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Why Is Plastic So Problematic?

three images representing plastic pollution: a sea turtle swimming among plastic gloves, a pile of trash in a landfill, and an overflowing trash can

Plastic, the versatile material with countless uses, has become a major environmental concern. But what exactly makes plastic so troublesome?

Overflowing trash cans and littered beaches may be the most visible problems associated with plastic, but they're just the tip of the iceberg. Plastic pollution affects people, animals, and the planet at every stage of its lifecycle.

Plastic Pollutes at Every Stage of Its Lifecycle

Let's take a closer look at the four stages of plastic: extraction, production, consumption, and disposal.

Extraction: Did you know that plastic is made from oil? Yes, the same stuff that powers cars and planes. The oil industry contributes significantly to climate change and pollutes rivers, oceans, land, and air. In fact, as the auto industry shifts toward electric vehicles, the oil industry is relying on the growth of plastics to stay afloat.

Production: Once the oil is extracted, it undergoes chemical transformations to become plastic. This process involves using vast amounts of dangerous chemicals and produces toxic byproducts, including poisonous fumes and pollutants. In Louisiana's Cancer Alley, where numerous plastic plants are located, residents suffer from high cancer rates due to these harmful emissions.

Consumption: Although we can't see it with the naked eye, plastic products release microplastics when used and disposed of. These minuscule fragments of plastic are light enough to be carried to every corner of the planet and ingested by organisms of all sizes. While research on the impact of microplastics on human health is still in its early stages, studies have found them in human organs and even in the placenta. Given that plastic contains toxic chemicals, it's not ideal to have it inside our bodies. Moreover, plastic can leach chemicals into food, especially fatty or highly acidic foods. Heating plastic can accelerate chemical leaching, so it's best to avoid using plastic containers for food, opting for glass, ceramic, or stainless steel instead.

Disposal: Here's a surprising fact: 91% of plastic has never been recycled. Despite the emphasis on recycling, the truth is that plastic is not designed to be recycled. It's cheaper and easier for companies to produce new plastic rather than recycle and reuse it. Consequently, globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, around 20% is burned (releasing toxic fumes), more than 60% ends up in landfills, and the rest is mismanaged (think litter on streets and dumping into rivers). Plastic in landfills can leach chemicals into the ground and persist for hundreds of years (one plastic water bottle takes 450 years to break apart), posing long-term environmental threats that we cannot even begin to understand.

Addressing A Global Problem

Avoiding plastic entirely is impossible, and that's not what I'm suggesting. Plastic has revolutionized modern life, enabling advancements in medicine, technology, and more. However, the plastic we can do without is the throwaway kind—single-use plastic that is discarded after a short period. This includes plastic bags, utensils, to-go containers, styrofoam cups, straws, and packaging. In fact, 40% of all plastic produced is for single use and for packaging.

We can make a difference by demanding change and supporting initiatives like the Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution. This treaty urges governments to take action against plastic production, hold polluters accountable, and protect affected communities. Organizations such as Break Free From Plastic and Plastic Pollution Coalition are driving this movement, and I encourage you to check out their websites and join the cause.

Tackling the plastic pollution problem requires action at all levels of society. As individuals, we can contribute by reducing our reliance on disposable plastic. Bringing reusable bottles, utensils, grocery bags, and containers is a great start. Opting for non-plastic packaging, such as naked fruits and vegetables, as well as products packaged in aluminum and glass (both infinitely recyclable), also makes a difference.

Plastic Free July, a global movement to reduce single-use plastic, is coming up next month. Stay tuned to Climate Reality and my social media channels (@usefullco on Instagram and Facebook) for ways to minimize plastic waste.

Do you have any questions about plastic? Leave a comment, and I'll address them during Plastic Free July!


Adriana Kao is the founder/owner of usefull, DFW's first refillery and zero waste shop. Contact her at, or visit to learn more.

Any participant views or opinions expressed in the Blog section of this website are solely those of the author and do not represent those of The Climate Reality Project. The Climate Reality Project and the DFW chapter welcome all points of view and opinions, but reserve the right to remove posts and comments that violate our community ground rules or contain non-evidence-based claims.

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