There has been so much critical attention given to our world’s plastic problem. Approximately 300 million tons of plastics are produced each year, of which very little is currently recycled and way too much ends up as litter and marine pollution. Heart wrenching images of sea animals with plastic in their bellies or around their neck are disturbingly common to see now. Much of the dialog around plastic is focused on consumer habits and end of life. How can we recycle more? How can we reuse more? What single use can we eliminate through elegant zero waste swaps? These are essential steps to take.
But, it is important to recognize that this way of thinking focuses predominantly only on one major issue with plastic - end of life. And, frankly, it also positions the #plasticfree movement as one that is high end, luxury and aspirational. We cannot look past the issues that surround plastics in their early life stages. The production of plastics is equally problematic, and its impact disproportionately affects predominantly Black and brown communities in the US.
The concept of an environmental issue, namely pollution, having greater or disproportionate effects on people of certain races and ethnicities is often referred to as “environmental racism”. Though pollution exists everywhere in the US, many communities of color tend to live much closer to the factories that most directly and heavily pollute their air, soil, and water quality. People of color on average tend to be exposed to a “38% higher level of nitrogen dioxide than white people” (nitrogen dioxide being a greenhouse gas and pollutant, whose presence in the atmosphere contributes to the “formation or presence of other pollutants”). These minority residents are two times more likely than white residents to reside within the “fenceline zone” of industrial facilities who significantly contribute to various forms of pollution resulting in health and safety concerns.
They also tend to live closer to landfills or trash incineration facilities, coal processors and other facilities that produce toxic waste. According to the report “Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty”, data spanning a twenty year period found that more than 50% of people who live within “1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities” in the US are people of color. Class aside, areas populated mainly by minorities tend to have the best chances of being selected for the placement of hazardous waste facilities and sites: “In fact, places that are already disproportionately populated by minories, and where their numbers are growing, have the best chances of being selected”, according to Paul Mohai, professor at the University of Michigan and founder of the environmental justice program there. Zoning, lack or ignorance of regulation, and corporate decision making leads to Black and brown communities having more proximity to these types of operations than white communities.
The production of plastic is associated with various types of pollution. The most visible and prevalent form is the packaging that ends up in the landfill or around our cities. Plastic takes between 20-500 years to fully decompose depending on its form (WWF), meaning that a plastic item you use today may outlive you, based on various factors such as amounts of sunlight and degree of burial in a landfill. The resulting products are not the only pollutant, as the plastic production itself and the items lifecycle also result in pollutant production. Plastic production often begins with natural gas extraction. Exposure to the byproducts released during extraction leads to “adverse health outcomes, including respiratory symptoms, cardiovascular disease, and cancer” (UCSUSA). High and long-term exposure further increases workers’ chances of health issues. Air pollution is an invisible side effect that stems from the release of toxic chemicals during production.
Plastic is made from various materials such as benzene, vinyl hydrochloride, and phthalates, whose byproducts heavily pollute the air and eventually the soil, and have the potential to cause health concerns like cancer when released into the air. Phthalates are linked to harmful effects on fertility, endocrine glands, and birth defects. Along with air pollution often comes water and soil pollution. In bodies of water, plastic often breaks down into very small or even microscopic pieces known as microplastics. The biggest harm associated with microplastics is that they exist not only in the waterways but also the potable water and seafood we eat. Build-up of these in human and animal systems have many adverse effects because of the introduction of toxins into the digestive system (Watershed). Much like water pollution, soil is polluted due to toxins related to the production or breakdown of plastic. Soil contamination may affect the crops we grow or animals we raise. Microplastics and toxins have the potential to enter into our system as well which may lead to toxic poisoning over time.
People who live close to plastic production facilities experience severe negative health consequences as a result of all of this pollution. Impacts include cancer, organ malfunction, impaired sensory organs (eyes, skin), birth defects, and many more illnesses. The factory runoff spreads pathogens and toxic chemicals into water sources that are relied upon for people’s daily needs. A study from Yale University found that “non-Hispanic whites” had the lowest rates of exposure to 11 out of 14 pollutants being analyzed.
One of the most well known areas in the US affected by pollutants as a result of environmental racism at play is “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana. This area is home to a predominantly Black community and expands for 85 miles along the Mississippi River found between the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Encompassed within the area are over 150 factory plants and refineries, referred to as “Cancer Alley” by the residents who noticed the overwhelming number of cancer patients living in the area. The area is the second largest producer of petrochemicals in the country (Business Insider).
Many (about 140 of the 150) of the polluters are chemical plants and oil refineries but the area is also home to plastic production facilities, including the biggest in the US. Recently, the “Taiwanese plastics giant” Formosa. The building of the plant was named the “Sunshine Project” and has now been enabled, via permits, to put 800 tons/ year of pollutants into the most polluted area in America (Guardian). The project will contribute not only to the pollution in the area but it will “also be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.” (Guardian). The Environmental Department in Louisiana has set an allowance of 13.6 million tons of GHG emissions per year, “the equivalent of three and a half coal fired power stations” (Guardian). This is one of the latest pollution emitting factories to be placed in the area and the most notable plastic and petrochemical manufacturer in the area.
The residents are 50 times more likely to get cancer as a result of the polluted air compared to the average American (Business Insider). The plastics industry is a large contributor to the mass pollution, as factories that convert raw materials into polymers tend to be located near poor communities, which describes many of the communities found within this area. According to Talk Poverty, Pat Bryant of the Justice and Beyond Organization equated the mass pollution of the water, air, and land relied upon by the many residents of the area as “planned killing” and “genocide”.
This area came to be a predominantly Black agricultural community following the emancipation of slaves in the South. This area became the perfect place for them to farm because of its close proximity to the river and fertile lands. Many families had lived here for generations, and now face life in one of the most polluted areas in the United States. Many communities in the area have now been left mostly abandoned as a result of the effects on residents of the environmentally racist placement of polluting facilities.
What Can We Do?
The Environmental Justice movement and activists aim to fight back against these injustices. The movement hopes to change the way that these people are harmed in various aspects of their lives by the intentional or unintentional effects of regulations that may be selectively enforced or completely unenforced relating to environmental problems.
Supporting the Environmental Justice movement is a great way to help further this cause. One of the most helpful changes we have seen on a governmental level that could have direct effects is the “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020”. This bill was introduced in the House in February and has sought to right some of these wrongs by holding plastic producers “fiscally responsible for collecting, managing, and recycling or composting the products after consumer use” (Congress).
In addition to supporting environmental justice organizations and voting for like minded policy makers, you can also think about how your consumption of plastic materials affects people, especially those living in vulnerable communities. Analyzing the life cycle of the plastic you are buying or using is a good place to start in sparking change. Reduce your single-use plastic consumption. Look for more eco-friendly solutions and swaps so demand for virgin plastic can be reduced.
One pitfall in sustainability movements is to disparage a material and then assume another material is innocent. Unfortunately, producing virgin paper is also a manufacturing process that produces high levels of water pollution and toxicity. In a future blog post, we will dive deeper into paper production to help businesses choosing between paper and plastic make better choices that reflect their principles and values around environmental justice.