Skip to main content

How Plastic is Made


Key Takeaways

  • Plastic comes from fossil fuels, primarily from fracked gas.
  • The process of making plastic is incredibly polluting and a big contributor to climate change.
  • In 2015 alone, the production of plastic resulted in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 15 coal plants running around the clock for a full year, or 4% of all carbon emissions worldwide.
  • Regulations and laws addressing the dangers of plastic manufacturing aren’t strong.
  • We cannot reach established climate goals while allowing plastic to proliferate


What you can do right now to help:
  • Reduce your personal consumption of single-use plastic.
  • Protest new fracking wells and cracker plants.
  • Fight against new or expanded pipeline networks.
  • Support the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act as well as any local and state bills proposed to reduce plastic.


How Is Plastic Manufactured?

99% of plastic is made from petrochemical raw materials like coal, crude oil and natural gas.

In the United States, plastic is primarily made from ethane, which is a byproduct of the fracking of natural gas. Over a series of chemical reactions, the ethane is transformed into plastic resins that can then be used for manufacturing. 

Basics of Fracking

The first step of plastic production in the U.S. is hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking. It is the process of drilling one mile into the earth vertically then another few miles horizontally, in order to inject millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into the rock to open fissures, releasing trapped oil and gas. The extracted oil and gas rise up through a pipe to the surface where they are transported through pipelines to processing plants where ethane is isolated. 

Basics of Cracking

After the ethane is isolated in the processing plants, it needs to be transported in pipelines to cracker plants, where it can be converted to ethylene. This conversion happens under high heat (fossil fuel burning), in large industrial facilities, each one the size of 3 football fields. In 2021, there were 26 cracker plants across the United States.

Basics of Plastic Polymerization and Resin Production

After the ethylene is formed, it is joined in long molecular chains to become polyethylene. The polyethylene is melted into long tubes, cut into small plastic resin pellets called nurdles, and shipped to manufacturers to be used for making different plastic products. 

How Is All of This Bad for the Environment?

First, trees and fields are destroyed to build the fracking wells, pipelines, cracker plants, eliminating their natural roles as carbon sinks. The machinery involved in prepping the land, drilling the wells, transporting the fracking water and sand, and powering the facilities, all require combustion of fuels resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, pipelines and fracking sites leak methane into the atmosphere regularly. 

It has been estimated that emissions in 2015 alone from extraction and transportation of fracked gas were between 9.5 and 10.5 million metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of emissions from 2.1 million cars driven for a year. Cracker plants are even worse. In 2015, 24 ethylene cracker facilities in the United States produced 17.5 million metric tons of CO2e, emitting as much CO2 as 3.8 million passenger vehicles. 


Methane Leaks are Bad, Right?

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2. During the fracking process, methane is unintentionally leaked both at the site and throughout the pipeline network. However, it is also intentionally released through venting (direct release to atmosphere) or flaring (burning on site) if the gas is mined faster than pipelines can move it away. In fact, somewhere between 3% and 12% of methane produced from fracking is lost to the atmosphere. 


What about the Water Used in Fracking?

The huge amount of wastewater from fracking contains salts, toxic chemicals, organic matter, and naturally occurring radioactive material. It is supposed to be managed in specific ways, but frequently it is improperly controlled. There are dozens of studies showing evidence of local groundwater contamination near fracking sites, which can affect local ecosystems and human drinking water. 


What are the Health Risks of Fracking and Cracking?

There are 12.6 million people who live within a half mile of oil and gas facilities, and even more live within range of cracker plants. Air pollution at these facilities puts those individuals at increased risk for cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. But they are also at risk because of the 353 chemicals used in the production of oil and gas which can affect the skin, eyes, respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, liver, brain and nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular system, and the kidneys. And on top of the physical risks, there are mental stressors associated with living near these loud, incessant polluters. 


What about Bioplastic?

To make bioplastic, the raw material comes from plants, instead of fossil fuels. However, the process is energy intensive in its own right, and once the plants are refined into olefins, the process and associated risks are identical to making plastic from fossil fuels. The plastic that is formed can sometimes be compostable in industrial facilities and can sometimes be recycled. Most often, it is thrown away because the facilities to process it do not exist in abundance. 


Challenges of Mitigating Problems Created by Plastics Production

The plastics industry is rapidly expanding. At least 300 new and expanded petrochemical projects are currently being built in the United States alone—primarily for the production of plastic and plastic feedstock


There are 9 federal environmental and health laws with regulations limiting the release of pollutants into the air and water and requiring the disposal and cleanup of hazardous wastes by the fossil fuel industry, including the Clear Air, Clean Water, Resource Conservation and Recovery Acts. Many of these laws have exemptions and limitations that affect their applicability, however, and so there is no guarantee that they will adequately protect public health and the environment. 


State governments have authority for regulating fracking and cracker plants within their borders in the following areas: well constructing; water protection; the maximum amount of pressure used during the fracking process; and the disclosure of the types and volumes of liquids and chemicals used. In states where the fossil fuel industry produces substantial employment and tax revenues, enforcement of regulations is lax or nonexistent. Only MA, MD, NY, and VT ban fracking. 


Fracking and cracker plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities with residents at high risk for health problems resulting from air pollution and contaminated water. Municipalities have the regulatory authority to protect the health of their residents and the community’s environment. They may be reluctant to exercise this authority, however, because of the perceived economic benefits to the community without considering the health and environmental impact of petrochemical operations in their midst. In addition, the local government’s authority may be restricted by state laws and regulations. 


Natural gas: a mixture of gases and liquids that are released from the ground through fracking. It consists primarily of methane gas plus ethane, propane and butane in liquid form. Methane gas is primarily what fuels our homes. 

Methane: The primary component of natural gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. 

Ethane: A liquid component of natural gas that is without market value until it is “cracked” into ethylene.

Olefins: the building blocks of plastic. They are small molecules that can be linked in long polymer chains which are used to create pellets from which all plastics are made. 

Ethylene: the most common olefin for making plastic. Created by cracking ethane.


Deep Dive


Everything you need to know about Plastic and Climate from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). – see chapters 4 and 5; an executive summary is available at:

Everything you need to know about Plastic and Health from CIEL. – see chapters 2 and 3; an executive summary is available at:

Oil and Gas Regulations, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, 2021.

The Environmental and Occupational Health Impacts of Unconventional Oil and Gas Industry, Policy Statement, Nov 13, 2018, American Public Health Association.

Congressional Democrats Join the Debate Over Plastics Booming Future, Feb 21, 2020, Inside Climate News.

Community Groups Urge US Department of Energy to Halt Gas, Ethane Development, Ohio River Valley Institute, Aug 21, 2021.

Stopping Ethane Cracker Plants Campaign Toolkit, The Climate Reality Project, 2021.

The Health Behind Plastics Cracker Plants, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, Feb 2021.



Beyond Plastics – A nationwide nonprofit organization working to end plastic pollution.

Inside Climate News – A nonprofit, nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize–winning news organization that provides reporting and analysis on climate change and the environment.

Drilled News – An independent news outlet focused on climate accountability.

Americans Against Fracking: A National Coalition to Ban Fracking – Supports federal, state and local efforts to ban fracking, enact moratoriums, and stopy practices that facilitate fracking. Members include 31 national organizations and organizations in 31 states.


Written by the Zero Waste Team of Brookline Mothers Out Front