The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
July 27, 2007

What’s Wrong with Plastic, Anyway?

Why avoid plastic?  I originally wrote this post in July 2007, just one month into my plastic-free experiment.  It’s now May 2015, and in the past 8 years, I have learned a lot more about plastic — where it comes from and what problems are associated with it.  Here, then, is an updated summary of why I am still living plastic-free after all these years.

1) Plastic comes from fossil fuels.

According to the U.S. Energy Energy Information Administration, “plastics are made from liquid petroleum gases (LPG), natural gas liquids (NGL), and natural gas. LPG are by-products of petroleum refining, and NGL are removed from natural gas before it enters transmission pipelines.”  In 2010, about 191 million barrels of LPG and NGL and 412 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of natural gas were used in the United States to make plastic products.


And as we know, oil and gas are non-renewable resources, which means that if we don’t find alternatives to fossil fuels voluntarily, we’ll be forced to do so.  What’s more, extraction of these fuels 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. Massive spills like Deep Water Horizon are legendary, but we don’t often think about the pollution that goes on every day from oil drilling.

And natural gas extraction is no cleaner.   According to Food and Water Watch, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is “an extremely water-intensive process where millions of gallons of fluid – typically a mix of water, sand, and chemicals, including ones known to cause cancer – are injected underground at high pressure to fracture the rock surrounding an oil or gas well.” Fracking generates vast amounts of toxic waste, which pollute the air we breathe and water we drink.

2) Before becoming plastic products that we can use, the carbon in fossil fuels is polymerized into tiny raw plastic pellets, sometimes nicknamed  “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 are littered and end up in the ocean,  where they can resemble fish eggs to hungry marine animals. (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.

3) The nurdles that reach their intended destination are formed into all kinds of products for us to use.  During the process, additives are combined with the plastics to affect their qualities.  And some of these chemicals are pretty harmful.  There are two kinds of plastic of particular 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 some hard plastic bottles, metal food can liners, clear plastic “sippy” cups and some clear plastic cutlery has 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.)

But what’s of even more concern is that even supposedly “safe” plastics have been found to have hormone-disrupting effects.  And manufacturers are not required to disclose any of the additives in their plastics.  So we can’t be sure that any plastics are safe.

4) And then there are further dangers to sea animals. Like nurdles, bottle caps are small pieces of plastic. And most bottles caps are not recycled! 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.)

5) And at the end of its life?  Well, there is no end for plastic.  Most fossil-based plastics and even some plant-based plastics will not biodegrade. 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. (Read more.)

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, except for that which has been incinerated, 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? I have no idea. 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!

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86 Comments on "What’s Wrong with Plastic, Anyway?"

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4 months 24 days ago

Do you own a cellphone? How about the laptop or PC you use to write or look up these articles? How was your salad packaged when you bought it from Whole Foods today? Sorry, but plastic is here to stay. Lets not pretend we are holier than thou. That’s the problem with Leftest thought, they want everyone else to tow the party line, but they do what they want anyway.

10 months 14 days ago

Ignore all the Neggy Nellys and be proud of what you do, Beth! I also live plastic-free as much as I can and YES, I still use a computer (second-hand) and have a plastic toilet seat! It’s not about what we did in the past, it’s about how we live today and tomorrow.

1 year 7 days ago

Posted using a computer made with… plastic. And lead. And mercury.

1 year 27 days ago


1 year 29 days ago

so is oil that is used to make plastics bottles renewable or not

1 year 2 months ago

The real issue is food waste and spoilage.  If a plastic bag protects food better and extends the shelf life so it can be eaten, then the bag’s environmental cost is insignificant compared to the alternative high-environmental-cost of having to grow/raise more food to replace the wasted food.  Therefore, from a truly objective perspective, we can conclude that many plastics have a significant environmental benefit to our overall ecosystem.

Matt Harnack
1 year 3 months ago

Thanks for explaining the plastic problem so clearly. Terry, you are a constant inspiration!

[…] “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, except for that which has been incinerated, is still with us today. And the more plastic we produce, the bigger the problem of plastic waste will become.” /2007/07/whats-wrong-with-plastic-anyway/ […]

Paradise Almost Lost | an aimless hitchhiker…
1 year 4 months ago

[…] plastic-free activist Beth Terry summarises on her website why plastic is so toxic, both to the oceans and sea creatures, and to our own […]

The Earth Carers Course & Ways to Prevent Waste Production |
1 year 7 months ago

[…] of 1000 years. Read more about What Happens to All That Plastic? and check out a blog My Plastic  Free Life for more […]

1 year 11 months ago

I do agree that plastics are bad, however, I reading and answering this via my computer, which is plastic, typed on a keyboard, which is plastic. My shampoo, milk container, medicine bottles, most of my car, probably my tires, you get my point. What are we really going to do? Don’t forget the cell phones and throw away stuff. Everything is over packaged!! I would prefer going back to glass. This seems to be a losing battle.

