Planet vs. Plastics
From Fossil Fuels to Plastic Addiction: Unveiling the Hidden Link Impacting Our World
August 16, 2023
There is no shortage of plastic objects in our daily lives, the average American consumer uses, then throws away about 110 pounds of plastic every single year. Plastics are ubiquitous, but oftentimes consumers are misinformed about where they come from, and where they end up.
History of Plastic
Somewhere in the brief history of plastic, humans became addicted to its convenience. To understand what plastics are made out of, it is important to learn the history of how they’ve become as pervasive as they have. Despite the chokehold plastic has on modern consumers, it was only invented a little over a century ago. The first commercially produced plastic, named Bakelite, was invented by chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907. Bakelite was initially produced by synthesizing coal tar and wood alcohol.
Plastic use became more widespread as the US Military experimented with more universal uses during World War II. It was during this experimentation phase, chemists started working with fossil fuels to create plastics. Following the war, commercial plastic demand greatly increased. Seeking methods to create newer and cheaper plastic, manufacturers began to rely on fossil fuels to make their products. In the 1960’s global plastic production increased 400%, and has continued to climb ever since.
Between 1970 and 2000, worldwide plastic waste more than tripled. A report by Plastic Soup Foundation noted over 50% of all plastics ever produced were made after the year 2000. Moreover, it was estimated over 390 Million tons of plastic were produced in 2021 alone.
Fossil Fuels & Plastic
So how exactly does this connect to fossil fuels? A report by the world economic forum noted 98% of single use plastics are made from fossil fuels. According to an article for Science Advances Magazine “The vast majority of monomers used to make plastics, such as ethylene and propylene, are derived from fossil hydrocarbons. None of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable.”
Currently the world’s top 7 plastic producing companies by volume are all fossil fuel companies. Furthermore, fossil fuel corporations have a large financial incentive to continue producing plastics. Globally fossil fuels are most commonly used to generate electricity and fuel transportation. However, in recent years the world has begun a clean energy transition, encouraging many people to abandon fossil fuels for more eco-friendly power sources such as solar and wind power.
As fossil fuel industries reckon with changes in consumer demands, they will continue to lean heavily on the development of fossil fuels into petrochemicals and fossil hydrocarbons for plastic manufacturing. Currently plastic manufacturing accounts for 12% of global oil consumption, a figure which is likely to increase as plastic consumption does.
Fossil Fuel Reality
The negative impacts of plastics are far reaching and dangerous. It is no secret fossil fuel use is incredibly harmful to our world, and as plastic use is merely a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry, it is just as destructive. Over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels account for over 75% of all greenhouse gas emissions, meaning fossil fuel generated plastics are directly tied to increases in greenhouse gas emissions annually.
Fossil fuels disguised as plastics can be found everywhere in our lives. Plastic fibers are used in the fabrics of our clothing, and small plastic beads, also known as microplastics, can be found in everyday cosmetic products. Plastics are commonly used in packaging for foods, but are also found inside fish meant for human consumption. Plastics are so pervasive that they are even polluting our supposed fresh air and clean water.
As sunlight and other elements degrade plastics, they break into thousands of tiny pieces called microplastics. Microplastics pollute a variety of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, causing environmental degradation and health problems for humans and animals alike. Microplastics release the toxic chemicals housed in fossil fuels into the environments around them.
In addition to being incredibly detrimental to environments, microplastics and fossil fuel by-products are also extremely dangerous to human health. Microplastics have been linked to a variety of health issues such as obesity, Thyroid disorders, infertility and more. Furthermore, petrochemical additives — which are used to make plastics more flexible or more colorful — have been linked to musculoskeletal deformities, skin irritation and fetal growth failure. To learn more about the impacts of plastics on human health, check out this blog What You Need to Know About the Impact of Plastics on Human Health – Earth Day
In order to be free from the vicious grip of fossil fuels, we need a paradigm shift in our thoughts on plastics as a society. We all understand fossil fuels are bad for the environment. Plastics are made from fossil fuels, so where is the disconnect?
Here at EARTHDAY.ORG we are championing innovation, and everyday actions, working towards ending plastic and fossil fuel reliance. Ending this toxic relationship is the only path to a future worth living in. Check out the Earth Day 2024’s theme Planet vs. Plastics to learn more and take action to oppose plastic pollution in our environment.