What is Polyolefin Plastic and is it Toxic?

What is Polyolefin Plastic and is it Toxic?
We’ve seen polyolefin plastic pop up several times recently, so we decided to find out what this mysterious material really is and whether it’s toxic.


We've seen polyolefin plastic listed as an ingredient several times recently, so we decided to dig in and find out what this mysterious material really is and whether it's considered toxic or not.

It turns out that polyolefin is actually the class of plastic that includes materials such as poly-alpha-olefin, polybutene, polyethylene and polypropylene. Ethylene, propylene, the butenes, and butadiene are the more complex olefin molecular structures that are used to make the plastics we're familiar with like polyethylene and polypropylene, which are part of the #5 recycling category.

Where You'll Find Polyolefin Plastic

Here's a short explanation of how polyolefins are formed for use in textiles according to the European Association for Textile Polyolefins that helps shed light on this complicated subject,

Polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) polymers are the starting point of polyolefin (PO) textiles production. They are plastic resins, polymerized [the process of reacting monomer molecules together in a chemical reaction to form polymer chains] from propylene in the case of PP and from ethylene in the case of PE.

In homes and automobiles, clothing and carpeting, health care and industry, polyolefin is quietly at work in thousands of applications around the world. Polyolefin plastics and fibers keep our carpeting clean and transport moisture away from the body to keep our active wear dry. They protect sterile environments and soak up industrial spills.

It may surprise you to know that according to a 2012 report by HealthyStuff.org, automakers have begun replacing toxic PVC with polyurethanes and polyolefins in an effort to reduce off-gassing of VOC's in car interiors expressly because they contain fewer harmful additives and are easier to recycle (P.S. Honda and Toyota were rated as top manufacturers in their PVC reduction efforts).

Most of us are aware that these materials were created to bridge the gap between plastic and rubber, and are formulated for use in a huge number of applications, many of which we come into contact with every single day:

  • Plastic shrink wrap and shrink film
  • Some food containers
  • Heat shrink tubing
  • Insulation
  • Caster wheels
  • Packaging
  • Electronics and household appliances
  • Building and construction
  • Industrial and healthcare applications
  • Fabric and textiles

Our biggest concern with polyolefin being listed as a product ingredient is that it seems to be umbrella language, a catch-all term. The word polyolefin actually encompasses an extraordinary range of materials, but the average consumer wouldn't know that. So we have questions: Why isn't the specific ingredient listed? Are there chemicals additives being hidden?

Like most synthetic substances, chemicals and other materials are often utilized for different polyolefin applications to achieve desired color, flame retardancy, photo resistance, flexibility and softness and can contain additives and processing aids that include UV absorbers, stabilizers, nucleating agents, antioxidants, glass fibers, phthalates, BPA and nanoingredients.

So Is Polyolefin Plastic Considered Toxic or Not?

In short, polyolefins are plastics that can be very stable. In fact, polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) make up over half of the +150 million metric tons of thermoplastics demanded worldwide (with PE accounting for nearly two-thirds of all POs), and both plastics are acceptably safe. HOWEVER…there's the other 50% that could be cause for concern with the possibility of leaching, decreased stability, hundreds of additives, lack of adequate safety testing, and are generally more unfamiliar (unless you're a molecular biologist that is).

So once again, it's up to us to take upon ourselves the responsibility of finding out what our products are actually made of (contact manufacturers and confirm materials), voice our concerns with any found toxins and vote with our wallets, and express our dissatisfaction with the use of unclear terminology.

Have you ever come across polyolefin plastic in your everyday products?


  1. Just wondering if you had ever seen this article on EWG http://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2008/11/search-safe-plastics (It has to do with polypropylene). It’s quite an old article, but it gave me pause. I know polypropylene is a generally accepted safe plastic, but so was BPA once. Anyway, given the age of the article and the fact that polypropylene is still being touted as a safe plastic, perhaps there are documented studies that negate the one referenced in this article. I’d love to get your thoughts.

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