Plastics are essential to building durable, high-performance products. But they’re also accelerating the environmental crisis, from the fossil fuels used to make plastics to the solid waste pollution that piles up once they’ve been tossed. Here’s why we still use plastics, what we’re doing to reduce our impact and why we need action at the individual, business and government levels to address the problem.
Our closets are filled with fossil fuels.
Plastic (aka synthetic) fibers are a literal thread tying the clothing industry to the oil and gas industry. Most plastic fibers begin as crude oil, which is distilled into chemicals like ethyne, and are then heated and transformed into everything from single-use plastic bottles to clothing fibers like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polyester. The UN estimates that 60 percent of clothing is made from these types of plastics. By 2030, it’s expected to reach 73 percent. That’s welcome news for Big Oil and gas. As transportation moves away from fossil fuels, experts say plastic will become a lucrative way for the industry to offset that reduced demand.
But the problem goes beyond using petroleum as a source for raw material. Burning fossil fuels to create those synthetic materials is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions warm the planet, increase ocean acidification and release harmful—sometimes toxic—air pollutants.
Every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet.
Plastic persists in our environment indefinitely (unless it's been incinerated or launched into space on a satellite or spacecraft). Less than 10 percent of plastic in the US is actually recycled, 16 percent is burned, and the rest piles up in landfills, releasing greenhouse gases, impacting wildlife habitats and posing a risk to air and water quality.