In our last blog post, we asked ‘What Is Plastic?’ and then learned about what it actually is. Now, we take a terrifying look into how it is made- and we will focus quite a bit on petroleum based plastic. The reason for that is twofold:
- Despite being very deliberate in choosing to use compostable, plant cellulose plastic for our end product, we still need to use petroleum based products in our manufacturing process- to set the stage for part III of this series, actually.
- We want to show you how destructive petroleum based plastics can be in many ways- and these are the reasons why we do not support using them when we don’t have to. We use plants. It is really important to remember these aspects when making decisions as a consumer, too.
How is plastic made?
Like most things, there is a reliance on our natural world for materials. And then, depending upon the desired outcome, refinement to complete the making process.
So, for plastic- where do those materials come from?
The manufacturing of plastics varies greatly depending upon the raw materials used in the production of the plastics themselves- some popular ones are cellulose, salt, coal and, of course, natural gas and crude oil (both of which are petroleum based).
The thing is- just because you are committed to not using petroleum, does not mean that the materials which are used aren’t harmfully obtained. Something which has a positive or good component to it does not mean that it is truly ethical.
Here’s a decent analogy- just because a product is vegan, absolutely does not mean that it is ethical. It may be a fluke vegan product (Oreos, are my favourite example. Rife with exploitation from their reliance on unsustainably harvested palm oil- no thanks.) or the manufacturer may intentionally make it vegan, simply because it is a trend that will allow them to gain more sales/market share. But the product could be made using ingredients harvested with slave labour. Anti slave labour isn’t a trend yet. Unfortunately.
Same thing goes for plastic.
Cellulose and salt are both materials used to make plastic, but they may be obtained in an environmentally toxic manner (unsustainably managed forests, virgin wood for cellulose, plants sprayed with harmful pesticides; salt could be mined- which is not only often a dangerous process, but can be environmentally taxing as well).
Coal can also be turned into plastic, but that is hardly a benign process- it also involves a lot of mining (which can require removal of top soil and destruction of habitats, erosion and pollution).
And then there’s petroleum.
But sorry- what is that?
Petroleum is any naturally occurring flammable mixture of hydrocarbons found in geologic formations, such as rock strata (deep in the earth- so, think mining impacts as well).
Beyond the mining, what is wrong with our excessive use of Petroleum?
First, let’s start with the fact that petroleum is not a renewable resource. It was formed tens of millions of years ago. It takes millions of years to form and we are using up the current supply of fossil fuels much faster than new ones are being made. So we are becoming reliant on a resource, and tailoring industries to rely on it, without a solid game plan for when it runs out. Or, better yet, why wait until that point - we could take more drastic measures now toward using more sustainable resources in many applications. And reduce consumption overall, actually. We over consume in general- we don't need to use this many resources.
Second problem with reliance of petroleum based plastics- extraction.
Extraction of ‘conventional’ petroleum requires drilling into impermeable rock, to permeable rock, where the petroleum is housed. The natural gas and crude oil are separated, and then transported for further processing.
Why is that problematic?
Here we go.
In order to transport natural gas, industry has decided that pipelines are our best option.
Pipelines destroy natural habitats and areas of cultural significance. They transport directly to a refinery on land, or to a tanker ship which will bring the petroleum to a refinery.
In addition to having little to no regard for wildlife nor any cultural consideration, pipes can burst- this leads to an oil spill, damaging natural habitats even further.
Tankers can also spill, devastating marine wildlife (do you know about British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010? You can click on that and learn more.)
The issues don’t stop with transport, though- natural gas is made predominantly of methane- methane IS BAD if released into the atmosphere. It is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
(Side note, but, I have to - approximately 32% of the methane released into the atmosphere is from... livestock. Their manure and gastroenetric emissions pack a heavy punch- so, demanding less animal based products (such as their meat and milk), really speaks to corporations- they'll eventually stop producing these 'products' and then we won't have such a huge methane problem.)
