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 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) Preproduction Plastic Pollution
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 2001 Japanese study and 2013 San Diego 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) Toxic Plastic Additives
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) Post Consumer Plastic Pollution
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 jellyfish to creatures, like leatherback turtles, who feast on them. The plastic blocks the turtle’s digestive tract and leads to starvation. (Read more.)
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!
The real enemies in the plastics fight, especially ocean related are those who dispose of it at sea and those who dump land based garbage into the see. If we could start to stop these abuses, we could make a significant change. This can be done if there is enough support for change!!
I’m slowly giving up plastic.
I should state that I studied materials science. It’s not so much that it’s a ‘bad’ material. It’s how it is used that is wrong. It has a lot of beneficial properties, like electrical resistance for example. Having said that, I prefer to buy wood-based products now. In actual fact, knowing where that comes from, I prefer to be a minimalist. That is truly the best way.
By using wood you are just letting more trees be cut.
You’re right. That’s why I advocate buying things secondhand and avoiding all types of disposable packaging and products when possible. I think that’s what Dr. Brown meant by “minimalist.”
Very well done. I have passed it on.
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.
Yes to ell phone and computer. Bought second hand… One of the strategies for avoiding new plastic. As for bagged salad, no. I don’t buy any food packaged in plastic. I buy my salad loose in my own cotton bag. Explore this site, and you’ll find many more ideas for reducing plastic in this world. No one’s holier than anyone here. Not even you. ?
Ever took time to read about food waste, co2 in food production vs. food packaging?
Obkdude…creativity is what it’s about. Will you be the genius to replace plastic with something biodegradable. The way you’re thinkin’ is pointed toward no progress. Cover you careless mouth.
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.
Posted using a computer made with… plastic. And lead. And mercury.
Yes, but at least it’s a secondhand computer.
so is oil that is used to make plastics bottles renewable or not
No. Nor the natural gas.
You can make PET or PE also biobased. Ethene monomer does not care if it’s from from tree or ground 😊
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.
Eating locally means I don’t need a lot of my foods to be stored and shipped in plastic. Shopping at the farmers market, buying from bulk bins… there are so many ways to avoid plastic food packaging. We may not be able to avoid all of it (many bulk foods, for example, come packaged in large plastic bags), but we can certainly minimize by avoiding single serving sizes.
Thanks for explaining the plastic problem so clearly. Terry, you are a constant inspiration!
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.
And yet, we must all do what we can. Living a conscious life may not solve all of our environmental problems, but doing nothing certainly won’t.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
I am also wondering that.
Beth Terry 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 countries is actually less of an issue, as they do not consume nearly as much as those in developed nations, and therefore do not tax the planet or its resources to the same degree.
I am not putting this forth as the ultimate solution; merely as one solution that has merit, and fits the bill as being neither draconian nor involving genocide.
I haven’t had any. Do cats count? :-)
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.
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”.
It’s a goal towards which I strive every day.
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 streams:
naphtha, which is low-octane and can’t be used in internal combustion engines, 70% of which is used for plastics
propylene – a byproduct of fluid catalytic cracking, which can’t be sold in propane tanks,
benzene – which has to be deliberately removed from the gasoline supply to meet mobile air source toxics (MSAT) regulations.
Bottom line: petroleum demand is in no way related to our demand for plastics.
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.
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 to achieve your aims, knowing that not everyone will understand. Sometimes the hardest, most frustrating, most inconveniencing thing about trying to make positive changes to your lifestyle is the negative attitudes of people who don’t know, understand or care about your values or motivations; it’s easier to criticise your choices than to “keep their own doorstep clean”.
Well, here’s one person who understands the logic of “if it doesn’t need to be manufactured, don’t cause it to be / if it already has been manufactured, don’t let it go to waste”!
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?)
Hi. Welcome to this site. Please check out #93 and #94 in my Plastic-Free Guide https://myplasticfreelife.com/plasticfreeguide/ to understand how it is I can use computers and other plastic items. This project is about not acquiring new plastic, rather than refusing to touch any plastic at all.
what does oil have to do about producing “PLASTIC”?
@MARYAN Plastic can be made from oil, natural gas or plants.
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 we use more and more technology to make up for the gaps in resources and food supply we just put of the inevitable and dig ourselves a deeper hole.
Carrying capacity is used in range management, recreation facility design and wildlife management. It works rather well and a huge effort to establish and refine the methods used to gain the validity of the principle has been made. We are smart enough to do that but stupid enough to be arrogant in our thinking that this principle doesn’t apply to us.
