Plastics 101

A field guide

Here are the main things you need to know to orient yourself in this issue. Don’t worry, we will take your education deeper as you continue on your journey as a Wayfinder. 

What are plastics?

In the 1900’s, fossil fuel companies began using molecules from oil and natural gas to make plastics.  They quickly realized that they could change the look, feel, and function of plastics by adding other chemicals to the mixture.  This is why there are so many different kinds of plastics; there are thousands of different structures and mixtures – some of which are toxic.

Why is plastic pollution such a big problem?

The companies that make plastics don’t have a lot of rules to follow.  They are allowed to make as much plastic as they want, even though much of what they make will end up in landfills and in the environment.  Between 1950 and 2017, 9.2 billion tons of plastics have been produced.  Only 9% has been recycled.

How harmful is it?

Plastic pollutes throughout its entire life-cycle from when the oil and gas is extracted to produce it, to our daily contact with it, to the moment it’s lost, dumped, landfilled, down-cycled, or burned. It continues polluting as tiny particles build up in our water, air, soil, and even in our bodies.

What’s being done about it?

A global movement of people working to stop plastic pollution is growing bigger and stronger everyday. Citizens, scientists, politicians, businesses, educators, and, of course, youth across the globe are teaming up to change their communities.  As a Wayfinder you’ll become a part of this movement.

Want to know more?

Where can I learn more about the global movement to end plastic pollution?

Right here on the Wayfinder Society platform.  The main reason we built the Wayfinder website was to help you learn about and connect with the people behind this powerful movement.  Each Waymark you complete will help you better understand the full scope of solutions being deployed across the globe. Be sure to check in often, as we’ll be uploading new Waymarks every few months.

What are Frontline and Fenceline communities?

Frontline and Fenceline communities are adjacent or directly next to toxic/hazardous practices that threaten the fundamental right to human health, clean air, land, water, and food.  Fenceline communities may be located as close as a few yards away from a toxic site!  

Below are a few examples of places where these toxic/hazardous practices occur:

  • fossil fuel extraction sites (i.e. oil drilling, fracking, coal mining)
  • pipelines to transport fossil fuels 
  • fossil fuel refineries
  • petrochemical facilities that make synthetic chemicals 
  • plastic production facilities
  • incinerators
  • landfills
  • nuclear testing sites
  • toxic waste disposal sites

Frontline and Fenceline communities can be made up of all races, but many times they are disproportionately composed of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) who may earn low living wages.  These toxic practices make it nearly impossible for people in Frontline and Fenceline communities to live in a healthy environment.

People who live, work, play, and go to school in Frontline and Fenceline communities have the right to a healthy life and environment!

What are Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism?

Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) says “Environmental justice is the belief that everyone, regardless of race or income, has the right to live, work, play, pray, and go to school in a clean and healthy environment”.  Many people in the United States and around the world are forced to deal with environmental pollution and health effects caused by fossil fuel extraction and refining, petrochemical and plastic production, and the disposal of plastic waste, just to name a few.

Communities affected by environmental injustices can be made up of all races, but many times they are disproportionately composed of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) who may earn low living wages.  When companies and decision makers take advantage of BIPOC communities and aim environmental injustices towards them, it is called environmental racism.

How might plastic pollution be harming the health of people outside of my community?

People generally don’t think about what plastics are made of, where plastics come from, or where they go after they are thrown away or recycled.  The reality is, is that the chemicals which are needed to create plastics come from oil and gas. You can’t talk about plastic pollution without talking about fossil fuel pollution harming human health.

Extraction & Pipeline transfer: Frontline & Fenceline communities

Plastic pollution starts once the oil and gas leave the well head and it keeps on polluting throughout its entire existence, even after we recycle it or throw it away.  When oil is drilled or gas is fracked it releases chemicals such as Benzine, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Xylene, which are extremely harmful to the health of people living nearby the points of extraction.  Many people who live near these extraction points are becoming seriously ill and can’t even drink the tap water as it is polluted with chemicals. After it’s extracted, pipelines transfer natural gas liquid across populated areas and many times there are dangerous pipeline leaks or explosions that directly affect the health and well being of people living nearby.

