Plastic's Dark Side: Production's Pollution Outweigh It All 🚫

Author:  Lauren Plug

Plastic's Pollution Starts Before You Toss It

plastic pollutes a beach, spread across the sand in piles

Photo: Lucien Wanda/Pexels

Every sip, slurp, and bite has an impact that could last centuries… 

You're leaving a festival with a happy heart after the perfect day with your favorite person. The sights, sounds, laughter, and flavors loop through your mind. But you can’t let go of a lingering thought. 

Those countless plastic wristbands, cups, plates, forks, and packs of individually wrapped silverware –  where are they really going to end up? 

Unfortunately, their options are limited: landfill or pollution. 

This isn't just a festival phenomenon—it's a global plastic problem. Millions of tons of plastic pollute our oceans, threaten marine life, and contaminate miles of coastline. 

The harsh reality is that almost every piece of plastic ever created still exists, somewhere. 

Our compostables are leaps and bounds better than single-use plastic. But the plastic problem goes deeper than just what happens to it after it's been used. 

The continental US is challenging its record for the hottest summer of the year in 2024. If we want to take a serious look at the greenhouse gasses fueling climate change, we need to examine the production life cycle of plastic. 

Plastic Waste Pollutes Our Planet

Plastic waste is the single biggest threat the oceans are facing. 

  • It floats and is ingested by surface-feeding birds and fish
  • It sinks where it settles on coral reefs and blocks their light
  • It lingers where it outweighs plankton 46:1 in the North Pacific
  • And it travels where it ends up piling up along miles and miles of coastline. 

80% of ocean plastic came from land that was led by wind, streams, and rivers. Ranking in the top percentage of most found ocean plastics are majority of single-use plastics:

  • Water bottles
  • Plastic bags
  • Food packaging and film
  • Bottle caps
  • Cutlery
  • Plates
  • Cups
  • And hot drink cups 

Just 70 years ago, plastic pollution didn’t exist. So how did we get here? To a time and place where plastic particles are in the air, the rain, our blood, and have made it to every area of the ocean

Plastic Manufacturing Continues To Double — & So Do Its Effects

Women sitting on piles of plastic bottles sorting through them

Photo: Mumtahina Tanni/Pexels 

Plastic is a petrochemical AKA made from petroleum and natural gas AKA fossil fuels. The very same stuff responsible for how we get around, how we stay warm, and over 75% of greenhouse gas emissions

The production of plastic emits more greenhouse gasses than the country of Brazil, the 8th largest producer in the world.

If your mind immediately connected dinosaurs to fossil fuels, same, but that (sadly) has been debunked. Fossil fuels come from plants, animals, and tiny sea creatures that lived and died millions of years ago. 

Their remains trapped carbon as they fossilized from being buried under layers upon layers upon layers of dirt and rock. The pressure from these layers created heat, pushing out water and air to eventually give us oil and gas. 

Plastic as a material was invented at the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t commonly used until after WWII.

  • Between the 1950s and the 1970s plastic production more than doubled.
  • From the 70s to the 80s it doubled again.
  • From the 80s to the early 2000s it doubled again.
  • From the 2000s to ‘22, it doubled again
  • Presently, about 400 million metric tons of plastic are produced annually; and it’s expected to double again by 2050

ExxonMobil, Chevron, & Shell are just 20 of the petrochemical companies responsible for half of single-use plastic waste, but just 100 companies are responsible for 90% of single-use plastic production. 

These oil companies have seen the push for renewable energy and electric vehicles, so they’re turning to their backup plan that’s been decades in the making. More plastic.

But plan B is bad for everyone because manufacturing plastics generates significant pollution that contaminates our air and water, impacting not only the environment but also our health.

Plastic Production is Bad For People & The Environment

The reason fossil fuels are so bad for the environment is because burning them releases all that carbon they’ve been storing. 

To extract the raw material from the land, transport it, and turn it into plastic involves an extensive process full of environmental and health pollution. 

Destruction of the planet for raw materials 

Since fossil fuels had to go through all that layering, we need to un-layer them to get to them. And as you can probably imagine, it’s pretty intense.

  • Oil is extracted by drilling on the land or on the seabed.
  • Coals are mined from underground or by removing layers of dirt and rock and mountaintops on the surface.
  • Natural gas is accessed by drilling or fracking, a drilling method that uses water, sand, and chemicals to extract from tight rock formations. 

As for the environment: 

  • Habitats are destroyed
  • Soil quality is eroded 
  • Forests are cleared
  • Mountain tops are removed 
  • Ecosystems are disrupted and harmed 
  • People are displaced
  • Earthquakes can be aggravated (by fracking)
  • The land is poisoned with waste and never fully recovers 

As for the water

  • Toxic chemicals runoff into streams, rivers, and drinking water sources
  • Large amounts of rocks and soil are dumped into waterways
  • Millions of gallons of water are used for drilling and fracking
  • Toxic wastewater from extraction leaks, overflows, or evaporates into waterways. 
  • Oil spills in the ocean, on land, and even in rivers.

