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!