Refineries: Frontline & Fenceline communities

Before fossil fuel becomes plastic, it needs to be refined.  Emissions from refineries include toxic chemicals that are harmful to humans such as Styrene, 1,3 Butadiene, Hydrogen Sulfide, and Hydrogen Cyanide.  Most of the toxic chemicals that are being released are not monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For communities living near plastic refineries it’s not uncommon for them to have health issues such as childhood Leukemia, brain cancer, low birth weight, sterility, lack of motor skills, speech impediments, and developmental issues.

The end result of refining fossil fuels for plastic is powder, granules, or pellets – the feedstock for plastic products worldwide.  Many refineries and plastics producers are not careful with the transfer of their plastic feedstock, which can lead to massive spills of plastic pellets. Refineries also discharge toxic runoff into freshwater, estuaries, and the ocean.  This affects humans by polluting surrounding natural resources.

Waste dumping: Waste pickers & End-of-the-line communities

Much of the plastic we put into recycling bins is exported to developing countries, where it is dumped in the environment or into the front yards of waste pickers.  Waste pickers dig through massive piles of dirty plastic scraps looking for plastics they can sell to recyclers. If the plastic is not valuable, which most it is not, they will set the plastic piles on fire.  Burning plastic releases toxic gasses and dioxins which are extremely harmful to people living, working, and going to school in the area.

How might plastics be harming my health?

No one yet knows for certain.  What we do know is that plastics contain chemicals that are known carcinogens (cancer causing) such as vinyl chloride and endocrine (hormone) disruptors such as phthalates like BPA.

We have only begun to notice nanoplastics, let alone study them.  Macro and micro plastics have been proven to absorb/adsorb (known as sorb) toxicants.  We’re not sure what this means for humans.

Researchers, including Algalita, have found plastics and the toxicants they sorb in the stomachs and tissues of animals all over the world.  From fish at the bottom of the ocean to camels in the driest of deserts, plastics have entered every aspect of life. Plastics are becoming so small that they have been found to cross the blood brain barrier in some animals.

Although researchers are just beginning to study the negative impacts of plastic on human health, they have found enough evidence to be concerned.  Chemicals that are found in plastic have been shown to be passed down from mothers to their babies while they are in the womb. Plastic particles have been found in table salt, tap and bottled water, honey, and other foods.  Plastic has also been found in human feces.

Who is responsible for plastic pollution?

Historically, citizens have been blamed for plastic pollution.  The common narrative has been to call people “litter bugs” in an effort to put the blame on average day people for not disposing of their plastic discards properly, or for not putting plastic items into a recycling bin.  You will hear the plastic industry and multi-national brands commonly say the solution lies in creating better “waste management” systems. The truth is that the amount of plastic being produced every year, 300 million metric tonnes and growing, is unmanageable.

Although every person plays a role in the plastic pollution crisis, fossil fuel companies, plastic producers, and the brands that make the products we consume are most responsible for the global plastic pollution epidemic.  Politicians are also responsible due to the lack of effective government oversight and laws creating Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).

When looking at who is responsible for plastic pollution it is important to look far upstream from the ocean.  Plastic pollution starts once the oil and gas leave the well head and it keeps on polluting throughout its entire existence.

Check out this short video from The Story of Stuff Project.

Why are companies allowed to make as much plastic as they want?

All over the world, companies operate based on an economic system called Capitalism, which allows companies to generate as much money as they possibly can.  Capitalism allows for endless growth, which includes allowing companies to produce as much plastic as they would like to. This will continue to happen unless governments step in to create new regulations or economic systems that limit the amount of plastic companies can produce.

Who regulates the companies who make plastic?

