Science

How the Process of Making Plastic is as Harmful as Plastic Waste

The surprising effects it has on our health and environment

Nowadays we constantly hear about how bad plastic is for the environment and the ways we can reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills and our oceans. You've probably seen photos of plastic trash on beaches or plastic hurting wildlife, but waste isn't the only problem with plastic. The materials for plastic have to be drilled out of the ground, cleaned and processed, and melted into different products, all of which have their own harmful environmental and health effects (hello climate change!). That's why we took a deep-dive into the plastic-making process to help you better understand it's negative impacts on us and the planet. Keep reading if you want to be extra motivated to limit plastics in your life!


What is Plastic?

Plastic is a group of materials that are made out of organic and synthetic materials and are classified as polymers, a group of different combined atoms (2). Think of it like making a chain of paper clips to make a necklace or a paper clip garland! In order to make these polymers, raw materials are used such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt, and most commonly crude oil (3). And the reason plastic is so highly used is because it has the ability to be molded or shaped into virtually any form when heat or pressure is added, which is where the word plasticity comes from. Some other properties of plastic are low electrical conductivity, transparency, and toughness (4). And if plastic alone is not good enough for a specific product or purpose, the properties can be modified with different fillers, colors, foaming agents, and other modifiers creating really unique plastic products (3). Common additives are flame retardants which reduce flammability, phthalates which make plastic more pliable, and heavy metals, like lead and cadmium, which are stabilizers and add pigments. All of these additives have some level of health concern and when added to plastics increases the products toxicity (5). Other chemicals, like BPA, are used to manufacture certain types of plastics and the residual amounts of these chemicals later leach from the plastics during use. These additives and other chemicals are a big reason why there is such a push for individuals to reduce their plastic use because it could be directly affecting their health (5).

The Life-cycle of Plastic

A better understanding of how plastic is actually made is key to understanding why it's so problematic. Each step in the plastic making process has its own environmental and health impacts.

1. Extraction and Transportation

The first step to creating plastic is to extract the raw materials, which are most commonly crude oil and natural gas. Crude oil is found deep in underground reservoirs where large drills are used to extract it and this extraction can be done on land or at offshore drilling sites (6). Natural gas is also found in underground deposits, however, the extraction process is slightly different and uses a process called hydraulic fracturing. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is when high pressure streams of water, chemicals, and sand are shot through rock breaking it open and releasing pockets of natural gas that are then captured (12). Once the oil and natural gas is extracted it needs to be transported to facilities where it can be further refined and processed into different materials. For the transportation, pipelines, ships, and trucks are used which all have high risks for leaks and spills that could cause further environmental damage and health concerns. And often the drilling sites and the refining facilities are in different countries which increases the amount of travel and therefore the emissions produced during transportation (7).

In this phase of making plastic there are a lot of potential health issues including cancer, liver damage, autoimmune disorders, allergies, respiratory issues, and reproductive and developmental issues (8,9,14). These issues come from the emissions of the machinery used to extract and transport the raw materials as well as the chemicals used to extract the oil and natural gas. Chemicals like benzene, other dangerous VOC's, and another 170+ toxic chemicals used in fracking can be emitted into the air or local waterways making risk of exposure extremely high (14). And along with health issues, there are a myriad of environmental issues including water contamination, poor air quality, oil spills, micro earthquakes, habitat destruction, and massive amounts of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere (8,9,12,14). Some estimates show that 9.5-10.5 megatons of carbon dioxide per year is emitted due to the extraction and transportation of natural gas in the US for plastic production (7). That is a lot of carbon dioxide and subsequent climate change impacts for just one phase of plastics life-cycle!

2. Refining

After the crude oil and natural gas is transported to a refining facility, they need to be processed and rid of impurities like sand, sulfur, and other materials that might have been released during extraction (6). For crude oil this is done by heating the oil to a high temperature and then sending it to a distillation tower. In this tower the heavy oil is separated into lighter components called fractions (10). Some of these fractions include gasoline, kerosene, gas oil, heavy gas oil, and naphtha which is a crucial component to making large amounts of plastic (7). For natural gas a similar process is done, however, instead of immediately going into a distillation tower the gas is cooled in a Natural Gas Liquid Separator where products like ethane, propane, NGL, and natural gasoline are separated out (7,13). Next the naphtha and the natural gas products are further broken down into lighter components so they are easier to use. This method is called "cracking" and it can be done by using high heat and pressure which is known as steam cracking or by using catalysts to change the composition of the material known as catalyst cracking (10,11). The cracking process yields lighter monomers that are the building blocks of plastic and the most common ones are ethylene, propylene, butylene, benzene, toluene, and xylene (10).

