I consider myself to be an environmentally conscious consumer, yet I have a house and wardrobe full of toxic, non biodegradable, factory produced items. I use and reuse plastic bags, compost and recycle, but I have no idea if my small choices make any impact. One evening, I realized my soft blanket and photo frame were both made of 100% Acrylic. How could these extremely different home items be made of the exact same material? This sent me down a curious spiral of research and surveying to understand plastic products in our households, the effects on the environment and humans, and how as consumers we should navigate our unsustainable world in as respectful manner as possible.
What is plastic and what does it have to do with the oil industry?
Plastic is made from oil. About 8% to 10% of the total oil supply goes to making plastic. It is estimated that about 12 million barrels of oil a year are used in making the plastic bags used in the US. In the US, the breakdown of oil usage is 3% residential, 2% commercial, 25% industrial and 70% transportation.
How does oil become plastic?
The oil and gas industry is broken down into three sectors as listed below:
- The upstream: Underwater and underground exploration is for natural gas and crude oils, such as the large oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
- The midstream: Once the materials are recovered, resources are transported to a refinery, often far away from the drill sites.
- The downstream: During this time, oil is filtered into raw materials, and commercially distributed to forms of natural gas, diesel oil, petrol, gasoline, lubricants, fuel, asphalt, heating oil, petroleum, and more.
During the downstream process, the upstream resources are heated and sent into a crude distillation unit. The oil separates at different temperatures, from 90 degrees fahrenheit all the way to 800+ degrees farhenheit. From the top of the barrel, fuel gas and propane is created, down to gasoline, jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel. At the bottom, the heaviest parts go into a vacuum distillation unit to create asphalt and other more solid items.
At this point, there are many byproducts being gleaned as the oil is refined, some of which are liquid petroleum gas, natural gas liquids, and a handful more. It’s these resources that are then either polymerized or polycondensed, chemical processes that create plastic into either molding powders that can then be reformed, or hard substances. An example of the former is acrylic, which starts as a powder that can become a plastic sheet for items like plexi-glass or frames, or spun into long tubes and further broken down into plastic thread, for clothes and linens. To turn oil into any product requires heat to manufacture and power to transport.
What are the types of common plastics and what sort of products include them?
Plastic is used for so much. The most prominent plastics are:
- Water bottles + other beverages: Polyethylene Terephthalate
- Laundry detergent bottles and other similar products: Polyethylene
- Construction applications:Polyvinyl Chloride
- Medicine packaging: Polypropylene Styrofoam: Polystyrene
- 3D printing: Polylactic Acid
- Clothing and ropes: Nylon
- Clothing and plexi-glass: Acrylic
- Clothing and upholstery: Polyester
- Fabrics and medical products: Rayon
- Greenhouse walls: Polycarbonate (greenhouse walls)
- Mechanical gears: Acetal
- All types of plastics are used for a wide range of products. Ink, nail polish, deodorant, shoes, insecticides, shag rugs, hand lotion, refrigerators and more are made from: Petroleum
Why is plastic so prominent?
As explained above, plastics are used for so many items, and a lot of them are incredibly important inventions for safety and health: surgical medical devices, car seats, airbags, house insulation. It’s not possible to live in today’s world without using plastic, relying on plastic, and taking comfort in it. I can’t feel guilty about the use of plastic in all aspects of my life, but I want to understand which products have alternatives, and are they better?
The use of plastics skyrocketed during World War II and has continued to be in demand for these main reasons:
- Plastics are affordable due to their lightweight nature. It takes 7 trucks to carry the same number of paper bags as 1 truckload of plastic bags. In one automobile, plastics make up 50% of a car’s volume, but only 10% of their weight.
- Plastics are durable, that’s why so much of our world is built in combination with it. To be strong and lightweight and affordable is an incredible combination. And no wonder so much of our world utilizes it.
- Plastics protect and preserve goods: plastics package, deliver, store and food drinks. They help to give produce and food a long shelf life, help with medical safety, as well as child proof plastic to avoid accidental poisoning.
Knowing the effects of deforestation for paper goods, as well as the plastic bag, what is our affordable alternative? If you don't have a reusable tote bag, go paper, it's at least recycle and biodegradable. Consider Ecovative, a company dedicated to reducing plastic packaging but using mushrooms byproduct as a way to replace styrofoam. As per transportation of goods, if items are heavier without plastic packaging, then more energy and fuel is being put out into the environment. How can we know which fight to fight?
How are plastics harmful?
Plastics are not biodegradable. Many are toxic and flammable, and most end up in landfills or our oceans. Because of plastic’s durable nature, it was built to stick around. In the last 100 years, it simply is no secret that we have an incredible amount of plastic waste and it has nowhere to go. Many acrylics are flammable and toxic and most break down into landfills. To safely recycle a plastic like acrylic requires a lot of energy, water, and a specific facility to deal with its toxicity. It’s not proven that reusing plastic has much value.
Plastic also harms ourselves. We eat, breathe, and absorb plastic into our bodies, and for both bodies and our environment, it’s not just that plastic will be around for a long time, but it’s toxic. In countries where plastic is burned because waste management isn’t supported, millions of people die from this toxicity yearly. Plastic can affect our metabolism, fertility, heart rate and digestion, among many other health associations.
How long do plastics last?
In what is known as the Life Cycle Assessment, which determines the cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle analysis of products we begin to understand how long will a product can be used, and what is its entire effect through that time? For instance, 1 acrylic clothing garment is determined to endure 100 washes in its life cycle.
