General Terms


Capable of breaking down into its chemical constituents in the natural environment.


A product made secondarily or incidentally from the manufacture of another product.

Cancer Alley

An industrial chemical corridor along the Mississippi River, conventionally defined as the 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The stretch contains seven out of ten census tracts with America’s highest cancer rates.

Circular systems

Intentionally designed industrial systems in which output from one system becomes input for that system or another industrial system, thereby minimizing the creation and disposal of waste and minimizing the need for raw material extraction.

Compressor stations

Facilities that transport gases to major pipelines and can be a major source of air pollutants, which are known to harm humans and the environment.


A corporation that owns unrelated enterprises in a variety of industries.


The flow of a substance (liquid, solid, or gas) from an industrial facility into the surrounding environment.

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs)

Chemicals that mimic, block, or interfere with naturally occurring hormones, disrupting developmental, reproductive, immune, and other bodily systems.

Environmental racism

Any environmental policy or practice, or system of policies or practices, that has the intent or effect of differentially affecting or disadvantaging individuals, groups, or communities based on race, ethnicity, or color.


Water that is found underground in the soil or rock, and which is often the source of drinking water.

Human rights

The fundamental rights and freedoms inherent to all human beings, without distinction as to race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or any other status.


Burning of waste materials resulting in solid materials and a gaseous mixture.


Disposal of waste in a waste pile that is usually underground and may be sanitary (i.e., measures have been taken to prevent leachate) or unsanitary (no prevention measures have been taken).

Low-value plastic

Plastic waste materials that do not have value in local recycling markets (e.g., grocery bags, thin films, composite plastics, and residual polypropylene). Polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, and polypropylene are considered “medium value,” with approximately 25% being recycled locally.


Plastic particles up to 5 millimeters.

Municipal solid waste

Waste generated by households and sometimes including streams of commercial and industrial waste.


A common nickname for the pellet-form used to transport plastic resins before production and processing into familiar plastic products.

Particulate matter

A mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, also called particle pollution, with both natural and human-made industrial sources.


The means of enforcing a right or preventing or redressing a wrong.

Resin identification code

A system to identify the type of resin contained in a given product. These systems are not internationally standardized and can vary by country or region.

Single-use plastic

Disposable forms of plastic that are commonly found in items such as packaging, food and beverage service, and fast-moving consumer goods.


Any discarded material that no longer has value in its present form but may or may not be recyclable or otherwise able to be repurposed.

Zero waste

The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of materials without incineration or landfilling.

Terms Used in Petrochemical Development


Raw materials used for manufacturing plastics.


Common shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a process in which highly pressurized chemical slurry is injected into underground rock formations (shale) to fracture them to release oil and gas.


An apparatus used to separate a raw NGL stream into its various components (ethane, butane, propane, etc.).


A facility that converts oil- or gas-based compounds such as naphtha or natural gas liquids into chemical components used to produce plastics.


A facility that melts raw resin pellets and forms them into small plastic tubes that will later be expanded and formed into various plastic goods.


Equipment used to turn saltwater into freshwater for uses such as irrigation or drinking water.


An operation at refineries that turns material called "bottoms" into other higher-value products and produces petroleum coke, a solid material used in manufacturing.


Long pipes that transport oil, gas, etc., over long distances. Liquefied ethylene, propane, butane, and petrochemical feedstocks are also transported through pipelines. Pipelines bring with them a variety of health and safety risks, and accidents can be caused by human error, natural disasters, and infrastructure failure.


The thermal decomposition of waste materials at temperatures beginning around 200°C without the addition of air or oxygen, resulting in solid and/or liquid residues as well as a gaseous mixture.

Advanced recycling

Processes used to turn plastic polymers back into individual monomers. Examples of these processes include chemical recycling, pyrolysis, and gasification.

Terms Used for Petrochemical Inputs and Product

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)

Natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid state. LNG is then heated back to gas once transported. LNG is used for heating, electricity, and manufacturing.


In the context of this site, monomers are molecules such as ethylene, propylene, or other olefins (derived from oil, gas, or coal) that make up the polymer chains commonly called plastic.

Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs)

Liquid hydrocarbons (made from carbon and hydrogen) that are separated from natural gas. Ethane, propane, butane, isobutane, and pentane are all NGLs.


Chemical combination of smaller particles.


Organic chemicals that form the base for most plastics. The two most important olefins are ethylene and propylene.


A substance (either natural or chemical) that is added to land or soil to increase its productivity.