To be able to transform the raw materials into the building blocks of plastic takes a tremendous amount of energy that most often comes from the burning of fossil fuels. At this point in the plastics life cycle, steam cracking accounts for most of the emissions made because it requires so much energy to heat up the materials as well as put them under extreme pressure. Along with the emissions from the amount of fossil fuels burned for energy, there are a lot of other carcinogens and highly toxic substances released into the air during refining and manufacturing. Workers in these plants, and people living in local and downstream communities are at higher risk of negative health impacts. Some of the documented effects of being exposed to such chemicals are impairment of the nervous system, reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, leukemia, and genetic impacts like low birth weight (7,14). The majority of US ethane cracker plants are located near communities that are low-income and communities of color, further contributing to environmental injustice.

3. Production and Consumer Use

Once the monomers are created from the refining and distillation process, they need to be converted into polymers. This process is known as polymerization and it is where the monomers are chemically linked together, which then creates a thick substance called resin. If we took the gaseous monomer ethylene and subjected it to heat, pressure, and a certain catalyst the monomers would join together creating the resin polyethylene, the most common form of plastic (10). Once the polymers are created they are sent through an extruder to create long tubes where they are then cut into small plastic pellets for easy transport to production facilities. These facilities will melt the pellets and mix in additives of their choice to create the desired product for consumer use (10).

During consumer use is when most of us are likely to come into contact with a lot of the additives put in plastic like BPA, phthalates, and flame retardants and so many more that can increase our risk for health issues. We can be exposed through skin to skin contact, ingestion of substances stored in plastic, or even by accidentally consuming plastic, and by breathing in fumes that might come from plastic products or the burning of plastic. Being exposed to these toxic chemicals is associated with renal, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems problems, as well as cancers, diabetes, and developmental toxicity (5,14).

4. Waste

Many studies have shown that the impact of plastic doesn't stop after it has been thrown away. Once thrown away, a piece of plastic can travel through many different paths. One path is recycling which involves collection, transportation, processing, and remanufacturing, which often costs much more than just using virgin materials. Because it is so inefficient and costly to recycle materials, only 9% of all plastic made since 1950 has actually been recycled. Other pathways include incineration which accounts for 12% of the total plastic waste, and then the rest of the plastic has been buried, littered on land, illegally burned, or dumped into the ocean (7).

One of the biggest issues with plastic waste is microplastics. On average about 8 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean each year and eventually it breaks down into microplastics which makes it very difficult to remove (1). Marine species are heavily impacted by microplastics because often they mistake the small piece of plastic for food and while the plastic sits in their body it leaches out chemicals harming their bodily functions. And along with marine animals, humans are also heavily affected by microplastics. Not only do we eat some marine animals that are contaminated but microplastics have been found in sediment, soil, and air. Microplastics have even made their way into our food and drinks, such as beer, tap water, and sea salt (5,15). Although research is still ongoing, some potential health effects that may be linked to concentrations of ingested microplastics are metabolic disruption, immune dysfunction, neurodegenerative diseases, and chronic inflammation, which can lead to cancer (16-18).

With all the benefits of plastic, there comes a dozen issues that need to be addressed. Plastic production isn't going to stop overnight but there are ways we can reduce our exposure and try to slow down plastic production in the future!

How to Limit Plastics in Your Life

By far the type of plastic that contributes the most to the waste-stream is packaging! Plastic packaging accounts for 40% of all plastic being produced and is highly problematic. Most plastic packaging is made for a single use and because of its thin and flexible nature it is extremely difficult to recycle. Because of this 40% of packaging is directly put in a landfill while 14% is incinerated, 14% is collected for recycling (however, only 2% actually gets recycled), and finally 32% follows other pathways like open dumping, open burning, or littered on land or in bodies of water (7). If there is anywhere in your life that you should try and cut down on plastic, it's here! Check out a few ways you can use less single use plastic!

