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The Health Crisis of Plastics

Plastics Action - A Guide to the Plastics and Toxics Crisis

Published May 2024

Since their invention in the 1950s, plastics have become a ubiquitous part of our lives. Every industry from healthcare to food packaging utilizes plastics in some way. Mounting evidence shows the dangerous impact plastics have on human health and the planet. Current plastic production levels are unsustainable, and dramatic changes are needed to protect human health and the environment.

Elected officials have the power to adopt solutions to end the plastic crisis.

Plastics Harm Humans and the Environment Throughout Their Entire Lifecycle

  • Plastics have a toxic lifestyle. Plastic harms people and the environment from the moment petroleum is extracted for its production through disposal and even recycling. Every day, as more plastic is developed and reused more of it enters our bodies and the environment.
  • Most plastics are made from oil. The vast majority of plastics are made from petroleum that is ‘processed ’ into different types of plastic. Certain types of plastics like PVC are made from particularly toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride. Families living next to extraction facilities have disproportionate health impacts compared to the rest of the population.
  • Toxic additives are in many plastics. After the base plastic is made, more chemicals are added to them to make them harder, softer, more flexible, etc. These chemicals create pollution during production and then leach out during the use and disposal of plastics. Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, birth defects and hormonal alterations.
  • Recycling isn’t a solution for the plastic crisis. Over 40% of all plastics are used only a single time and there is no good way to dispose of plastics.

Microplastics Are Increasingly Found in Water, Soil - and Us

Close-up of micro plastic particles on the fingers under a magnifying glass.

Plastic Is a Driver of Climate Change

Graph source: UPEN’s Global Chemicals Outlook II report
  • The climate crisis and plastics crisis are linked. There is no way to address the climate crisis without addressing the plastics crisis.
  • Chemicals and plastics come from oil and gas. Fossil fuels responsible for the climate crisis—oil and natural gas—form the backbone of the chemical and plastics industry, making up to 99% of its raw material.
  • Chemicals and plastics production is increasing. As demand for fossil fuels for power production and transportation fuels declines, the oil and gas industry is boosting its production of chemicals and plastics.
  • Plastics contribute to climate change. The plastics industry releases about four times as many planet-warming chemicals as the airline industry, equivalent to 600 coal-fired power plants.
  • Families living near facilities are impacted. The domestic plastics and petrochemical build-out is increasing pollution in already unjustly impacted communities such as Louisiana’s infamous “Cancer Alley,” home to more than 150 industrial facilities and refineries.
  • Plastics could undo climate progress. Plastic production is growing so fast that, if left unchecked it will undo any progress that is made on reducing emissions in other sectors.

Families Face Unequal Burden of Plastic Pollution

Debris from a Norfolk Southern freight train lies scattered and burning along the tracks on Feb. 4, 2023, the day after it derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.

Facilities that extract oil and refine it into plastics have historically operated near communities of color and low-income communities, such as the Chemical Valley around Charleston, West Virginia, or Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. These communities face high rates of diseases due to years of being exposed to highly toxic chemicals like benzene in their air.

Communities that are close to rail lines are also at risk. Residents living in East Palestine, Ohio still suffer from rashes and breathing problems after a train carrying vinyl chloride, the well-known plastic used in construction, derailed and triggered a massive chemical fire.


Vinyl chloride, used to make PVC plastic, was unnecessarily spilled and purposely burned in my community, making my friends and family sick and poisoning our water and land for years to come. This incident should serve as a reminder of the externalized costs of our unchecked use of toxic plastics. We all live in the shadow of the fossil fuel industry, who once promised the world a life of safety and prosperity with plastics. But now we know that our pervasive use of plastics has shattered our dreams, filled our oceans, fractured our landscapes and made us sick.” 

Jess Conard
Resident of East Palestine, OH

“We are not prepared for catastrophic disasters. Rural Alaska, rural communities, indigenous tribes all over the world are under assault… We are overwhelmed with concern about the health harms associated with climate change, the loss of sea ice and melting permafrost, and the mobilization of chemicals and plastics — these are all interconnected. We are running out of time!”

Delbert Pungowiyi
Yupik Elder, Arctic Indigenous Leader and Human Rights Advocate, Sivuqaq, Alaska

“We worry about what is being emitted from the incinerator stack and what is leaching from the ash landfill where the ash gets dumped. What is building up in our water and in the local fish and what exactly are we breathing? We need serious solutions that will better protect our community’s health and we need them now.”

Loretta LaCentra
Revere, MA resident living downstream from a local incinerator

Voters Want Less Plastics

“Chemical Recycling”: A Disaster Disguised as a Solution

A house on Goodhope Street near the Shell Norco refinery. Photo by Chris Granger at The Advocate.
  • As public concern grows over the global plastic crisis, the chemical and plastic industry is promoting technologies like so-called “chemical recycling,” “advanced recycling,” or “molecular recycling”. These are not solutions at all but are often new ways to incinerate plastic, creating even more pollution and hazardous waste generation.
  • Investors are warning the market away from and canceling financing for these technologies due to their “failure to deliver.”
  • Over 70% of voters are concerned about chemical recycling’s impact on the environment.


Voters want real solutions to the plastic crisis. The good news is that these solutions already at hand: 

  1. Eliminate the most problematic plastic materials. Voters want lawmakers to enact policies that reduce the most hazardous plastics and plastic additives. Policies that eliminate PVC, polystyrene and additives including phthalates and bisphenols should be adopted to protect public health.
  2. Eliminate unneeded plastic use and promote non-toxic reuse. Lawmakers should enact policies that eliminate the unnecessary use of plastic including single-use packaging and pair that with incentives and subsidies for non-toxic reuse solutions.
  3. Prevent false solutions. Lawmakers should stop toxic false solutions such as so-called “chemical recycling” or polluting disposal technologies by rejecting attempts to classify these toxic technologies as recycling as well as any kind of government subsidies for these facilities.
  4. Protect health and address microplastics. Comprehensive testing of drinking water, soil and air is necessary to determine the scope of microplastic pollution. Lawmakers should also reduce the spread of microplastics through plastic reduction and reuse policies.