From Fracking Well to Landfill: Tracing Plastic’s Toxic Lifecycle

Published Jun 22, 2023


Climate and Energy

Plastic has a lifespan of hundreds to thousands of years. From the very beginning, it poisons our environment and wreaks havoc on our climate.

Plastic has a lifespan of hundreds to thousands of years. From the very beginning, it poisons our environment and wreaks havoc on our climate.

Plastic is everywhere, and much of it spends just a few weeks, days, or moments fulfilling its intended purpose. Globally, 44% of it is used for packaging, tossed almost as soon as we get our hands on it. 

But plastic has a long life before it becomes a product on a shelf — and an even longer life after it’s tossed.

Every step of this lifecycle takes a toll on our health, environment, and climate. Not only does plastic drive demand for fossil fuels; our oversupply of fracked gas is leading to yet more long-lived plastic. From beginning to end, these are the costs of plastic’s lifecycle.

Step 1: Starting With Fracking

Making plastic is a huge contributor to climate change, as globally, more than 90% of plastics come from fossil fuels. Moreover, making plastic involves high heat and lots of electricity — both generated using fossil fuels.

In the U.S., the plastic lifecycle typically starts with natural gas processing or natural gas liquids. And the country’s natural gas largely comes from fracking

We’ve known for years that fracking is poorly regulated and dangerous, especially for those living closest to its operations. Researchers have linked fracking to a variety of health problems, including cancer.

From poisoning drinking water, to causing earthquakes, to leaking climate-wrecking methane, fracking has endangered our communities for far too long.

Learn more in our recent fact sheet, “Plastic’s Toxic Lifecycle.”

Step 2: Refining Oil and Gas

After drilling and fracking, oil and gas refining create the building blocks for plastic products. Processing crude oil produces naphtha, and processing natural gas results in natural gas liquids like ethane. 

Naphtha and ethane can then be “cracked” to produce ethylene, a main ingredient in many plastics, as well as other plastic building blocks

This cracking process depends on lots of steam or heat, typically generated by burning fossil fuels, which adds to plastic’s climate impact. Moreover, cracking releases huge amounts of climate pollutants and air pollutants, including smog-forming nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

Step 3: Turning Petrochemicals Into Plastics

After cracking comes polymerizing — converting ethylene and other molecules into plastic polymers. This results in small plastic resin pellets, commonly called “nurdles.” Manufacturers then melt and shape those nurdles into plastic products; another energy-intensive process. 

Additionally, at this stage companies add fillers and additives, which can make up as much as 85% of the final product’s volume

Many of these additives are toxic; some even disrupt our hormones. They can also leak out of plastic as it ages, seeping into our food and the environment, where they accumulate over time.

Step 4: Using Plastic Products

After a lot of fracking, refining, chemistry, and manufacturing, we get the plastic products we use every day: clothes made with synthetic fabrics like polyester, our computers, our cars, the packaging of our favorite snacks, and so much more.

Hundreds of millions of tons of plastic enter our lives and our environment each year. And with time and use, that plastic gradually wears down, shedding little pieces. In fact, these microplastics* make up an estimated third of the plastic that enters the environment.

We now find microplastics literally everywhere: our oceans, our food, and even the air we breathe. Synthetic carpets shed plastic into the air inside our homes, and this plastic can accumulate in our lungs with every breath.

Step 5: Disposing of the Plastic

Once used, plastic has three options for disposal: landfill, recycling, and incineration. 

If left in the environment, plastics will last for hundreds to thousands of years, and their toxic remains pose serious hazards. For instance, landfilled plastic leaches toxins that generate super-polluted runoff.

Many companies have pushed recycling as the solution to plastic pollution and landfills. But even though most people in the U.S. now use their blue and green bins, only 6% of the plastic we use actually gets recycled.

That’s because recycling is notoriously tricky and typically much more expensive than just making new plastic. Ultimately, most of the plastic that we put in recycling bins goes to landfills.

At the same time, recycling has its own environmental footprint. It requires electricity usually sourced from fossil fuels and toxic solvents. Plus, recycling facilities are prone to catching fire, releasing toxic fumes from burning plastic in hard-to-control blazes. 

Intentional incineration presents another option. Incinerators are a more common destination for plastic than recycling centers — the U.S. burned 19% of its plastic in 2019.

But incineration produces toxic air emissions and contributes to climate change. Garbage incineration, often used to generate electricity, may produce more climate pollution per megawatt than some fossil fuels. 

Breaking the Cycle: Cutting Off Plastic’s Toxic Legacy

For decades, oil and gas companies have raked in profits from the fracking boom, while the rest of us are stuck with the consequences: public health and climate disasters.

More recently, the fracking boom flooded U.S. markets with more fossil fuels. Companies then created new markets to soak up the excess and keep profits coming in.

As a result, we’re now swamped with a glut of unnecessary and harmful plastic goods.

Throughout its lifecycle, plastic pushes us further into climate chaos. It threatens out health and our ecosystems. And it’s sticking around for generations.

Most plastic made today — including the packaging and products we toss in minutes — will share this earth with our great-grandchildren.

To stem this toxic tide, we can’t depend on inadequate and hazardous disposal methods like incineration. We need to stop plastic production from growing. And that requires plugging it at the source by banning fracking and shutting down dangerous petrochemical plants.

Help us fight Big Oil’s plastic-palooza. Tell your Congressmembers to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act!

* Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters wide. Microplastics are in commercial products. They also form during the breakdown and use of larger plastics.

Time to face it —~it’s people or plastics.~We can’t have both.

Become a plastic pollution fighter this Earth~ Day and have your gift MATCHED $3-to-$1!

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