  1. Try not to buy foods or other products that are individually wrapped within a larger piece of packaging. An example of this would be small pieces of candy that are individually wrapped within a larger plastic bag or snack packages of crackers or cookies that come in a larger plastic bag.
  2. If you can buy things in bulk bins that are usually wrapped in plastic, opt for the bulk option. Usually you will save money and not have to throw away a piece of plastic!
  3. If available, buy the option packaged in cardboard or glass, instead of plastic.
  4. Clean and reuse old food jars or invest in glass food storage so you don't have to buy plastic tupperware, which is less durable. Your food is less likely to come into contact with any harmful plastic chemical additives this way.
  5. Look for biodegradable or compostable packaging. Many companies are using more sustainable packaging. This is a great way to support companies who are making good choices for the environment.
  6. Look for retailers who provide reusable options or bring your own. Plastic bags, disposable utensils, water bottles, take out containers, coffee cups, and more are all great places to start.

Plastic is a highly damaging and toxic material at every stage of its life. Not only is it being littered and thrown into our oceans, but it's adding harmful chemicals and tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere everyday. If we want to protect our health and the longevity of our environment we need to reduce the amount of plastic being used and ultimately how much of it is being produced. If you can do your part to slow down the damages made from plastic we urge you to start now!



References

  1. https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution?utm_source=newsletter#plastic-waste-per-person
  2. https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/How-Plastics-Are-Made/
  3. https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics
  4. https://www.britannica.com/science/plastic
  5. Toxic Additives in Plastics: Hidden Hazards Linked to Common Plastic Products | | SCP/RAC - Regional Activity Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production. (n.d.). Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.cprac.org/en/news-archive/general/toxic-additives-in-plastics-hidden-hazards-linked-to-common-plastic-products
  6. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/petroleum/
  7. https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-FINAL-2019.pdf
  8. Cordes, E. E., Jones, D. O. B., Schlacher, T. A., Amon, D. J., Bernardino, A. F., Brooke, S., Carney, R., DeLeo, D. M., Dunlop, K. M., Escobar-Briones, E. G., Gates, A. R., Génio, L., Gobin, J., Henry, L.-A., Herrera, S., Hoyt, S., Joye, M., Kark, S., Mestre, N. C., … Witte, U. (2016). Environmental Impacts of the Deep-Water Oil and Gas Industry: A Review to Guide Management Strategies. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2016.00058
  9. Johnston, J. E., Lim, E., & Roh, H. (2019). Impact of upstream oil extraction and environmental public health: A review of the evidence. The Science of the Total Environment, 657, 187–199. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.11.483
  10. https://www.bpf.co.uk/plastipedia/how-is-plastic-made.aspx
  11. https://www.britannica.com/technology/cracking-chemical-process
  12. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/natural-gas/
  13. http://naturalgas.org/naturalgas/processing-ng/
  14. https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Plastic-and-Health-The-Hidden-Costs-of-a-Plastic-Planet-EXECUTIVE-SUMMARY-February-2019.pdf
  15. Campanale, C., Massarelli, C., Savino, I., Locaputo, V., & Uricchio, V. F. (2020). A Detailed Review Study on Potential Effects of Microplastics and Additives of Concern on Human Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(4). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041212
  16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0048969719344468
  17. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0043135417310515
  18. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749117307686
Roundups

Non-Toxic Bathroom Cleaners

products you can buy to make your bathroom squeaky clean without dangerous fumes

Nobody likes doing it, but it's got to be done! Cleaning the bathroom doesn't have to be gross or involve lots of chemicals with dangerous fumes that leave your eyes teary and your head hurting. You can use an all purpose cleaner on most surfaces in the bathroom, but sometimes you need a little extra oomph to get rid of hard water stains and mold or mildew. Every now and then we also find ourselves needing to clear the drains too! We checked out all the lists and figured out which bathroom cleaning products are the safest and effective.

In addition to these products, we also love using a simple non-toxic all purpose cleaner and have lots of DIY cleaner recipes for getting your bathroom squeaky clean.