There are many plastic producing companies around the world.  Countries’ governments are responsible for creating regulations that apply to companies producing plastic in their country.  For example, in America the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for overseeing and enforcing plastic production regulations that were created by the US national government.  The US government funds the EPA and selects its leaders. Some countries have stronger or weaker regulations than others. There are many factors that play into this.

The plastics industry has formed trade groups such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and Plastics Industry Association.  These trade groups play a big role in lobbying to influence government regulations that benefit companies in the plastics industry.  This can create a bias in plastics regulations created to benefit plastics producers and multinational brands. Instead of protecting people and the environment, these trade groups tend to lobby to create regulations that will make more money for the companies they represent. 

Many non-profit organizations are working to hold government officials and plastics companies accountable for the lack of existing regulations to protect the environment and humans from plastic production and pollution.  Over 1,500 non-profits around the world have come together through the Break Free From Plastic movement to demand better government regulation and oversight over fossil fuel and plastic production companies, and multinational brands.

What does it mean to be zero waste?

Zero Waste is all about conserving Earth’s natural resources through responsible production, reuse, and recycling. The goal is to not landfill or burn any waste. This protects the environment from pollution. Because people are part of nature, zero waste is also about protecting human health and creating healthy communities.

Plastic pollution reduction is only one part of creating a Zero Waste system.  Other parts of the system include things such as food production and composting, public transportation, energy creation, the repair and reuse economy, just to name a few.  Many parts of a Zero Waste system can be interconnected.  For example, local food production can be directly associated with reduced plastic food packaging

Our friends at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) say that Zero Waste has 5 overarching strategies: 

  • To end waste disposal in dumps, landfills, and incinerators
  • Industrial responsibility and redesign of products 
  • Keeping consumption patterns within ecological limits 
  • Developing systems and infrastructure to recover resources at their highest and best use
  • Ensuring social and environmental justice, respecting and engaging all people and parts of the community and ecosystem 

As we work towards a Zero Waste society it is important to note that the goal is Zero Waste, but there may still be waste generated during the transition.

Do plastics biodegrade?

It depends on the plastic, but generally plastics made from fossil fuels do not biodegrade.  When chemists make plastics they force together chemical bonds that don’t occur naturally. They do this because it’s a fast way to create very strong, and very long, chains of molecules.  Are you wondering why Nature didn’t figure this out on it’s own? The truth is, Nature has come up with smarter ways to hold together large molecules, and so it doesn’t need to force anything.  Human-made plastics confuse Nature and they are nothing like Nature has ever seen before.

No one can say with certainty how long fossil-fuel-based plastics will last in the environment.  We know that large pieces can get smaller over time, not because Nature figured out how to break them down, but because the sun weakens plastics over time.  It’s called photodegradation and it’s why plastics break into tiny pieces.

Have you heard of plastics made from corn or sugar cane?  These plastics may be advertised to make you think they are “Nature-approved”, however many of them contain the same forced bonding as plastics made from fossil fuels.  For these plastics, the only big difference between them and fossil fuel based plastics is where the molecules come from. There are some bio-based plastics like polylactic acid, known as PLA, that have a different chemical structure, one that microbes can break down.  PLA is compostable, but requires special conditions to actually become compost, such as oxygen and temperatures of 140+ degrees Fahrenheit. On the production side, these plastics may require an immense amount of agricultural resources to produce their feedstock, resulting in a whole set of negative impacts on the environment.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between biodegradable and compostable.  As mentioned above, a compostable item needs a certain set of managed conditions to break down.  An item that is biodegradable should break down naturally without needing managed conditions. When a plastic item is listed as “compostable”, know that this item will not necessarily biodegrade if it enters the environment.  It generally needs to be sent to an industrial composting facility to break down.

Today, companies are learning more about a material called polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA.  PHAs are found in nature as carbon storage devices for microorganisms. They can be made from waste methane, plants, or anything else you can ferment.  PHAs may or may not degrade based on the environment they end up in. Many factors play into what actually happens, such as temperature, amount of sunlight, water chemistry, agitation, and the surface area of the materials.  Simply put, PHAs work great for microorganisms, but humans tend to exploit materials, and we need to be careful with the applications of this one.