2 years 7 months ago

Hi – good blog. I am wondering, given that plastic does not go away easily.. i am an architect doing installation art projects that only use reclaimed material that might otherwise go into the landfill, and i am looking to source plastic sheets for my next art project – sheets that would be considered scrap or junk. Do you happen to have any resources for reclaiming plastic sheets from either manufacturers or repurposing them form their original use?  I would love to make contact with them.

2 years 8 months ago
BethTerry retiredranger  Terence McKenna actually came up with a viable solution back in the 1990s, which was for every woman of childbearing years, who chose to have children, to have only one child. By having only one child, particularly for those in developed nations, the population would naturally slowly decrease, and the population issues facing us today would be solved in approximately three generations.  In addition, the resources of the family would be less taxed, and the parents could afford to spend more time with their one child, leading to better kids and a better world. Growing populations in Third World… Read more »
4 months 24 days ago

Overpopulation is not a problem. That is a farcical argument. People are a solution to problems, they are NOT the problem. You can fly over the US and see millions of acres of land that is scarcely inhabited. Please, stop this notion of human beings being some sort of virus on Mother Earth. We were created in Gods image and the earth is for us to use and care for.

2 years 8 months ago

I haven’t had any.  Do cats count?  :-)

2 years 11 months ago

All plastic is derived or derived from oil and gas byproducts.
Until you eliminate all plastics then you are disingenuine in saying a “plastic free life”.

2 years 11 months ago
Only 13% of the mass of plastics produced in the USA is petroleum derived, 87% is from waste byproducts of natural gas processing. Plastic is 75% from ethylene, 20% from propylene (40% of which is petroleum-derived). These are derived from massive centralized plants that process ethane (2-carbon chain, natural gas waste byproduct, over 70% of primary plastic source material), propane (3-carbon chain), and naphtha (5, 6-carbon chain), and from refinery derived propylene, and 5% from petroleum-derived aromatics. Ethylene is 85% made from natural gas liquids, primarily ethane.  Moreover, the fraction of plastics that is petroleum derived is from waste refinery… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

@Anonymous You’re right that much of our plastic production comes from natural gas.  This was a very old post — originally written in 2007.  Since the post is still active, I have updated it to reflect the most current information I have.  The fact that much of our plastic comes from natural gas is not reassuring to me in the least.

3 years 1 month ago
I find your honest, genuine approach to taking responsibility for your impact really refreshing. Being an eco-warrior isn’t just about sticking coloured paper onto an old can and calling it upcycled because you can store pens in it. It’s also about going back to the source of the problem and working out, not just how we can slow it down, but how we can prevent it altogether. It also isn’t just about entry after entry of new eco gear, which, whatever it’s made of, will have needed energy to manufacture. It’s also about making mundane, practical decisions that will help… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

@Sian Thank you!

3 years 2 months ago

Your naivety is rather worrying.
You talk about leading a ‘plastic free’ life, whilst running a blog designed on a computer encased in plastic (or have you found a company that makes computers made out of bamboo and organic yoghurt?)

3 years 4 months ago

what does oil have to do about producing “PLASTIC”?

3 years 4 months ago

@MARYAN Plastic can be made from oil, natural gas or plants.

3 years 8 months ago
I don’t see any other place to comment on this as I can’t find it listed as an issue.  I realize that you are just working on a small portion of the environmental challenges we face.  However we can meet all those challenges and still fail.  There is a elephant in the room and it will be our downfall unless a solution is adopted and adopted quickly.  The issue is population growth.  I believe, based on some solid resource condition information, particularly the study of soils, that the earth is past its ultimate long term carrying capacity of humans.  As… Read more »
3 years 4 months ago

@retiredranger You neo malthusians might be wrong.  Plastic underlay to capture water is a game changer.
With global warming, we can get two growing seasons in many places

[…] shampoo are wasteful and harmful to our planet. (I’ve been learning recently about the problems with plastic in […]

4 years 26 days ago

Thanks for the correction.  For over 50 years in the plastic processing business I have been under the illusion that plastic is made from natural gas or naptha.  Can you take me to the plant in the US or Canada that inputs crude and outputs monomer or polymer ?  I will pay you $ 500 and travel expenses. 
I’m sure that the ADM agenda of making PLA from corn has nothing to do with their skewed stats.