All which leads to higher risk of human health, higher costs to clean and process water, and contribute to water scarcity. 

As for the air 

  • Oil refineries create hazardous air pollution including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, & hydrogen pollution. 
  • Some chemicals released from refineries are known or suspected cancer-causing agents, responsible for developmental and reproductive problems and/or aggravate certain respiratory conditions such as childhood asthma.
  • Fracking emits greenhouse gasses like methane
  • Fracking can also emit toxic air pollutants

The danger doesn’t stop after fossil fuels have been extracted from the Earth. To get the fossil fuels around the world to make the plastics it needs to be transported and distributed.

Danger of transporting & distributing the raw materials 

Small accidents are always inevitable, but when transporting these liquids and gasses across the country, one small mistake can lead to explosions, unfixable land destruction, and death. 

  • Deforestation happens when pipelines are created
  • Habitats and land are also destroyed for pipelines
  • Land is seized from property owners to build pipelines
  • Coal dust is made and pollutes communities as it is transported by rail 
  • Pipelines carry highly flammable natural gas and they’ve been known to explode
  • Natural gas leaks methane from pipelines via small urban leaks to large infrastructure leaks
  • As we’ve seen from the dish soap commercials, an oil spill is detrimental to not just birds but every single microorganism that relies on marine life
  • Nearly 80,000 gallons of oil was spilled into the ocean between 2021-2022 
  • Pipelines contaminate local water sources for people and farms.
  • Pipelines break and spill oil, drilling fuel, wastewater and more onto land, into waterways, water reservoirs, and onto personal property. 

Moving or transporting any type of raw material involved in plastic production can crash, leak, or spill like we saw with the derailment in East Palestine, polluting an entire community. 

Turning fossil fuels into plastic requires a chemical cocktail worthy of an evil mad scientist! 

Pollution involved in the chemistry of making plastic

Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but plastic requires a lot of chemical additives, especially depending on what the end goal of the plastic is. This includes things like colors, phthalates (for flexibility), lubricants, and flame retardants. 

These factories pollute the air, the water, the soil, and the wildlife of anything surrounding them. “ Cancer Alley” refers to an area in Louisiana that is home to 200+ petrochemical plants and cancer rates 95% higher than the rest of the country. 

Plastic production is bad for the environment: 

  • Plastic factories pollute our air and water
  • 100+ chemicals, like Benzene, are released into the air around these facilities.
  • Toxic runoff and nurdle pollution contaminate waterways 
  • Factories leak, dump, and spill both hazardous chemicals and plastic pellets (nurdles) that endanger wildlife and contaminate the water
  • A single plastic factory can release millions of tons of carbon dioxide per year 
  • Just one Shell cracker facility in Pennsylvania creates the equivalent emissions of “36,000 cars driving 12,000 miles per year”

From the Minderoo-Monaco Commission on Plastics and Human Health, the human health effects of just plastic production are staggering. 

Plastic production is bad for people: 

  • Traumatic injuries
  • Fires, explosions, cave-ins, burns, & death
  • Pneumoconiosis
  • Silicosis
  • Cardiovascular & interstitial lung disease
  • Lung, bladder, brain, breast cancer
  • Leukemia, Lymphoma, Mesothelioma
  • COPD
  • Asthma
  • Decreased fertility/sterility
  • Neurotoxic injuries

Communities bordering plastic production facilities (like Cancer Alley) face toxic health conditions as well: 

  • Premature, low weight, and stillbirths
  • Childhood leukemia
  • Asthma
  • Stroke
  • COPD
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Vehicular injuries
  • Mental health problems 

The Plastic Problem Runs Deep

people working at a landfill at sunset. The dump site stretches as far as the eye can see

Photo: Tom Fisk/Pexels

Recycling seems like the solution, but it was never meant to be. It’s not a truly circular option. 

Since the invention of plastic less than 10% of all plastic ever made has been recycled. Marine divers have found plastic waste in the ocean from the 1940s! 

From at least the 1970s, big oil knew it wasn’t going to work for several reasons, but they did a successful job of making us think it would and putting the responsibility on us.

In the end, most plastic ends up where it was supposed to go —  in landfills. It sits there leaking its harmful chemical recipe over hundreds to thousands of years, never decomposing while incineration releases them into the air.

But there is hope! 

Think back to that festival — now, imagine leaving with your friend without a lingering thought troubling you because every disposable item you used was compostable. 

It was put into a green bin and taken to an industrial facility where it was turned into a nutrient rich compost used by farms to grow healthy crops with less reliance on fertilizers. 

The crops are used to feed the country or make products and the waste is purchased by companies like Repurpose who turn it into effective and safe products for you to use when reusables aren’t an option, creating a true circular economy. 


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