Beyond how long can a human use a product, consider that many plastic items take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.
- Plastic bottles take 450 years.
- Disposable diapers take 550 years.
- Nylon fabric takes 35 years.
- Plastic bags take 15 years.
- Aluminum cans take 120 years.
- Paper waste takes 2-6 weeks to decompose.
- Food waste takes 1-6 months.
Consider an alternative to protecting food and freshness with glass, which has a relatively low energy impact according to its Life Cycle Assessment. It’s proven that the transportation emissions for glass are offset by the energy savings gained from the use of recycled glass and manufacturing process. It’s important to note that glass takes 1,000,000 years to decompose. However, glass does not emit toxic waste into our soil or environment, and 80% of glass is made into new glass.
How do some general consumers feel?
After polling a small group of people (25 people, average income of $60,000/year, living in urban New England states, in late 20s-early 30s), where 98% said that they consider themselves environmentally conscious and take measures in their daily life to eliminate plastic use, I wanted to understand if others struggle with their day to day consumer choices related to the environment.
Most people exercise using reusable cups, bags, water bottles, refuse straws and take out tupperware, they purchase soaps and shampoos in bulk, and many reuse single use plastics when possible.
When asked about their motivations, sentiments were very specifically about thinking about the future, the environment, and how plastics affect the earth, our oceans, and how wasteful it is. 100% of the poll said they’d be interested to learn more about their daily products and their environmental impact.
Answers ranged for the question of what stops you from buying non-plastic products. From price, availability, convenience, accessibility. A lot were not sure whether the cost of purchasing more environmentally friendly products online was even useful if the effect transportation and packaging is worse. By the end of the poll, one person said “I’m moving to Mars.”
How can consumers practice sustainability?
Harvard Business Review released a study about psychological ways to encourage green consumer practices. A lot of data indicated that social influence can make a difference, that providing the options and proving that majority choose green causes more people to choose green.
A lot of our household behaviors are just habits, and that we can adjust our habits through incentives, through encouraging hope and pride in choosing sustainability, and overall making an environmentally conscious choice resonate with everyone.
Though others argue that consumerism and the marketing and advertising to go along with it is the entire reason that we are in this problem in the first place. That 70% of the GDP in the US is based on household consumption. As National Geographic explains, most environmental issues can be linked to consumption, and the rapid growth between the 1950s-1990s where luxury equated to the “throw away” mentality.
This argument doesn’t pat people on the back for buying organic sheets or using a reusable tote bag, but instead suggests donating to organizations that are fighting much larger battles, such as keeping agricultural runoff out of rivers. Or, volunteer for an NGO that combats food waste, support politicians that believe in clear air and water policies, call local representatives to demand better regulations, and familiarize yourself with the Farm Bill instead of eating at a farm-to-table restaurant.
It seems like there isn’t a straightforward answer. How can consumers shop safely for something like linens?
In today’s market, where sustainability is a buzzword, and companies like H&M claim an online presence for a sustainable line, founders of small, independent run fashion lines encourage consumers to do their research to actually support sustainable, slow fashion brands instead of fast fashion. A company like Patagonia, which uses plastic blends in water resistant clothes, is still committed to the environment and national parks, refusing to design vests for companies who don’t meet its ethical standards.
For textiles specifically, which contributes to over 10% of global carbon emissions, consumers can choose natural options whenever possible, even if it’s pricier. By choosing a better material, clothes can last longer, eliminating the need to buy over and over again.
But still, there really is no perfect answer for a simple question to what is the best fabric to buy:
- Fabrics deemed sustainable are linen, cotton, wool, rayon, modal and polyester.
- But, cotton takes a up to 20,000 gallons to make a pair of jeans, and wool can be considered part of the animal cruelty fight as well as a methane output.
- It’s hard to compare ethical standards, and there is no agreed upon global standard.
- Consider plant-based fibers, made from things like hemp or flax, which have half of the carbon footprint as other materials, can be worn almost a year longer than plastic alternatives, is recyclable and can be washed with quick, cool cycles.
You can’t lose sleep over these choices, but you can do your research and support companies you believe in. What’s even better is buying second hand or items made from recycled products.
Definitely still feeling frustrated, where can consumers go from here?
As per the plastics industry as a whole, it’s important to choose green when you can. Not everyone can afford slow fashion, or mushroom packaging, and sometimes convenience and accessibility rightfully trumps quality.
It’s also important to point out that plastics are just one part of the larger issue at hand. Because the impact of plastic is visible in our oceans and affecting animals on land and in the sea, a lot of consumers, myself included, are trying to play better roles. But, for climate change as a whole, there’s more than going strawless and keeping a reusable tote around, it’s also considering your diet, your means of transportation, how many flights you take, and joining the conversation. Ask your local businesses for environmentally friendly alternatives, support companies you believe in, and educate others, respectfully.
As The Guardian illustrates, “This is the paradox of plastic, or at least our current obsession with it: learning about the scale of the problem moved us to act, but the more we push against it, the more it begins to seem just as boundless and intractable as all the other environmental problems we have failed to solve. And it brings us up against the same obstacles: unregulated business, the globalized world, and our own unsustainable way of life.”
There are items that we may not see changing in our lifetime, or that we don’t need to change. As individuals and societies begin to see the effect of landfill and ocean pollution first hand, the change we need can start in your household, but it will eventually come from large movements. Can our consumer preferences mold industries into environmentally conscious markets, and can we put pressure on our leaders to support smart policies and enable greater regulations?