Some dude
4 years 1 month ago
Hi Beth, First off, you are truly an inspirational person! I admire your dedication to the reduction of plastic use and appreciate how thorough you are in your research in order to back up the reasons for your actions with facts. I only just discovered your website this week and I’ve been reading through all the archives! I’ve always tried to be conscious of the environment, but you’ve really opened my eyes to how much more I can do. I think if I can go vegan (over 2 years now) without feeling deprived and feeling better about life, then the… Read more »

[…] don’t shop for things made from plastic. (Did you know that plastic was made from petroleum? MyPlasticFreeLife notes: “…about 10% of U.S. oil consumption is used to make plastics. And as we know, […]

4 years 2 months ago
Beth, You’ve been at this for much longer than me. It’s really difficult to find items not encased in plastic but it is possible. I understand that the discovery of plastics made our world advance in many ways but unfortunately at huge price that no one foresaw back then, except maybe the oil and chemical companies who obviously have never cared because they have not wanted to upset their profits and it seems they have us all buying buying and keep us in the dark about the facts. I don’t think anyone who is in the position to stop it… Read more »
4 years 3 months ago

You are an inspiration!

4 years 6 months ago

excellent article. i am bookmarking it. i knew that plastic was bad for many reasons, but i wasn’t aware at quite how bad the situation was. i try to produce as little waste as possible and recycle the rest, but i still find our recycling box with plastic filling up way too often. i need to try even harder. thank you.

4 years 9 months ago

Thank God for the inspiration to use plastic! It’s created so many jobs for people to be able to feed , house and clothe their families, and it’s helped to preserve food to cut down on food waste. God save the engineers in the plastics field! May we all buy them something long and cool at the end of their day! Bless the further engineering of crude oil by-products, and the responsible care of their waste, etc.

10 months 14 days ago

Brier-Rose. . . . you have no clue. . . .

4 years 9 months ago

Too bad that people don’t care about our world’s oceans considering that 50% of the air we breathe comes from it. Check this video out.

[…] 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. […]

5 years 1 month ago
Hey Beth, thanks for posting this. Sadly, I was totally ignorant about where plastic came from until this past summer when I decided to try and go oil free. I had no idea what kind of struggle I was in for! Oil is the primary reason I’m reducing my plastic use. It’s crazy that in a country where we talk about needing energy independence, we fail to talk about all the non-energy ways that we use oil, and we treat plastic like it’s just as easy to come by as dirt. Sure, we have lots of it, but it’s not… Read more »
My Next Water Bottle (Sans Plastic!) « The Nail That Sticks Up
5 years 4 months ago

[…] bottles now is BPA-free, I'm still skeptical of plastic in general: its production is intensive (see why), and plastic can typically only be downcycled – that is, a plastic water bottle can't be melted […]

Why I’m reducing my use of plastics | My Many Goals
5 years 6 months ago

[…] is made from oil. See Beth’s post about this. As you hopefully know, oil isn’t a never-ending resource; it’s something we should be […]

5 years 6 months ago
Beth Terry, you don’t know so many things. When crude oil is refined, it separates into byproducts at various temperatures. Part of crude oil naturally separates into plastic during the refining process. Just like part of petroleum separates into asphalt. It would be wasteful to NOT use plastic. The part that becomes plastic cannot be used to make asphalt, for example. There are many power plants in the midwest that burn garbage (including plastics) to power the turbines therein to create electricity for people’s homes and businesses. The resulting smoke is even scrubbed before it leaves the smokestack, so that… Read more »
3 years 8 months ago
Another couple of comments.  In some products plastic is more durable than metal alternatives. A few products last longer due to the use of plastic. Cars built today run with less pollution and get better gas mileage because they are lighter as a result of plastic. I purchase my first car in 1969. The car had 80,000 miles on it at ten years old. I nursed it along for another two years and it could not run short of a restoration.     I now have a twenty year old Subaru with 150,000 miles, a Honda that is 21 years… Read more »
3 years 2 months ago
%I also have 20 year old Subaru with 150,000 miles. I agree with you about how cars are running longer, more efficiently and with increased safety.  Plastics are a part of that. What I object to is the waste of plastics.  Two examples, we seem to have been duped that water in plastic bottles costing at minimum about $1.00 per gallon even though we can get safer water out of our taps.  At least those taps fed by a public water system where the requirements and standards are the best in the world.  On the other hand, water in bottles… Read more »
3 years 8 months ago

The Land Cruiser is 35 years old and I’m the original and only owner. I use it to drive in the snow and pull out the stuck cars of my friends and their friends. I drive it to remote trailheads and car camping sites. Most of its mileage has been off-highway and that has resulted in such a low mileage accrual. I use it far less now than when I first owned it.  The knees have pretty much ended my ability to take even short day hikes, so now I’m riding my road bicycle 1,000 to 1,500 miles a year!

