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General Information About Plastics

Published on January 15, 2014 under Plastics

Permanency and Non-renewability

  • Plastics are made from non-renewable petroleum and natural gas. (1)
  • With the exception of plastics that have been incinerated (bad idea! – as plastics release  toxic substances when burnt), all plastics ever manufactured is still with us. (2)
  • Nothing in nature, not even sunlight or oxygen, can break apart the bonds that hold plastics together, so they linger on our planet indefinitely. Rather than biodegrading, plastics photodegrade into tiny particles, winding up in soil, air, our food and our bodies. (3)

Environmental Pollution

  • Plastic manufacturing is a major source of industrial pollution. Producing a 16-oz. #1 PET bottle, for instance, generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass. Major emissions from plastic production processes include sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides (both of which contribute to climate change) and the chemical compounds of styrene, benzene and trichloroethane. (4)
  • In bodies of water, plastic particles absorb toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the pesticide DDT. Those particles then get eaten by fish and work their way up the food chain onto our dinner plates. (5)
  • Many plastics can release toxic chemicals, those that were originally part of the manufacturing process and the chemicals that the plastics absorbed from their environment. One experiment showed that after two weeks in the ocean, the level of Persistent Organics Particles in nurdles (plastic balls used for manufacturing of plastic products) rose to up to one million times the level in the ambient seawater (Mato et. al. 2001). (6)

Plastic Toxicity and Human Health Effects


  • Most cling-wrapped meats, cheeses and other foods sold in delis and grocery stores are wrapped in PVC. To soften the #3 PVC plastic into its flexible form, manufacturers add “plasticizers” during production. Traces of these chemicals, known as adipates and phthalates, can leak out of PVC when it comes in contact with foods, especially hot, fatty foods. Adipates and phthalates have been shown to cause birth defects and damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive systems in mice. Phthalates are also suspected of interfering with hormones and the reproductive development of baby boys. (7)
  • Within this group of chemicals, two are under particularly close scrutiny — DEHP, found mostly in medical products, and DINP, found mostly in toys — for their potential toxic effects on the reproductive and endocrine systems. Last year, a study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that higher levels of phthalate byproducts correlated with obesity and insulin resistance. Another study in the same journal found that higher levels of phthalate byproducts in urine were associated with abnormal thyroid hormone levels in adult men. (8)

Bisphenol A (BPA)

  • Many #7 polycarbonate bottles (including baby bottles), microwave ovenware, eating utensils and plastic coatings for metal cans are made with bisphenol A (BPA). Many studies have found that BPA interferes with hormones, as phthalates do, and a March 1998 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that BPA simulates the action of estrogen when tested in human breast cancer cells. A growing number of scientists are concluding, from animal tests, that exposure to BPA raises your risks of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and childhood behavioral problems such as hyperactivity. (9)
  • Scientific studies on lab animals show that BPA might have adverse health impacts ranging from breast and prostate cancer, thyroid disease, early puberty in girls and ADHD. In 2006, an independent panel of experts assembled by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the EPA looked at more than 700 BPA studies and concluded that the mechanism by which it affects cells and tissues is essentially identical in animals and humans. The panel concluded that the animal studies of BPA should be taken seriously as an indicator of potential harm to humans. (10)
  • Doses 25,000 times below what the government has labeled as safe can harm developing cells in mice. The National Toxicology Program, part of NIH, issued a draft report acknowledging “some concern” about the risk of cancer, diabetes and other serious health problems in adults. (11)
  • Biphenol A has been detected in urine samples of nearly 93 percent(!) of 2,517 people who took part in a national health survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, women had higher average levels (2.9 micrograms per liter) than men (2.6); children age 6 to 11 had higher levels (4.5) than adults over 20 (2.5). (12)

Bag Economics

  • Each high-quality reusable bag you use has the potential to eliminate an average of 1,000 plastic bags over its lifetime. The bag will pay for itself if your grocery store offers a $.05 or $.10 credit per bag for bringing your own bags (most large stores in Juneau do!). (13)


  1. National Geographic, “The Green Guide”:
  2. Algalita Marine Research Foundation:
  3. National Geographic, “The Green Guide”:
  4. National Geographic, “The Green Guide”:
  5. National Geographic, “The Green Guide”:
  6. Algalita Marine Research Foundation:
  7. National Geographic, “The Green Guide”:
  8. “The Plastics Revolution”, Washington Post, April 22, 2008:
  9. National Geographic, “The Green Guide”:
  10. The Plastics Revolution”, Washington Post, April 22, 2008:
  11. “Studies on Chemical In Plastics Questioned”, Washington Post, April 27, 2008:
  12. “The Plastics Revolution”, Washington Post, April 22, 2008:
  13. Roots and Shoots, A program of the Jane Goodall Institute