their products to be better suited for recycling streams.”

Plastic sports drink bottles stuck in the pond
Photo by Ben Baily on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

EPR around the World

EPR prevails in many other countries. The United States, meanwhile, “is currently one of only three nations of the 35-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not have an EPR system specifically for packaging in place or under development,” according to Cassel.

In 1991, Germany passed the “Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste,” which was intended to shift the burden of packaging disposal from the public to the industries producing the packaging. This led to the creation of the Green Dot symbol, which indicates that a fee has been paid by the manufacturer to pay for the package’s end-of-life disposal. However, this symbol does not necessarily mean that a product or package is recyclable, a common misconception. For more information, watch this video:

The European Union passed the “Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive” in 1994 and thirty countries have implemented it. This aims at preventing the production of packaging waste through elimination, reuse, recycling, and/or recovery of packaging. “In Europe, global companies have accepted EPR as an appropriate cost of doing business and of being responsible corporate citizens,” wrote Matt Prindiville, Executive Director of UPSTREAM.1 Beth Porter noted that “Belgium boasts more than five thousand companies that follow [EPR]…the result of this is an impressive 95 percent recovery rate for packaging materials in the country.” Other countries that have adopted EPR legislation include Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Romania.

“Overall…EPR legislation has had the intended effect of moving up the waste stream into product and packaging design, logistics, and shipping departments of major manufacturers.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

Dairy section of a supermarket, lots of plastic packaging
Image by Squirrel_photos from Pixabay

Opposition

There are some who oppose EPR legislation, arguing that it amounts to an additional fee or tax. Trade associations like the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association oppose it. They argue that packaging disposal, recycling, and pollution cleanup costs should be the responsibility of the government. “In the U.S., these companies have determined it’s better to fight to keep EPR at bay than to partner with local and state governments to develop 21st-century systems for designing and managing packaging materials,” Prindiville wrote. Companies and manufacturers need to take responsibility.

Solutions

EPR legislation must be passed to make companies responsible for their packaging. Without laws, it is doubtful that companies will do the right thing on their own. Remember, many companies are already practicing EPR in other countries because it is mandated. But not in the US, because they aren’t required to by law. You can write your legislators and request that they propose and/or support EPR legislation. The Story of Plastic film offers a great explanation of this.2

While EPR is one strong solution, it is not the sole answer to our packaging waste problems. We should combine EPR with many other ideas as the current waste stream is too enormous. We need to create vastly less waste on a global scale. Buy less and be mindful of the things you do purchase.

In my next post, I’ll cover take-back programs, a form of EPR. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

“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, “Sustainability and the Economy,” Packaging World, March 13th, 2020.

Post, “The Producer Pays,” Knowledge @ Wharton, University of Pennsylvania Wharton, April 4, 2017.

Article, “5 Reasons EPR Is the Answer for Plastics Recycling,” by Matt Prindiville, Sustainablebrands.com, accessed June 20, 2021.

Footnotes:

Support “The Story of Plastic”

Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash
Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Have you ever heard of The Story of Stuff? It’s a 20-minute film that is “a fast-paced, fact-filled explanation of the consumerist economy.” It began with the writer and the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, Annie Leonard. She’s an amazing person and a leader in environmental and social issues. It is 100% worth your time to watch, I promise!

The Story of Story Project has since come out with more than a dozen high-quality short documentary films that explain the relationship between consumer products and environmental problems. But their newest one is really exciting!!! It’s called…

The Story of Plastic

“These days, more and more of our Stuff is being made from one very problematic material: plastic.” They want to tell the hidden stories surrounding plastic. The production, the pollution, the health hazards. This is their first feature-length film. Here’s a trailer for their film:

Do we need another film about plastic?

Yes, we do. There aren’t enough of them. The ones that do exist are really good and the message is getting out, but we need even more people to hear and see and understand the message: Plastic is ruining our environment, poisoning us (cancer, endocrine and thyroid diseases, etc.), and littering our landscape. The Earth is SO Beautiful – don’t we want it to stay that way?

And recycling is not the answer because only 9% of our plastic is actually getting recycled! That means 91% is ending up in landfills, the ocean, the rivers and lakes, beaches, parks, and our neighborhoods. It even ends up in our food and water that we drink.

plastic waste environment, Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The Story of Stuff Project is fundraising to complete this project. Please help me support this worthy cause. They are asking people to become “a Plastic Insider by starting a recurring monthly donation supporting The Story of Plastic production fund today.” There are insider perks: your name will be in the credits of the film and you gain access to behind the scenes videos. Here’s a video of supporters who spend their lives on a sailboat:

I signed up as a monthly, recurring donor today. Can you help too? You can also make a one-time donation in any amount you’d like. And if you’re really ambitious, you can create your own Facebook fundraiser!

“The Story of Plastic isn’t just a movie. It’s a call to action.”

Are you as excited about this film as I am? Leave a comment below! Thank you for reading.

Update 04/30/2020: This film has been released! It’s available on amazon.com and other places listed on the Story of Plastic’s website. I can’t wait to watch it!