Is it true that some types of larvae’s bacteria can break down plastics?

Yes, in 2017 researchers discovered that the wax worm (the larvae of the wax moth) has the ability to break down polyethylene.  Scientists have also identified strains of bacteria in the larvae of Darkling Beetles that are effective in breaking down some plastics.  The important thing to realize is that studies show these breakdown rates are very slow, and happen at a tiny scale. Many researchers in this field are open about the fact that these are not scalable solutions at the rate we’re currently consuming and discarding plastics.

What are the best alternatives to using single-use plastics and packaging?

Humans have lived without single-use plastics before, and we can again.  Imagine improving the way we do things instead of simply improving disposable products.  For example, instead of inventing a new plastic, that may or may not degrade, to replace cups people use once and throw away, let’s figure out how to get people to stop using so many cups!  Or, instead of getting your favorite chips in single-use plastic packaging perhaps there may be a way to refill a container you already have?

We get it.  Changing the way all citizens do things sounds impossible.

At the scale we need, it’s impossible for humanity to change unless first companies change the way they do things.  Citizens don’t simply need new disposable products made of alternative materials; they also need new delivery systems. In a sustainable future companies that invent ways to move away from throwaway models will outlast those that do not, because we cannot live this wastefully forever.

You should know about “green-washing”.

Green-washing is a form of deceptive marketing and advertising that companies use to sell their products or ideas.  Companies successfully green-wash when they convince citizens to believe their products, values, and policies are environmentally friendly even when they’re not.  Green-washing plays into a person’s desire to live a “green” or sustainable life. Today, the best way to combat green-washing is to notice it and avoid it. We hope one day citizens and politicians will require more honesty and transparency from companies.

Why can’t we just burn our plastic waste to make it all go away?

Matter doesn’t magically disappear when you burn it.  Plastics, made of many different elements, burn into gas and ash.  Some countries have high-tech factories, or incinerators, built to capture the heat created from burning plastic.  Some of these incinerators provide electricity to cities. That’s why you may hear them called “waste-to-energy” facilities.

Sounds great, right?

Well unfortunately, these factories are known to emit gases, including carbon dioxide, that contribute to global warming.  Burning plastic releases poisonous emissions and dioxins that harm surrounding communities.

Whether plastic is burned in a managed facility or the open environment, the ash that’s produced is toxic in every situation. In many instances ash stays in the environment or enters into waterways. Some companies put the ash into concrete or building materials, but only after most poisonous materials have been removed and sent to pollute landfills.

Why is such a small amount of plastic recycled?

Only 9% of all plastics that have ever been made have been recycled globally. Complex factors come into play determining whether plastic is recycled or not. Overall this low global recycling rate comes down to a few key points:

      • It’s cheaper for plastics producers and brands to make consumer goods using virgin plastic (brand new plastic) instead of recycled plastic to make products.
      • For a product to be effectively recycled in needs to be turned back into the same product it started as or a product of equal quality. The design of a product has a lot to do with how recyclable it is.
      • The quality of plastic used to produce most of the products we consume is very low, meaning the plastic material cannot be recycled into what it once was. Most plastic is downcycled or made into a product that has lower value than the product it started out as.
      • The amount of plastic being produced, consumed, and discarded is too massive for recycling companies and facilities to keep up with.
Is there really a “Trash Island” in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean?

Algalita knows a lot about this so-called “trash island” because we were the organization to discover and bring attention to the area.  In 1997, the man who started Algalita was the first to record observations about plastic particles building up in the North Pacific gyre.

When he sailed back home to Long Beach, CA, Captain Charles Moore took his findings to the media.  Charlie told them that while in the heart of the North Pacific gyre, he couldn’t sail more than a few minutes without seeing a piece of plastic float by – and he was 1,000 miles from land.