There are means to accomplish stabilization and slow reduction of the world’s population. They aren’t draconian and don’t involve genocide and all those other methods conservatives call it. But, to avoid the necessity of them when we have finally painted ourselves into a corner, we need to make huge strides immediately. A hot potato politically as people turn on all of their emotions to evaluate the problem instead of using the other 20% of our brain responsible for rational thinking. I’m pessimistic as I don’t think our current political systems can even come close to addressing the problem.
There isn’t any room under the carpet to keep sweeping this under the rug.
Hi. I actually did write a post a while back about population. It would be a great place for this comment and for continuing this discussion: https://myplasticfreelife.com/2011/03/im-an-environmentalist-and-im-not-having-kids/ I would like to hear the ideas you have for controlling population that are not “draconian and don’t involve genocide,” as you put it.
You have swerved into the solution. Even a plastic-free life is not even a half measure. Protesting fracking, vilifying all corporations, recycling – they don’t come close to what needs to be done: The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voluntary_Human_Extinction_Movement is the answer
I don’t want to see humans become extinct. I want them to evolve. We have these amazing brains and have learned so much scientifically and technologically. I’d hate to see all of that wasted. It might be naive, but in my perfect world, there would be fewer humans living peacefully and inventing all kinds of amazing things in as ecologically sound a way as possible.
@joel longstreth @Beth Terry @retiredranger “Voluntary Extinction”? Tell me you’re not serious! Do you really think people are going to give up on their most primal urge – procreating?
If you go to the following link
(hope it works!), you’ll see that the developed countries of the world have birthrates of 2 or less children per mother i.e. their populations are stable or declining. The countries with growing populations are those in the less developed regions of the world. Are you going to be the one who goes to Niger and tell them to stop having children? I think you’ll find they’ll laugh at you and then give you a good kick up the backside for being such an arrogant little person who thinks he can tell someone living in a shanty town what to do, whilst he sits in the air-conditioned living room of his lovely house in the West.
@awilkins @joel longstreth @Beth Terry @retiredranger
I now know, by just reading your post that you are completely correct, Better we should stay at home, ignore high infant mortality rates, not send our doctors and nurses to provide for and educate people on health care, not educate women about birth control and not empower women by means of education. Oh, and I forgot, we should end the Peace Corps program, one I have experience with, as its never been effective anywhere at any time. This no matter that eventually people adapt to what works and thank you profusely for living in their country just to help them. No matter that the effort is not to give a man a fish but to teach them how to build their own fishing pole. No, it would be far better if we stayed at home and continued to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
You’ve lumped me in with some others whose comments I don’t agree with. But wait, I think your stereotyping is dead on. Wow, I’ve been living and working me entire life, living in radically different cultures than the one I grew up in and know I realize that all of it was a myth. Thanks, I’m 62 now and there is still time to make a 180 turn here. First I think the off white chairs and the large chairs should be kept in the rear and will someone please tell the band to stop playing?
@retiredranger @joel longstreth @Beth Terry The Peace Corps?! Is that the organisation that assuages Liberal Guilt by sending naive youngsters to the developing world so that they can risk their lives and achieve very little?
Rather than family planning, the highest priority for the developing world is energy. That means efficient power stations and the infrastructure needed to distribute that power. That doesn’t mean useless and inefficient wind turbines or solar panels, instead it means fossil-fuel powered generators. A country’s birthrate declines as it’s population becomes wealthier and standards of living increase, through the supply of cheap power (specifically electricity). Waving condoms at poor Africans is not going to drag them out of poverty.
The reason my country (UK) managed to improve its standard of living was through the industrial revolution of the 19th Century. How was that achieved? By a steady supply of large amounts of reliable energy (Victorians would have no time for wind turbines powered by unicorn farts and uneconomic subsidies).
Why have you told me your 62? Is that because you believe in some sort of superiority through seniority? I imagine it’s more likely that you look back on a life of naive ideals and realise you’ve actually achieved very little, hence your “still time to make a 180 turn” statement.
Me? I feel I’ve achieved a lot and I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m a mathematics teacher who has spent most of my career telling kids to think for themselves. In the last few years that has meant telling kids to really research the dodgy science behind the global warming scam – we look at the numbers and analyse the graphs and my students are shocked to see that throughout their whole lifetime the globally averaged temperature has not risen at all. We also analyse the numbers on ‘alternative energy’ technology and they get to see that the technology being foisted upon them by your generation is both hugely expensive and next to useless.