A substance used to kill, repel, or control insects or other pests that are harmful to plants or animals.

Chemicals Involved in Petrochemical Production


Resultant plastics: polyester, polyethylene terephthalate chip (PET, US resin identification code #1), 72 high-density polyethylene (HDPE, US resin identification code #2), low- density polyethylene (LDPE, US resin identification code #4) [source]

Applications: Packaging and containers for consumer and industrial goods (personal care products, food and beverage, oils and cleaning products, films, bags, shrink wrap), industrial piping, toys, computer parts, industrial and laboratory equipment.

Health and safety impacts: Exposure to ethylene can cause headache, dizziness, fatigue, lightheadedness, confusion, and unconsciousness. It is a highly flammable chemical and is a fire and explosion hazard. [source]

Ethylene glycol

Applications: Used to manufacture polyester fiber and for consumer products including antifreeze. [source]

Health and safety impacts: Short-term exposure includes intoxication, impacting the central nervous system, the heart, and the kidneys. Severe exposure can result in coma, loss of reflexes, and brain damage. [source]

Ethylene oxide

Applications: Used in the production and manufacture of industrial chemicals (e.g., ethylene glycol). [source]

Health and safety impacts: Ethylene oxide is carcinogenic to humans when inhaled. Acute exposure may result in respiratory irritation and lung injury, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and cyanosis. Chronic exposure has been associated with the occurrence of cancer, reproductive effects, mutagenic changes, neurotoxicity, and sensitization. [source]

Ethylene dichloride

Applications: The raw material used to manufacture vinyl chloride monomer. [source]

Health and safety impacts: Inhalation induces respiratory distress, nausea, and vomiting. It affects the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys. The chemical is also highly flammable. When it burns, it releases toxic fumes of hydrochloric acid, and is a suspected human carcinogen. [source]


Resultant plastics: polypropylene (PP, US resin identification code #5)

Applications: Consumer goods and food packaging, automotive components.

Health and safety impacts: High levels of propylene exposure can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting. Exposure may affect the heart, liver, or nervous system. Direct contact can cause frostbite. [source]

Vinyl chloride monomer (VCM)

Resultant plastics: polyvinyl chloride (PVC, US resin identification code #3)

Applications: Primarily industrial piping, building, and construction products.

Health and safety impacts: VCM is a known human carcinogen and is highly explosive. Acute exposure, typically via inhalation, can lead to dizziness, irritation to the eyes, membranes, and respiratory tract, fatigue, coma, or even death. Chronic exposure can cause liver dysfunction, including liver injury or cancer, other forms of cancer, congenital disabilities, genetic changes, neurological or behavioral symptoms, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and changes to the skin and bones. PVC is recognized as a major source of phthalates, known endocrine disruptors, which harm reproductive and nervous systems. [source]


Applications: A building block ingredient used to manufacture PVC plastics and other chemicals such as pesticides and antifreeze. Also used in cleaning and bleaching processes. [source]

Health and safety impacts: Chlorine production uses and emits highly toxic pollutants. Breathing high levels of chlorine causes fluid buildup in the lungs and further lung damage. Contact with chlorine may cause frostbite of the skin and eyes. [source]

Caustic soda (Sodium hydroxide)

Applications: Used to manufacture a variety of products such as paper, alumina, soap, and detergents. It is a feedstock to manufacture a wide range of chemicals and is also used in the fracking process. [source]

Health and safety impacts: Can cause severe burns and permanent damage to any tissue that it comes in contact with because it is corrosive. Inhaled sodium hydroxide can negatively impact the lungs. Ingestion may lead to vomiting, drooling, abdominal pain, or gastrointestinal shock. [source]

Hydrochloric acid

Applications: Used in the production of polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane foam, and calcium chloride. [source]

Health and safety impacts: Hydrochloric acid has toxic effects on human skin and eyes, by causing severe skin irritation, burns, or frostbite. It can have acute health effects if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed, including inflammation, irritation, corrosive burns, severe respiratory distress, or even death. [source]


Applications: Used as feedstock material to manufacture other chemicals such as terephthalic acid and dimethyl- terephthalate, the building blocks to manufacture polyesters. [source]

Health and safety impacts: Xylene can have negative effects on health, in both the short and long term. High concentration exposure can cause a number of effects on the nervous system, such as headaches, lack of muscle coordination, dizziness, confusion, and changes in one’s sense of balance. Some people exposed to very high levels of xylene for a short period of time have died. [source]

Header photo credit: Maren Cooke