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Deep Dive

While We Were Told to Recycle, the Fossil Fuel Industry Kept Making More Plastic

The planet is being ravaged by plastics and stopping it requires more than recycling. Prevention starts with mitigating production.

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Plastics have visibly contaminated our ocean and afflicted countless marine species. Because they’re derived from fossil fuels, they have contributed heavily to the heating of our planet and have spread petrochemicals ubiquitously through our water and soil and air. They’ve also had disturbing consequences for public health.

The statistics are so dire that they are difficult to conceptualize: that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish; that a garbage truck’s worth of plastic enters the ocean every minute; that microplastics are now being detected in utero and that petrochemicals are diminishing the ability of current and future generations to reproduce—all while a mighty few profit from plastic production.

But here’s the better news: we don’t live alone in this world of accumulating hazards. Collectively, our voices can bring global accountability to the goliath interests that have gone unchecked for far too long. By treating pollution as a symptom and not the disease, we can finally address this plastics crisis at the source.

Plastic has a young yet complex story. This “material of a thousand uses,” though still revolutionary and advantageous in many aspects, has resulted in an even greater number of misuses and dire consequences. The most obvious is marine pollution.

Damage from pollution is escalating—it’s estimated that by 2040 there will be 110 pounds of plastic for every three feet of coastline on the planet · Shawn Heinrichs
About half of all plastics float. Other types, such as vinyl, sink like stones. Because of this, plastic products bob on the water’s surface while simultaneously littering the deepest reaches of the seafloor · Cristina Mittermeier
Beach surveys consistently report that 60 to 80 percent of coastal pollution is plastic · Shawn Heinrichs

Plastic debris was initially observed in the ocean in the late 1960s, and a mere thirty years later, the first of five major “garbage patches” was discovered. Think of these as massive aquatic areas of trash soup—regions formed by circulating currents, called gyres, that navigate debris to central stagnant locations. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, situated between California and Japan, was initially thought to have the same surface area as France, but is now more accurately estimated at three times that size. The five main gyres that form garbage patches collectively cover 40 percent of the ocean’s surface—and plastic production, as no surprise, correlates directly to the accumulating debris.

We’ve unfortunately become too familiar with—and desensitized to—viral videos and images of sea turtles with plastic straws lodged in their nasal cavities, or the decayed remains of albatross with exposed stomachs full of bottle caps and cigarette lighters, or tiny seahorses latched to floating cotton swabs as if courting a friend. Lost and discarded fishing nets, also made of plastic, have become a major ocean pollutant and indiscriminate killer. The toll taken on marine species is incalculable, agonizing, and simply unacceptable.

It’s very common for marine life to get tangled in discarded fishing gear, like plastic nets or line, and drown. This green sea turtle is one such casualty · Shane Gross
If you trace the petrochemical thread from pollution back to production, one theme repeats: unnecessary suffering. Because of this, marine species must increasingly navigate the plastic minefield overtaking their seascape · Sam Hobson
Single-use plastics are made from fossil fuels that can take hundreds of millions of years to formulate. Yet, these items—like bottle caps, fast food packaging, and grocery bags—may only get used for seconds or minutes. Once in the ocean, they may never biodegrade · Cristina Mittermeier
The first plastic was invented in 1869, a substance called celluloid that could be made to replicate the aesthetics of wildlife: tortoiseshell, linen, ivory. Many applauded it as a savior of animals. Nearly a century and a half later, a darker truth has been revealed · Caroline Power
Most nets are now made of nylon, a strong and cheap form of plastic that doesn't easily breakdown. When lost or discarded, these nets can tumble across shallow reefs, snagging and destroying the live coral along their path · Richard Whitcombe

To a less visible degree, nature can’t completely decompose plastic molecules—debris degrades into smaller and smaller pieces, but almost never biodegrades—allowing these “forever” micro- and nanoplastics to contaminate ecosystems across the globe. They’ve been detected from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Microplastics get ingested by a whole suite of organisms, from plankton to krill to larger vertebrates, which then get eaten by even larger predators.

This bioaccumulation of plastic makes its way to the top of any food web—including our own dinner plates.

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Humans eat and drink a frightening amount of plastic. The World Wildlife Fund found that, “on average people could be ingesting approximately five grams of plastic every week, which is the equivalent weight of a credit card.”

Nearly 200 species eat plastic debris, like this fish caught in Portugal, and studies suggest that chemicals from these plastics can be transferred to and stored in animals’ bodies, especially fatty tissues. These toxins then make their way up the food web · Pally / Alamy Stock Photo

The original assumption with microplastics was that ingestion was innocuous, that it simply passed through the digestive tract—no harm, no foul—but, with over 99 percent of plastics made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, scientific research is proving otherwise. According to a report from the Nordic Council of Ministers, 144 chemicals or chemical groups known to be hazardous to human health are actively used in plastic products. The most infamous is bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical first destined to be a pharmaceutical hormone, but was then put to a more potent use in hardening high-performance plastics. It’s found in products from dental sealants to canned goods, and, based on a recent study, 93 percent of Americans carry BPA in their bodies. The escalating effects of these chemicals, whether through inhalation or ingestion or skin contact, are damning: hormone disruption, infertility, heart disease, cancer, and chronic inflammation, to just name a few.

Microplastics—fragments less than five millimeters in length—derive from industrial waste, the breakdown of consumer goods, and sources like cosmetics and clothing. They are a growing concern among the scientific community · Shane Gross

What’s more, this plastics crisis disproportionately affects communities of color, low-income communities, Indigenous communities, and coastal communities—those often least responsible for plastic’s production, consumption, and disposal. Health implications span the life cycle of plastic: groundwater contamination from fracking, oil pipeline spills, air pollution from refineries and incinerators, and poor waste management solutions that result in unclean ecosystems.