3 years 8 months ago
Kaycee, it would seem as though you are writing off the entire green movement. Remember that the green movement has accomplished a great deal. Recycling, at a limited scale, was started in the early70’s by people who understood that we were throwing energy and materials into holes dug in the ground or by filling in canyons. People pushed for recycling laws and so called “bottle bills.”  I think if this situation was left to “the market place to decide” industry would not have started recycling until many decades later. The early green movement and a great deal of education was… Read more »
5 years 7 months ago

Most of us bury our head in the sand when it comes to plastic.

We Read, We Follow « The Nail That Sticks Up
5 years 9 months ago

[…] Fake Plastic Fish was born out of Beth Terry's disgust with our excessive plastic use, and she decided to stop purchasing all plastic as much as possible. If she did obtain some, she kept it as a running tally. Often contains great re-purposing ideas and ways to de-plasticize our life in general. If you have no idea why plastic is bad, read this. […]

5 years 10 months ago

[…] else can you do? Eschew plastic containers whenever possible. Why? You guessed it – plastics are made from petrochemicals. Just say no to the oil industry by filtering out petrochemicals from your life wherever […]

5 years 11 months ago

I bet the American public also don’t realize that more petroleum is used to create a hybrid car than a non-hybrid car. The factories that produce lithium batteries used in hybrids are all run on oil based energy.. So in reality, hybrid cars are more harmful to the environment (Lithium is extremely harmful to mine and produce into batteries) than gasoline based cars. Just something else to think about.

Dicci Brignoni
5 years 11 months ago

I had no idea plastic was made from oil. what an eye opener and I will do allI can to reduse my use of plastic.

Thanks for the info.

3 years 2 months ago

did you not see my post and my video ?  you people really don’t want to be confused with the facts

5 years 11 months ago
Hi. I was just thinking about the plastic problem and how far spread it really is, all with stores talking about either not carrying plastic bags or charging the customer extra for their uses. We’ll see. I am not sure where the remark about the Islamic people fits in, but facts are facts. I am aware that certain plastics used to be made of pvc material and in one of my webpages (on archival scrapbooking) talks about it a little. Many stores, such as Wal-Mart have stopped carrying products that have pvc in them. But I wonder how far everyone… Read more »
6 years 1 month ago

I don”t think it’s nice to say plastic is made from oil. It might incite violence from or against Islamic people. We should be sensitive to their needs, not ours.

It’s best to keep the plastics issue focused on environmental concerns ONLY. And we should NOT talk about how much money our oil/plastic/energy saving projects earn in equivalent interest compared to our retirement or savings accounts.

These are big elephants in the room, but if we put on our ipods and pretend it’s sculpture, will anybody know the difference?

Recycling for the New Year « Blog Archive « Shawnee Etches
6 years 4 months ago

[…] to recycle and explains why plastic is such a menace to our society if we do not recycle it.  /2007/07/whats-wrong-with-plastic-anyway/  I recommend this article if you have doubts about why recycling is so important to our world. […]

6 years 4 months ago

Beth, I enjoyed your article on recycling plastic so much I have included the link in my blog on glass etching art. Thanks for the chance to spread the word on recycling. It makes much more of an impact when people can read the reasons why.
.-= Shawnee´s last blog ..Meet the Artist =-.

Beth Terry
6 years 6 months ago

Michele, I’m sorry but I really don’t have information about plastic fish tanks and the possible affect on fish. I do know that plastics can leach all kinds of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can affect fish in various ways. But I don’t know if would kill them suddenly. I just don’t know. I would check with an expert on that type of fish.
.-= Beth Terry´s last blog ..Baking Soda: So Many Uses; So Little Money… and Plastic =-.

6 years 6 months ago
Hi, Well this was the only site that came up when I googled the dangers of plastic fish tanks and my reason for wondering is that I have beta fish and I was given by my friend who also had beta fish a couple of plastic tanks. Her beta fish died she had two she got hers after I purchased my first one and we went and I got two more and bought two. Mine have always been in glass bowls or a glass tank hers were in plastic tanks Hers are dead in maybe 6 months and all of… Read more »
Todd Histand
6 years 6 months ago

Hey Beth
I’m trying to find somene interested in letting me interview them about the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals in plastic that leach into our food but am not having much luck. i’m writing my main english paper this semester on the dangers of plastic and would love to either interview you or get steered in the right direction.