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Healthy eating should be about more than just healthy ingredients! While there are many different specific diets, most definitions of healthy eating involve choosing fresh, nutrient-dense whole foods that provide maximal nutritional benefits. Refined grains, sugar, vegetable oils, and other unhealthy ingredients are left off the plate. But if healthy ingredients become contaminated with harmful chemicals, are they really healthy? It is time for healthy eating to incorporate more than just ingredients. Healthy eating should also include how the food is packaged and what materials the food comes into contact with while it is being processed, cooked, and stored.
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Roundups

The Best Non-Toxic Dish Soaps

Healthy, safe, and effective grease-cutting dish soap power

Updated for 2021!

Get your dishes clean without worrying about the chemicals in your dish soap. We rounded up the top 6 dish soaps without toxic chemicals or preservatives that are well-reviewed and easily available. You're welcome! We've had some questions about whether parents need a separate soap specifically for bottles and dishes. With these 6 picks, you can be rest assured that they will work well on your dinner plates but are also safe enough for baby bottles and toddler dishes. Also, for all the dishes you choose not to hand wash, take a peek at our dishwasher detergent roundup.

a) Attitude Dishwashing Liquid

b) Aunt Fannie's Microcosmic Probiotic Power Dish Soap

c) Better Life Dish Soap

d) ECOS Dishmate Dish Liquid

e) Common Good dish soap

f) Cleancult liquid dish soap

g) Trader Joe's Dish Soap Lavender Tea Tree


We rely on EWG's consumer databases, the Think Dirty App, and GoodGuide in addition to consumer reviews and widespread availability of products to generate these recommendations. Learn more on our methodology page.

*Because Health is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program so that when you click through our Amazon links, a percentage of the proceeds from your purchases will go to Because Health. We encourage you to shop locally, but if you do buy online buying through our links will help us continue the critical environmental health education work we do. Our participation does not influence our product recommendations. To read more about how we recommend products, go to our methodology page.

Roundups

Eco-Friendly and Reusable Gift Wrapping Ideas

Spread holiday cheer without creating waste!

Since this is a safe space we can admit that one of the best parts about the holidays is the presents, right? But the amount of wrapping paper we go through every year is just insane... and most of it isn't even recyclable! Unless "recyclable" is specifically mentioned on the label, you'll have to throw used wrapping paper into the trash. And sometimes, we could do without that mountain of used wrapping paper after presents have been opened, even if it is the recyclable kind.
That's why we wanted to find the best wrapping options that could actually be recycled or reused year to year! Check out these great alternatives to tranditonal wrapping paper!


a) 2 Pieces Christmas Canvas Tote Bags Buffalo Plaid Check Shopping Bags

b) joywrap

c) Hallmark Recyclable Kraft Wrapping Paper

d) Eco-Friendly Reversible Wrapping Paper

e) Hallmark Reusable Fabric Gift Wrap

f) Hallmark Black and Red Drawstring Gift Bag Set


g) Furoshiki Reusable Gift Wrapping Cloth


h) Organic Cotton Reusable Gift Wrap (Set of 3)

i) Brown Kraft Paper Jumbo Roll

Looking for non-toxic, sustainable, and fun gifts for your home chef? We created a gift guide this year for those people on your list who love cooking and hosting. Whether it's elaborate dinner parties or weeknight meals, these gifts are sure to bring some joys in the new year. We looked for gifts that avoided waste (like a stovetop popcorn maker), or that avoided harmful chemicals (like a cast iron skillet), or that could bring a little fun into the kitchen (like these fabulous cloth napkins).

This year, we have highlighted many products by many Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) owned/founded brands. Buying from these brands is a great way to support economic opportunities in BIPOC communities and celebrates diversity in the sustainability space. Additionally, since climate change is an urgent issue with so many health impacts, we are also highlighting brands that are Climate Neutral certified. That means that the brand has committed to measure, offset, and reduce the carbon they emit. We believe that consumers and companies must work together to embrace and make true commitments to diversity and sustainability. Look no further for the ultimate gift guide!

$: Under $50

Handheld milk frother

This stainless steel milk frother is the perfect way to warm up your milk (or milk alternative) without having to sacrifice counter space! Whether you're drinking coffee or matcha, this it the perfect tool to take things up a notch.

Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes (BIPOC brand)

Want to eat less meat, but don't know how to make vegetable dishes stand out? Step up your cooking game with delicious recipes from this unique cookbook from Bryant Terry. Bryant is renowned for his activism and efforts to create a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system, so this cookbook is right up our alley.

Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution (BIPOC brand)

Looking to up your whole grain intake? Expand your baking skills with Mother Grains: Recipes for the Grain Revolution. You'll be amazed how a simple cookie can change texture and flavor based on the flours you use. Learn about the world of ancient grains like buckwheat, sorghum, rye, barley, and heirloom wheat and bake some delicious treats.

GreenLife Bakeware Healthy Ceramic Nonstick, Muffin Pan

This ceramic baking pan by GreenLife is non-stick without harmful chemicals and comes in a bunch of cute colors. Weekend muffins are calling you!

Great Northern Popcorn Original Stainless Steel Stove Top Popcorn Popper

Microwave popcorn is expensive and the bags are coated in Teflon like chemicals, but it's so convenient. Enter this amazing popcorn maker. You'll never look at microwaved popcorn the same way after you use this Great Northern stovetop popcorn popper! It's stainless steel body perfectly cooks kernels to tasty perfection.

Heath Ceramics large coffee mug

Elevate your morning coffee with this beautifully crafted mug from Heath Ceramics. It comes in many lead-free glazes and is as sturdy as it is beautiful.

$ $: Between $50-100

Hamilton Beach Belgian Waffle Maker

Sunday brunch just got so much better with this waffle maker by Hamilton Beach. Most waffle makers use a Teflon-like coating in their waffle makers, but this waffle maker uses a ceramic non-stick. It's really easy to use and the ceramic grids pop out for easy cleaning.

Diaspora Co. Single-Origin Spices (BIPOC brand)

Spices can make or break a dish, which is why we love upgrading our spice drawer with this set of single origin spices from Diaspora. We love that they pay a living wage to partner farmers and their partner model allows them to provide quality control that results in fresher, more delicious spices. That also means that they can also better control potential contamination and test for lead contamination. They are also working on organic certification for their partner farms.

Emile Henry Deep Food Storage Bowl

Who says food storage has to be boring? Beauty meets function with this deep food storage bowl by Emile Henry. The cork top serves as a fruit bowl, while the lower level with vents and darkness acts as a mini pantry to store root vegetables and onions.

Siafu Home Congolese Napkins

The scalloped edge and fun pattern of these napkins make them a great hostess gift! These are screen printed by hand in Kenya and are a great way to add some color to your table.

$ $ $: Over $100

Graf Lantz Felt Placemats

These sturdy place mats will protect your table from the messiest of eaters! The merino wool material is naturally water and odor resistant, and also offers amazing thermal protection.

Olivewood Serving Board

These hand-carved cheese boards are made from a single piece of olivewood, which means no glues or adhesives are added to the wood. They are the perfect backdrop to your next charcuterie board.

East Fork Serving Bowl (Climate Neutral certified)

This handmade pottery serving bowl from East Fork is perfect for all your serving need- whether it's for movie night popcorn or a salad at a dinner party for 10!

Brightland Olive Oil Duo (BIPOC brand)

There's a reason you've seen Brightland all over social, it's high quality olive oil and beautiful bottle make it a star! The Duo set is the perfect way to try two of their most popular flavors! The olives come from a family-run California farm that does not use pesticides and is committed to organic practices.

Le Creuset Cast Iron Skillet

Le Creuset is known for it's quality and beautiful color choices and this enameled cast iron skillet is no exception! This pan will last you a lifetime and is naturally non-stick enough for scrambles and fried eggs. No Teflon chemicals needed.

Fellow coffee Pour Over Coffee and Electric Kettle

This Fellow electric kettle and pour over set are perfect companions for your coffee! These products don't contain any plastic and will make you feel like a certified barista.

Life

Artificial or Real Christmas Tree? What's better for you and the environment.

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Artificial Christmas trees are becoming increasingly popular for families. They're seen as being convenient since they don't shed needles and can be reused year after year. Some even come with lights already on them! But is the convenience of artificial Christmas trees worth it? We break down the science and the pros and cons of artificial Christmas trees and farm grown real Christmas trees to help you have a healthy and sustainable Christmas!

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Life

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