Two years later, Charlie returned to the gyre armed with equipment and instructions on how to sample the ocean water.  He has been returning to the area for 20 years, collecting samples to show people how serious this crisis has become.

When you ask Charlie what’s out there, he describes it as “plastic soup” – an endless mixture of gooey plankton, plastic fragments, plastic chunks, gooey plastic, and fishing gear.   He does not consider it to be a “plastic island”.

Most plastic in the world’s gyres are microplastics, 5mm or smaller in size. Plastic is found throughout all levels of the water column in the gyres, including the ocean floor which has an average depth of 2 miles!

What is an ocean gyre?

An ocean gyre is a naturally occurring convergence zone of oceanic currents, moving in a circular motion. There are many gyres throughout the ocean, but the five large subtropical gyres are most notable for accumulating plastic pollution. These five gyres are located in the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean.  It is estimated that over 92% of all the plastic in these five gyres are microplastics (5 mm in size or smaller).

I heard there are plastics in the air. Is this true?

Yes, it’s likely you will be in places where the air contains plastic particles, including both indoor and outdoor environments. Whether tap or bottled, our drinking water may also harbor plastic particles. Your food and drinks likely contain tiny bits of plastic as well.

Large pieces of plastic break into smaller pieces, that weaken into even smaller pieces and so on.  Plastics go from a macro to mirco to nano scale, breaking into pieces that can only be seen with microscopes.  These tiny pieces have been found everywhere.

Much of our textiles and clothing is made from synthetic fibers, such as polyester, spandex, and nylon.  When these plastic materials are agitated they shed microfibers. For example, when drying synthetic clothes in a dryer, they release microfibers.  Most drying machines have hoses that blow hot air and plastic microfibers outside.

Scientists don’t know for certain how nano-scale plastics might harm humans or ecosystems.  We have only just begun investigating them.

Can humans clean up the plastic particles that have built up in the ocean?

The ocean is the largest ecosystem on the planet, and we’ve managed to clog it up with plastics.  The pollution isn’t found just at the surface, but has been confirmed throughout the entire water column and the ocean floor, which makes ocean cleanup very complex.

Most of the plastics in the ocean are small pieces known as microplastics. These can be the same size as or even smaller than tiny organisms living in the ocean. That means if you try to extract the plastics, you’re likely extracting many organisms as well.

While cleanup operations are a great way to show how bad the problem has become, it’s not the best way to eliminate ocean plastic pollution.  The best way to clean the ocean of plastic is to let the ocean do it itself. Over time, the ocean will likely spit plastic pieces out onto shores.  If we stop putting plastic in it, the ocean has a better chance of cleaning itself.

We need to focus upstream solutions, which would stop plastic from entering the ocean in the first place, or we will be focused on cleanup forever.

Will banning plastics solve this problem?

Banning or eliminating certain single-use problematic plastics will definitely help to reduce the potential for plastic to harm people, wildlife, and the environment, but it is not a silver bullet solution.  There are many single-use plastic items that have functional reusable alternatives, such as utensils, coffee cups, and straws, just to name a few.  Banning these types of items is a great start, but it is only a drop in the bucket.

Think about all the different types of single-use plastics that exist; packaging such as chip bags, candy wrappers, granola bar wrappers, yogurt cups, sandwich baggies, shipping packaging, etc.  Regulations need to exist forcing plastic producers to innovate new types of material packaging to replace current low quality harmful plastic packaging and create new reusable systems.

In addition to eliminating problematic single-use plastics through bans, we also need new innovative design, new systems to create zero waste communities, and new ways of operating in society to reduce our overall wasteful consumption on a global scale.


We will be adding more content to Plastics 101, so check back periodically!

“The plastics crisis doesn’t start when the plastics enter the ocean. It starts when the oil and the gas leave the wellhead and it keeps on being a problem at every step along the way.”

– Carroll Muffett

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