A New Report Details the Climate, Health and Human Rights Impacts of a Plastic Bottle

by Jodi Helmer

Published: 6/07/23, Last updated: 11/28/23

It’s hard to escape PET plastics. Polyethylene terephthalate (better known as PET) has become the food packaging material of choice since it was patented in 1973: It’s used to produce approximately 600 billion plastic bottles every year, which are destined to be filled with everything from soda and water to mouthwash and salad dressing. But just because PET is one of the most commonly used plastics doesn’t mean it’s innocuous.

“A plastic bottle…embodies a lot of harm from manufacturing until the point that it reaches the consumer, [and then] the waste it creates afterwards,” says Mike Belliveau, executive director at Defend Our Health, a nonprofit organization focused on environmental safety and social justice. “Petrochemical plastics are problematic at every turn.”

On May 23, Defend Our Health, in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Beyond Petrochemicals campaign, released “Hidden Hazards: The Chemical Footprint of a Plastic Bottle,” a new report that explores the impact of PET plastics across their entire life cycle. Its authors find that the proliferation of single-use PET plastics — notably by companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo — “may prolong the climate crisis, threaten human health, and promote environmental racism.”

“We wanted to take an item that everyone can relate to,” Belliveau explains, “and tell a story about the harm that gets embedded in the steps of making this product.”

This deeper understanding of the ills of plastic comes at a crucial time: Last week saw the second session, in Paris, of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, a United Nations committee with representatives from 150 countries that has been charged with developing a global plastics treaty. The group convened for the first time in December 2022 to discuss global mandates that would reduce or eliminate plastic pollution by 2040, and negotiations are expected to last until 2024. Defend Our Health’s findings about plastics, public health and human rights show that an international agreement can’t come soon enough.

Much attention has been given to the environmental impacts of plastic production — and for good reason. In North America, PET is linked to 8.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, and the manufacturing process across the supply chain releases 200 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the air and water every year. PET plastics are made from non-renewable fossil fuel resources, and their extraction in the U.S through fracking is also linked to air and water pollution.

The new report, though, finds that plastics don’t just hurt the planet — they affect people, too. Defend Our Health links plastic production to serious health concerns, including cancer, and identifies it as a driver of environmental racism. Most of the PET plants in the United States are located in low-income communities with high proportions of residents of color, who face considerable risks from toxic emissions that include carcinogens like 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide.

“There is a myth that persists that somehow people are separate from our environments,” says Phaedra C. Pezzullo, associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the forthcoming book “Beyond Straw Men: Plastic Polluted and Networked Cultures of Care.” The truth is simple, she explains: “If plastics harm the oceans, they harm us. We are interconnected.”

The key to creating systemic change, Pezzullo says, is understanding the full scope of the harms associated with production, use and disposal. “The plastics-industrial complex…has sold us a myth that plastics have no limits, and that recycling solves the harms of plastics,” she adds. “But plastic bottles…become curses in our bodies and interconnected ecologies.”

Fewer than 30 percent of the plastic bottles in the U.S. are collected for recycling (and of those, just one-third are turned back into bottles); the remaining 70 percent are incinerated, sent to the landfill or littered. But even if those numbers were to improve, as many have pointed out, we can’t recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis.

“There has been too much of an emphasis on management of waste, and not enough on reducing waste before it is even created,” says Macy Zander, reuse communities policy and engagement officer at Upstream, a nonprofit that does reuse advocacy and waste-reduction consulting. “Much more focus needs to be placed on the ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ piece of the waste hierarchy.”

Read our report The FoodPrint of Food Packaging

Belliveau wants to see a wholesale “source reduction,” including commitments from companies to divest from fossil-based plastics and replace single-use items with refillable or reusable containers. “Reducing production is what’s going to solve the problem,” he says. He’s far from alone in these appeals; Pacific Environment, the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators and the University of Portsmouth’s Global Plastics Policy Centre have also released reports in recent weeks.

Companies, however, won’t scale back production on their own: “We don’t have enough leadership from the federal government,” Belliveau adds. “Industry tends to be complacent if the federal government is not prodding them to make change.”

Some states have proposed legislation on single-use plastics and food packaging. In April, Maine legislators introduced a bill that, if passed, would prevent the sale or distribution of products that are contained, protected or distributed using PET plastic with two cancer-causing additives beginning in 2025. A bill recently introduced in New York would require companies with a net annual income of more than $1 million to reduce packaging and support reuse and refill infrastructure.

But Julia Cohen, co-founder and managing director of the nonprofit advocacy group Plastic Pollution Coalition, notes that, even for existing laws, efficacy has been limited by uneven implementation and enforcement — and bans or taxes on single-use products have failed to prevent exponential increases in plastic production.

“So far, there have been few attempts to craft comprehensive legislation addressing the harmful pollution and injustices plastic poses across its endless existence,” Cohen wrote in an email, “from the extraction and refining of its fossil fuel ingredients, to its manufacturing with toxic additives, to its transportation, use and disposal.”

A global plastics treaty would be the first legally binding international agreement of its kind, with a “zero draft” expected before the end of the year. Still, while a treaty could be “a highly effective tool” for addressing plastic pollution worldwide, Cohen believes its success would depend on the comprehensiveness of the bill and the strength of implementation and enforcement efforts.

“The global plastics treaty must be legally binding, address the full toxic existence of plastic, have an open mandate to address all issues relevant to plastic, require transparent reporting and include technical and financial assistance for regulations to be enforced and solutions to be implemented,” Cohen continued. “Industries that have caused the global plastic crisis should not be permitted to regulate themselves or set standards for this most important agreement — their agenda is only to make more plastic pollution.”

Zander adds that allowing companies to adopt what she calls “regrettable substitutes,” like single-use paper or compostable products, will only create a different set of problems.

“We need to do away with the ‘one way, throw away’ single-use packaging paradigm,” Zander says. “We need to replace it with reuse systems that drive down our need for all resource extraction and production.”

Top photo by warloka79/Adobe Stock.

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