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Plastic is made from oil. You knew that, right?
Posted By Beth Terry On July 27, 2007 @ 10:43 am In Environmental | 61 Comments
According to a nationwide online survey  conducted in April of this year, 72 percent of the American public does not know that conventional plastic is made from petroleum products, primarily oil. This study was a joint venture between Metabolix, Inc, a bioscience company and Archer Daniels Midland, one of our biggest agribusinesses. They have joined to develop plastics made from corn sugar.
Now let me be clear: I am NOT, I repeat NOT, promoting ADM’s corn products. Read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma to understand all the problems of the mainstream corn industry. But it is interesting to me to know that most people don’t understand some of the reasons why plastics are a problem. So, from start to finish, I’ll list all the reasons that I can think of:
1) Plastic comes from petroleum. According to the ADM press release, about 10% of U.S. oil consumption is used to make plastics. And as we know, oil is a resource that is running out. In the next few years, if we don’t find alternatives to oil voluntarily, we’ll be forced to do so. In the meantime, the U.S. has 2% of the world’s oil reserves, yet uses 25%. This is why we fight wars. Because other countries have the precious oil that we want. Perhaps if we found alternatives to oil, we wouldn’t need to extract it from other people’s back yards.
2) Petroleum extraction and shipment is a dirty business. According to the NRDC , each year, the oil industry spills tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil and other hazardous materials on the North Slope of Alaska. Oil operations also pollute the air with toxic emissions and poison the water and wetlands. Tanker spills are legendary, but we don’t often think about the pollution that goes on every day from oil drilling.
3) Before becoming plastic products that we can use, the petroleum is made into tiny raw plastic pellets, called “nurdles.” These tiny nurdles are shipped in containers all over the world to factories, where they will be processed into products. But before the nurdles reach their destination, many of them blow off the ships and into the ocean, where they are fatally swallowed by birds and fish. (Read more here .) Additionally, the nurdles are accumulators of hydrophobic pollutants – things like DDE and PCB. These can be up to one million times more concentrated on the surface of these pellets than they are in the ambient sea water, according to a recent Japanese study . In short, these plastic pellets not only kill the birds and fish that eat them, they are also a source of poisons in our food.
4) The nurdles are melted down and formed into all kinds of products for us to use. Some of these objects seem to be benign, but others have been found to be harmful. 2 kinds of plastic in particular are of concern: PVC (polyvinyl chloride, #3 plastic), which is used for cling wrap, some plastic squeeze bottles, cooking oil and peanut butter jars, detergent and window cleaner bottles, poses risks to the environment and to humans. And polycarbonate (#7 plastic), which is used in most plastic baby bottles, 5-gallon water bottles, “sport” water bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups and some clear plastic cutlery has recently been found to leach Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that mimics the action of the human hormone estrogen and has been linked to several cancers and genetic damage in infants. (Read more here .)
5) And there are further dangers to sea animals. Like nurdles, bottle caps are small pieces of plastic. And bottles caps are not recycled! Every bottle collection program I’ve seen requires the caps to be removed. So what happens to them? Many of them end up in the ocean, where albatross mothers feed them to their young, who die shortly thereafter. (Read more .) But the dangers to sea animals is not just from tiny pieces of plastic; plastic bags and wrappers are also hazardous. Floating in the ocean, they can look like jelly fish to creatures, like leatherback turtles, who feast on them. The plastic blocks the turtle’s digestive tract and leads to starvation. (Read more .)
6) And the really worrisome thing about plastic is that it doesn’t go away. According to ADM’s survey , 40% of respondents don’t know that petroleum-based plastic does not biodegrade. They think it will decompose underground, in home compost, in landfills, or in the ocean. But petro-plastics will not biodegrade in any of these environments. They are, however, photodegradable, which means that if they’re exposed to light, they will degrade into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that are not only swallowed by marine creatures, but become embedded in the zooplankton, the very bottom of the food chain, and thereby poison our food with toxins. For a very clear explanation of this problem, click the arrow to play the video on the left. Or read a transcript here. 
Scientists are unclear as to how long it could take plastic to finally degrade, but they do know that all the plastic that has ever been created is still with us today. And the more plastic we produce, the bigger the problem of plastic waste will become.
Now, do I think that plastic is the biggest environmental problem in the world? No. Because I have no idea what our biggest problem is, if problems can even be ranked that way. What I do know is that plastic is something that I can handle. I don’t own a car, so I can’t cut down my driving to save petroleum. I don’t own a house, so I can’t remodel to make my home more energy efficient. But I am a consumer. And I can control what products I choose to buy. And I can be an example and share through this blog the discoveries that I make. So that’s what I’m doing!
Article printed from My Plastic-free Life: http://myplasticfreelife.com
URL to article: http://myplasticfreelife.com/2007/07/plastic-is-made-from-oil-you-knew-that/
URLs in this post:
 nationwide online survey: http://ir.metabolix.com/releasedetail.cfm?releaseid=238869
 The Omnivore’s Dilemma: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/click?id=x9QP2nu3bVw&subid=&offerid=229293.1&type=10&tmpid=8432&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fwww.barnesandnoble.com%252Fs%252Fthe-omnivore-s-dilemma-a-natural-history-of-four-meals%253Fstore%253Dbook
 According to the NRDC: http://www.nrdc.org/land/wilderness/arcticrefuge/facts2.asp
 Read more here: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/270/
 recent Japanese study: http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Pellets-Transport-Medium.htm
 Read more here: http://myplasticfreelife.com/plastics_guide.pdf
 Read more: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ocean2aug02,0,6507578.story
 Read more: http://www.epa.gov/owow/oceans/debris/floatingdebris/section1.pdf
 Or read a transcript here.: http://myplasticfreelife.com/synthetic_sea_transcript.html
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