“First I think the off white chairs and the large chairs should be kept in the rear and will someone please tell the band to stop playing? Sorry squire, I haven’t a clue what your trying to say with that daft statement. Is it supposed to be some sort of witty literary reference?
@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
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.
Hi Joel. This is a very old post that I need to update to include the information about natural gas, so thanks for bringing that up. I will get the information about companies making plastic from petroleum and post that in a separate comment. But my first thought on a Monday morning is that plastic is made from fossil sources — primarily oil and natural gas — that both have terrible environmental impacts. Fracking isn’t any better than oil drilling, and both contribute to global climate change as we’re releasing ancient carbon from the earth. Nothing green about natural gas.
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 same should go for plastic reduction. Ideally elimination but lets start off realistic, which is something else I admire about you. I agree we don’t have to take an all or nothing stance in order to make an impact. But at the same time it’s important not to get complacent and always strive for more once we’re comfortable with changes we make in our life.
Thanks for everything and you’ll be hearing more from me soon!
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 all will ever do that until it’s up around our necks and we are all dying from polluted drinking water, the air we breathe, etc. Actually, we’re almost there now! One thing on a personal note, I have found that one of the best ways to start cutting my use of plastic is that I made the decision to never get rid of the plastic that comes into our house. I’ll tell you, that really makes you stop and think before you buy thoseitemsin plastic. So I made a list of all the products we use at our house and what type of container it comes in, and found that the majority of the basics all come in natural stuff, cardboard, paper, etc. The other things though in plastic are necessary items so I am still searching for alternatives. What can we all do to work together to get companies to see the light and go back to glass, and other natural containers? I’ve written companies but so far I feel like I am alone in the woods. If we had a group concerted effort aimed at certain companies then maybe our mass would get them to listen up. Does anyone have any thoughts on that approach? Thank you.
You are an inspiration!
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.
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.
Brier-Rose. . . . you have no clue. . . .
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. http://youtu.be/57_KdKrJKeM
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 a simple thing to make, nor does it go away when we toss it in the trash! I really appreciate how you spell it all out here!
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 the gas that escapes from the top is almost 100 percent water vapor. Next time you run out of hot water for your morning shower or for washing your dishes, or the next time you experience a rolling blackout, consider that if you had one of these power plants in your area you wouldn’t be dealing with that. Also, consider your foolishness in demoting the use of products that would enable you to have such a power plant.
My dad used to design such power plants. Now because of putzes such as yourself, who insist upon compost their pizza boxes and engaging in all sorts of other low-intellect, “green” practices, my dad’s company has pursued such fashionable methods of energy, which are not always going to be as reliable as they would like to believe.
All of you who think that this “green” trend is such a great and lasting idea, are merely “green” as to wisdom.
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 needed to convince private industry that greener practices lower expenses and increase profits.
Europe has it correct. They charge the manufacturers for the impact their packaging will cost in the entire waste stream. They reduce the size and type of packaging so they aren’t charged as much and then turn that into a lower priced product that out competes those who were doing “business as usual.”
In the U.S. we have huge plastic containers for everything. They make a profit and pass the problem on to the consumer. Eventually it ends up in the government’s lap and we all pay through taxes to increase the profits of the manufacturers. No wonder we are finding it difficult to keep governments afloat. This to increase the profits for large corporations.
I realize that all of this is not as straightforward as this limited space allows me to explain. Packaging is getting larger and the number of non-serviceable products has been increasing. Example, I can’t replace parts or the battery in my Dustbuster vacuum. The battery life has expired and I can’t replace it. A waste of oil, steel and the chemicals use to make the battery. I will, like I do everything else, break the thing apart and sort plastic from metal and recycle the batteries correctly. I use an electric toothbrush to improve my dental health, but it is put together just like the vacuum. I have to take the time and the State of California has to subsidize my small county in order for the recyclable materials to reach the facilities that can reuse the material. Now we used energy to bring the items into our local stores and use energy to recycle it.
This can only be changed when a movement starts to raise the conscience of the public, who then start making consumer choices differently. It is only then that manufacturers have to change. The movement is called “green.”
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 old and a Toyota Land Cruiser that I drive less that 800 miles per year. For the most part his was not possible for cars before about 1970-1980. Quality has increased as has durability and efficiency. Plastics play a large part in that. We have to make darn sure that all plastic is recycled!
Question: is that 10% of the oil supply that plastic is made from useful for any other purpose?
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!
