What’s Plastic Got To Do With Clean Air?

Child giving Mom a drink from a plastic bottle

This was written by Beth Terry:

Our love of plastic creates several health and environmental problems. Toxic additives can leach from plastic food and beverage containers. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Animals can ingest it, with sometimes fatal consequences. And there is a toxic soup of plastic swirling around in the ocean.

But did you know that the life cycle of plastic contributes to air pollution, both indoor and out? And that reducing our plastic consumption will help to protect the air we breathe? Here’s how.

Most plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, which release toxic emissions when extracted from the earth. According to Earthworks, an organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development, oil and gas drilling releases a slew of toxic air contaminants, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds. Not to mention the methane gas that can leak and cause greater greenhouse effects than carbon dioxide. Sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde are among the chemicals pumped into the air from natural gas drilling sites.

Many people believe that plastic bags are made from petroleum, but in the United States, the majority of them are made from natural gas, which the plastics industry touts as green and clean. Not so clean when you consider the emissions from extraction.

Petrochemical plants pollute communities and harms workers. In addition to the emissions from the extraction process, refining fossil fuels and processing them into plastics can create even more toxic emissions. For example, during production, PVC plants can release dioxins, known carcinogens that bioaccumulate in humans and wildlife and are associated with reproductive and immune system disorders. And even production of supposedly “safe” plastics like PET, the kind used to create clear plastic water bottles, requires the use of chemicals like paraxylene, a derivative of the highly carcinogenic chemical benzene, which is derived from crude oil through a refining process at oil and petrochemical refineries. Residents of Gulf communities where these chemicals are produced are regularly exposed to disproportionate levels of benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals above safe standards.

Plastics contain additives that can offgas and contaminate the air in our homes and other personal spaces. Phthalates are chemicals added to some plastics to make them soft and flexible. They are also endocrine disruptors associated with a whole host of health problems, including lower testosterone levels, decreased sperm counts and poor sperm quality in males, as well as obesity, reduced female fertility, preterm birth and low birth weight, a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms, and behavior changes. Unfortunately, they are not chemically bound to products, which makes them easy to migrate and offgas into the air we breathe. That “new car” or “new shower curtain” smell is the smell of phthalates offgasing.

Plastics release hazardous emissions when burned. Because of the ubiquity of plastics in our lives, when fires do occur in our homes or in other buildings, the emissions from fires are becoming increasingly hazardous to those exposed to them. Plastic furniture in homes is causing fires to burn more quickly, making fires more dangerous to firefighters, who have traditionally broken windows to release heat and gases before entering. According to the New York Times:

“Plastic fillings in sofas and mattresses burn much faster than older fillings like cotton, helping to transform the behavior of house fires in the last few decades, firefighters and engineers say.

“With more plastic in homes, residential fires are now likely to use up all the oxygen in a room before they consume all flammable materials. The resulting smoky, oxygen-deprived fires appear to be going out. But they are actually waiting for an inrush of fresh air, which can come as firefighters cut through roofs and break windows.”

Further, fires in plastics manufacturing plants and plastics recycling plants are not uncommon and are hazardous for the communities in which they occur. Plastics are particularly dangerous in recycling plant fires because plastics burn at a high temperature and adding water can make some plastic fires flare higher.

Plastic recycling can be hazardous to communities and workers. We like to think we are helping the environment when we toss our plastic bottles and containers into the recycle bin. But did you know that most of our plastic recycling is shipped overseas to China and other Asian countries? And sadly, environmental conditions in these recycling facilities are not always the best. In 2007, Britain’s Sky News aired an expose on the conditions in Lian Jiao, a Chinese town that had become a toxic waste dump for the West’s plastic recycling. Workers melted down plastics without wearing any kind of protective gear, and the air was thick with toxic emissions. Just as manufacturing virgin plastic can create air pollution, so can the processes used to recycle the material. What’s better than recycling? Not using the plastic in the first place.

We are the solution. We need a two-step approach. We need to support groups like the Moms Clean Air Force that are pressuring our elected officials to step up and defend the provisions of the Clean Air Act from energy and chemical industry groups that seek to weaken its protections. And we as individuals can take responsibility for our own choices. We can vote with our dollars and reduce our personal consumption of plastic products and packaging. Check out my guide to going plastic-free for changes that you can make right now.



TOPICS: Indoor Air Pollution, Natural Gas