The Gulf disaster has brought into cruel relief our reliance on petroleum-based products and made it all too clear how much that reliance is costing us and our environment. Reducing our dependence on oil means burning less gas by carpooling, taking public transportation, bicycling and walking. But we consume oil in many everyday products without even knowing it and excess plastic packaging only adds to the problem. In this ongoing series we look at how oil is used in products and how to stretch our resources further by choosing petroleum-free products, recycling plastic waste and buying items with recycled content.

Plastic food storage containers, packaging and cups
The petroleum problem: Almost all of the plastics found in a typical American kitchen are made from petroleum-based polymers. Several different variations of these synthetic plastics make up almost everything from milk jugs to insulation products to packaging. See Plastics by the Numbers for more on each of these plastics. 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: Buy in bulk, bring your own containers and cups, or otherwise reduce your use of packaging wherever feasible. Reuse plastic food containers like yogurt cups where you can, and look for products packaged in recycled content and recyclable materials. “Bioplastics,” or compostable plastics made from renewable resources, may be preferable to synthetic polymers (especially if they are made from agricultural wastes such as bagasse or straw), but better still are stainless steel products or glass containers, which are long-lived and more readily recyclable than most plastics.

As for beverage containers, when on the go, consider bringing a reusable water bottle to avoid the need to purchase single-use beverage containers. If you do need to buy single-use beverages, you may be able to choose aluminum cans or glass bottles instead of plastic bottles. Recycle used beverage containers too.

Plastic bags
The petroleum problem: The production of plastic bags is a petroleum-intensive process, and these non-biodegradable items end up littering our landscapes and landfills. 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: The U.N. is calling for a global ban of plastic bags, but in the meantime it’s easy to limit our consumption of plastic bags at the grocery store or anywhere else we shop. Bring reusable bags on your next shopping trip. Just be sure to wash your reusable bag intermittently. If you already have a stack of plastic bags building up at your house, reuse them wherever possible (for food storage, trashcan liners, pet waste, etc.), and also check with your local grocery store or local waste management authority to see if they take back bags for recycling.

Laundry detergent
The petroleum problem: The majority of laundry detergents are derived from petroleum, and also contain other harmful chemicals. 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: Look for plant-based, biodegradable products. The Natural Products Association, which requires that 95 percent of ingredients must be derived from natural sources, now certifies cleaners and detergents. According to Seventh Generation, if the 107 million US households each replaced a single bottle of conventional detergent with one using plant-based ingredients, the total oil savings could provide a year’s heating and cooling for 8,500 homes. Check out This or That: Laundry Detergent Powder vs. Liquid.

The petroleum problem: Gum was originally made from natural chicle, but now its long-lasting rubbery consistency comes from petroleum-based polymers. Goodyear, the tire and rubber company, actually supplies Wrigley’s gum with a large portion of its main ingredients! 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: There are still a few brands of gum that can be found in health food stores or online that use natural chicle and no petroleum products. However, if you’re looking for something a little more accessible, try satisfying your minty cravings with natural herbal mints!

The petroleum problem: Crayons are most commonly made with paraffin wax, a petroleum-derived product. Over 12 million crayons are produced every day by one factory alone in the U.S. — this amounts to 60 tons of petroleum-derived crayons daily. 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: Look for petroleum-free craft supplies like natural beeswax and soywax crayons. Options include Stubby Pencil Studio crayons, which are made from a combination of plant and vegetable waxes and pure beeswax, and Prang crayons, which use a soybean-based wax.

The petroleum problem: Candles are another product that uses a paraffin-wax base, a byproduct of petroleum refining. Contaminants in paraffin, such as toluene, benzene, methyl ethyle ketone and naphthalene (substances found in paint, lacquer, and varnish removers), make it a particularly problematic choice for candles, since they may enter the air we breathe at home. The American Lung Association also notes that recent studies suggest that burning candles increases pollution by fine particles. 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: Candles made from soy wax, beeswax, and essential oils are fairly easy to come across and do not include the contaminants found in paraffin, so their smoke poses less of a health threat.

Canned food
The petroleum problem: Food additives — including sodium benzoate, FD&C red 40 and yellow 5 — put in canned goods to extend their shelf life and give them an unnaturally appealing color are yet more petrochemicals. The human body is not designed to consume petrochemicals, so there are many possible risks behind over-processed foods. New studies are linking food dye consumption to ADHD. Bisphenol-A (or BPA), a chemical commonly found in can linings, is widely known to interfere with hormone production and is therefore associated with various diseases. Many varieties of additives have already been banned (for a full list see the Center for Science in the Public Interest), but still more of these ingredients remain in grocery stores. 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: Wherever possible, buy fresh, organic produce and limit purchases of canned food. Frozen food in recyclable cardboard as well as foods packaged in glass also make a suitable alternative to cans.

Lip balm
The petroleum problem: Most lip balm brands use a petroleum jelly base, which may provide short-term comfort but is easy to ingest, which can cause stomach upset and diarrhea. 

The Gulf-friendly alternative: Beeswax- and shea butter-based lip balms have no known negative health effects.

This article was written for Simple Steps by Julia Black and was reprinted with permission.

Photo (yogurt): listener42/Flickr

Photo (shopping bag): ZUMA Press

Photo (laundry detergent): trixieskips/Flickr

Photo (gumball dispenser): Jupiterimages

Photo (crayons): Jupiterimages

Photo (candle): beta karel/Flickr

Photo (can): Jupiterimages

Photo (lip balm): Valeri / DutchBlytheFashion/Flickr

MNN homepage photo: IvovIJzendoorn/iStockphoto