Plastic is a mixed bag. Yes, it allows us to make vehicles that are more fuel-efficient. But on the other hand, many of the plastics used in cars off-gas harmful chemicals that we breathe. Building walkable, bikeable communities is a better long-term solution. If we can reduce the amount we need to drive, we reduce the amount of plastic and other materials and energy needed to make so many cars in the first place. And then, yes, we need to service and repair the cars we already have to make them last as long as possible.
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 is not subject to stringent requirements. We are shipping water, that usually comes out of a tap anyway and using huge amounts of oil to produce the bottles and ship them to stores for the consumer to purchase. After they are used 95% of them end up in a landfill.
I also object to excessive packaging. I can’t see the reason for it. The loss prevention folks might disagree with me, but we are subjecting ourselves to huge costs of creating, managing and maintaining the liability of its existence for many decades. I object to low cost appliances, and even some higher cost appliances that can’t be taken apart for repairs.
We need to catch up and make widespread and fundamental changes in our waste stream. It has started but much more needs to be done. The cities that have done the best need to be supported nationwide and haven’t gotten as far as we need to get. We need fundamental changes in energy use. The marketplace decisions are not moving us as far and as fast as we need to do. We can’t have trucks delivering bottled water with distances of more than a thousand miles from source to use, returning to the source empty (deadheading). We have trucks deadheading and wasting energy. Plastics, population, and energy, et. al., need to be addressed.
As far as technology solving increasing population, remember that technology has been responsible for many improvement in our lives, but has also allowed us to make the crisis worse. There are limited resources on the earth, there are huge ecosystems that sustain us and we can’t build them. We’ve already lost the North Atlantic cod fishery and tuna is expected to be extinct in years. It has already gone from some large fisheries.
As for getting two crops due to global warming, the effect of drought will likely negate that. The Ogallala aquifer is already been drown down to the point that acreage in the grain belt is no longer suitable for crops. We have to accept our limits or we are going to have them given to us. The disaster that would result would be far worse than the plagues that have occurred in the past. Check out the book “The Coming Plague” to understand what increased population density is playing a role in the author’s conclusions.
The writings I read are all from credible scientists, of course remembering that a scientist without credibility is an oxymoron.
Most of us bury our head in the sand when it comes to plastic.
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.
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.
did you not see my post and my video ? you people really don’t want to be confused with the facts
I left you a comment on your video about plastic being short for “thermoplastic.” “Plastic” is commonly used to refer to all synthetic polymers, including thermosets like Bakelite. I bring this up because there was recently a company arguing that their product was plastic-free because it was made from a thermoset rather than a thermoplastic. Those distinctions are pretty meaningless to the average consumer.
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 will really have to go to stop the petroleum craze that has been part of our societies for so long? So much of what we have is made of plastics in one way or another…even the computers we use to communicate with. I don’t expect people to understand everything from the first decisions humans have made. Life is a learning process. Yes, certainly, we need to make changes where we are able. It is ironic that it was not that long ago that plastic was being praised for it’s use in life-saving mechanisms for people in hospitals. Truly ironic. Maybe the best thing we can all do is stop buying any items made of plastic? But how far does that go?
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?
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.
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.
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 mine are still thriving. This makes me think that maybe I shouldn’t use the plastic tanks I was going to put one in and wait a few months and see what happens but I don’t have the heart to use one as a guinea pig I realize they are just fish but for some reason it just seems wrong. So if you have any input for me I’d appreciate it.
Thanks and have a great day
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.
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.
because nobody really cares
PVC is everywhere
commercial wallcoverings, 3 ring binders, billboards
next time you see the yellow caution tape at a construction site, remember it probably contains 1% lead which is leaching injto skin
nobody cares because the made in china is 60% less than heavy metal free made in the US
Hi Joel. It’s true that we need to focus on PVC and PC, some of the worst plastics. But the problem is that ALL plastics contain additives, and manufacturers don’t reveal their proprietary recipes. If you guys would let us know what’s in all the plastic products you sell, we could make informed decisions about our exposure.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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! I presented my research in three different academic conferences and received positive feedback with high interest level.
Have you seen the NOAA’s new Marine Debris 101 website? It’s industry-funded but a nice job nevertheless even though it is VERY incomplete.
Let’s talk. What’s your email address?
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.
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.
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 photodegraded…we consumed them for how many years now…onslaught of physical/mental illness….? I am NOT a scientist. I am NOT a doctor. I am just a woman letting her mind wander and proposing an idea…
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.
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.
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.