3 years 2 months ago
here’s some background:’   the polymers you need to focus on are polycarbonate PC and polyvinyl chloride or PVC.   PC uses BPA as a catalyst which is used up in the reaction    PVC has some nasty stuff in it and outgasses as it degrades into dioxin   there are plenty of other polymers which are not in the same category PE, PP, to name a few   but we do such a lousy job getting the truth out that people oversimplify   PVC replacement is a high development priority and it may be a fools errand.… Read more »
6 years 9 months ago

The ones that make plastic are the ones that should be stopped from making plastic period. Then why aren't they stopped? It's all polictics. It's the same thing with the car manufacturers…yes it is….they have the cars that run on electricity why are there so many cars that run on gasoline then? Because they are bought some way or another. If they sell the elctric cars then the gas mogles won't get filthy rich right? It's all money and convenience their convenience..It's a shame but it's the truth.

Azura Skye
6 years 9 months ago

This is a wonderfully written post. Very well explained.
Thank you for writing so concisely so I don't have to read a huge massive article to understand plastic production : )
I'm inspired to write up this process on my blog too, so thank you too for linking the sources.

Take care,
Azura Skye.

7 years 10 months ago

I love your website, Beth.
FYI, I have been recycling ALL plastic bags at the supermarket. This includes dry cleaner bags, department store bags, clean zip locks, etc. Just make sure they don’t smell of food. I asked my local store first. Make sure it is not opaque black plastic or celophane. (Plastic stretches; celophane rips.)
P.S. I’d like to hear more from Raskil.

Laura Prater
8 years 2 months ago

I’m so glad that you’ve made all of this information avaialble. I have been trying to get my family to understand how dangerous plastic can be. I recently purchased canvas bags in various sizes (small for produce, larger for other items, etc.). It was fun and I can’t wait to create more to give as gifts. People get together to scrapbook all the time…why not get together for a canvas bag-making night!

8 years 5 months ago
My compliments on being ahead of the curve. A friend of mine just forwarded me your blog and it is QUITE interesting that most people did not know the relationship between most plastics and oil. Your entire website is incredible though with some links I have not seen yet. I have been researching the problem of nurdles from the environmental policy perspective and am actually working on an international clearinghouse (because I have the longest list of citations of anyone I know… and I asked around). I’m familiar with AMRF’s work and actually visited their cute office in Long Beach!… Read more »
terrible person
8 years 9 months ago

Here is a scary, scary article about BPA leaching out of drinking bottles …

I’ve got to get one of those KleanKanteens for work. Sorry, Nalgene.

8 years 9 months ago

great article! (I found this via BlogHer)another problem with plastics is how they pollute our ocean beaches…I have started trying to eliminate plastic bags from my life (one small step) and have been making repurposed cloth shopping bags for an alternative to plastic grocery bags, You can see them on my blog.

just ducky
8 years 9 months ago
These kinds of facts always alarm me…as they rightly should…and then I get introspective and start thinking (which is always dangerous)…could the increase in psychiatric illnesses (both my kids have bipolar disorder), autism spectrum disorders, as well as other physical illnesses (fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, cancers, etc.) at all be tied—even a little bit—to the photodegrading and therefore food/water pollution of/by plastics? I could be completely crazy for going out on this limb, but plastics were invented 100 or so years ago, but didn’t really “explode” into daily use until the last 50-60 years…put them in a landfill 50 years ago…they… Read more »
Beth in the Fake Plastic Fish Tank
8 years 9 months ago

Yep, Sunny, I think that’s the best way. Provide them with information without nagging and then sit back and watch the changes happen. I’ve seen this tactic work at my job somewhat. And also backfire when I get too strident. More on that in a future post.

8 years 9 months ago

I appreciate your sentiment too. I sent the article Polymers are Forever to my husband earlier this week – didn’t say anything about it, just sent the link. I tend to be the more environmentally concerned. He wrote me back that it scared the bleep out of him. I think I’ll have a little better participation in the recycling department! Maybe his wife isn’t so crazy after all.

8 years 9 months ago


This is so sad. I was ignorant for years of the true hideous nature of plastic and now I see that the problem is even worse than I had imagined. Thanks for the great info. I am going to put a link on my blog to this post.