Why then has such an obvious and unmitigated disaster for both marine life and human health gone unchecked for so many decades? To understand the answer, we must understand the adversary.

Petrochemical refineries perform the “cracking process” that assembles hydrocarbons into the starting ingredients of plastics. After this, a mix of chemicals—including fire retardants, lubricants, phthalates, bisphenols, and stabilizers—are added to complete the process. Manufacturers usually aren’t required to list these ingredients · Goldman Environmental Prize

In southern Louisiana, there is an 85-mile corridor along the Mississippi River that serves as an industrial hub for over 150 chemical facilities, refineries, and plastics plants. It’s known as “Cancer Alley” because the risk of cancer from air pollution is 95 percent higher than for the rest of the country.

The location of a refinery or plant is determined by myriad factors, some practical and others nefarious. Practical reasons include proximity to offshore drilling and the terminal points of oil pipelines for fossil fuel supplies, abundant energy and water for processing and cooling, and ports for shipping. On the nefarious side, historic and current zoning practices often unethically and inconsiderately place hazardous and toxic industries within low-income communities and communities of color—neighborhoods now referred to as fenceline communities.

The United States has over a million miles of transmission and distribution pipelines that deliver fossil fuels to refineries and plants · Ovidiu Hrubaru / Alamy Stock Photo
Fenceline communities are those immediately adjacent to industries that produce disruptive traffic, parking, noise, odors, and chemical emissions that can have harmful effects · Al Seib. Copyright © 2013. Los Angeles Times. Used with Permission.

St. James Parish, a predominantly Black community that descends from enslaved people who once worked the land, sits squarely within the Cancer Alley corridor. These residents endure some of the country’s worst pollution-linked health problems and environmental racism, including a long list of cancer, neurotoxicity, and respiratory disease. Yet, they confront another great threat: a proposed $9.4 billion chemical complex, which includes 14 proposed plants, by the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer Formosa Plastics. Data shows this complex could double the amount of toxins in the area, emit substantial greenhouse gas emissions, and disrupt two suspected slave burial grounds. The permit for Formosa Plastics to build is currently under review by the Army Corp of Engineers. Approval could be the death knell for Cancer Alley fenceline communities.

RISE St. James is a grassroots organization formed to advocate for racial and environmental justice in St. James, Louisiana. They are resolved to protect their community from further industrial toxins polluting their environment · Goldman Environmental Prize

St. James Parish is one of many egregious examples of plastics-based exploitation happening around the world, demonstrating how communities that are often least responsible for this suffering are the ones penalized the most. Activists are calling for the Formosa Plastics complex to be stopped, which has become an iconic fight against all industrial behemoths in Cancer Alley, but the battle is hard fought. The fossil fuel and petrochemical corporations simply have too much power—and they use it to keep their income flowing.

The U.S. plastics industry makes more than $400 billion a year. And with the world slowly weaning off fossil fuels, it’s projected that some oil companies are going to put 95 percent of their growth toward plastics. As further offense, hundreds of millions of dollars from plastics revenue then gets reallocated into dubious marketing and public relations campaigns: we are told that plastic is safe, that recycling is enough, and that pollution is our fault.

But plastic is not safe. Recycling is only a small part of the solution. And this is not your fault.

Here’s the hard truth: 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up in the environment, 40 percent in landfills, 14 percent incinerated, 14 percent recycled—and only 2 percent effectively recycled.

Compared to industries like paper, steel, and aluminum, the plastics industry has historically done little to support recycling · Nareeta Martin

With only 2 percent of plastic efficiently recycled—meaning that a product gets turned back into an identical product or one of equal value, such as turning a bottle into a bottle—we should have realistic expectations for it as a solution: recycling has its role, but the bulk of the work toward mitigating plastic pollution needs to come from producers and manufacturers. However, that hasn’t been the narrative. By keeping the focus of responsibility on individual consumers through the recycling narrative, the world’s most powerful corporate entities—across oil, soda, and tobacco (cigarette butts contain plastic fibers)—have largely diverted culpability for the plastics crisis while keeping a healthy bottom line. Plastic producers therefore make money while global citizens have to pay the externalized costs with their guilt, health, and the future of our planet.

This one-sided burden of responsibility needs to be dismantled and redistributed appropriately. Yes, individuals will still need to recycle and break habits around single-use plastics and, yes, business owners will still need to supply products that are zero waste and part of a circular economy. But to a much greater degree, governments and public sector leaders must step up and protect their citizens. We need them to regulate these toxic substances. Plastics producers must also be transparent with their practices and scale down their output of single-use goods. They must be held accountable for the “cradle to grave” life cycle of plastic products they create.

To put it into perspective, just 20 companies are responsible for producing half of all single-use plastics. Think of the impact that's possible if companies reduce their output, as opposed to expecting nearly eight billion individuals across the globe to alter their consumer habits.

When you think of single-use forks and spoons, think of fracking, oil sands, and offshore drilling. When you think of disposable grocery bags, think of petroleum pipelines cutting through Indigenous lands and chemical refineries killing the people in fenceline communities. When you think of plastics, remember that for the mighty few, pollution is profitable, but only if the single-use consumption model remains intact.

Carmen Danae Azor

It’s time to address plastic pollution at the source. It’s time to stop the flow of output before it ever has the chance to reach a garbage patch or a community beach or a child’s dinner plate. This is what will help restore our marine ecosystems, protect our climate, improve human health, and safeguard fenceline communities. This can be our new narrative. The viable solution we must achieve. Our escape from the weight of a disposable existence.

References and sources

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