Further challenges with extraction- a thing called ‘fracking’.
We’ve been plenty reliant on petroleum for decades now- really eaten it up with reckless abandon. But, that means we are running out of easily accessible petroleum- as previously mentioned, this is essentially a non-renewable resource. We are using it up faster than it can be remade.
Instead of being innovative and changing our lifestyle, we’ve invented fracking to get out those last little bits of oil.
Here are some problems with this method:
- It is a process that requires a lot of water- we could use that water for other purposes, like drinking. It could well stress surface water and ground water, due to the large quantities used.
- Contamination of underground water and surface water due to improperly built pipes, spills and inadequate containment of waste water.
- Air pollution- VOCs (volatile organic compounds), hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gasses are released in the process
- It uses a ton of water, which could be used for less environmentally invasive processes, or just left alone, and creates a lot of waste water- this waste water must be collected and stored, and then treated or reinjected into a deep disposal well (this can damage local drinking water as it contains chemicals, salts and naturally occurring yet radioactive radium)
- Can contribute to creating earthquakes, including where they would normally not occur
A fake light at the end of the tunnel, friends. A mirage, if you will- because, we have finally reached the end of extraction. We’re looking at the next stage of processing- fractional distillation.
Fractional Distillation heats the petroleum so that the different components are separated into their own departments
One of the stages of heating distills out Naptha- these are the chemicals used in the formation of plastic (it is also used in certain cleaning agents and paint thinners) and forming Naptha requires a process called cracking.
This cracking is what creates the hydrocarbons (a class of polymer) used to make plastic, including some common ones like ethylene, propylene, and butylene - ethylene and propylene are what most petroleum based plastics are made from.
Next, an additional reaction or condensation reaction (catalyst) need to occur to ultimately form the polymers into pellets or… nurdles - plastic pellets only about the size of a lentil! (let’s say brown, dried). Before becoming a nurdle, though, the polymers present mostly as a fluffy, powdered texture- it is fed through an extruder and cut into these little nurdles
The nurdles get sent to factories which melt them down further and turn them into any number of plastic things- juice bottles, electronic component covers, medical gloves… anything you see made of plastic!
Before I vacate this post, let me make one point very clear: reusing pre-existing plastic which would otherwise have been disposed of, is always the best way to go. Remember reduce, reuse, recycle? It is in that order for a reason.
We want to reduce our consumption of new materials- anything ‘new to us’ even if it is made out of recycled materials. It still requires significant inputs to create- some of these may not be as ‘eco friendly’ as the marketing on the end product.
We want to reuse what we already have- this may involve some repairing as I think guiltily of a pair of sunglasses which keep breaking- which I am so tempted to throw out. (I won’t, of course. That strip of glue down the middle will just get thicker and thicker...). Made it this far? Enjoy some $5 chocolate bars. Use code #plasticpart2 when you checkout for deals on Coconut Crisp, Kaffee Chocolate, The White Stuff and Chocolate Nib'd!
And our last choice is to recycle. As in, please don’t just throw things into a massive garbage bag and into a landfill- ‘out of sight, out of mind’. You’re throwing that into someone's habitat- their home. Recycling is at least, often, a bit better than this- but remember- it uses a lot of resources to make happen! Petrol to ship, water, gas, and coal to power machines- putting tags on it and shipping it back out to market. This is not our ideal, whatsoever. And if it even gets recycled is another major consideration. One emerging issue with plastic recycling is the emergence of nanoplastics- these don't get filtered out and can release millions of pieces of plastic into the environment.
What a wonderful world this would be- if we started to value where our items come from, and what their cost truly is- once we respect that, we can take action to cause less destruction, and more harmony. Who isn’t a fan of that?
Well, I’m exhausted, are you?. Who knew that pointing my finger so much would be that much work? ;)
Stay tuned for part 3 of our Packaging Series- where we point the finger right back at ourselves.
Emma of Zimt