'The Cost of Plastics Is Lives': House Oversight Hearing Highlights Environmental Justice Burdens of Plastic Production

Read time: 6 mins
Environmental justice march in Cancer Alley in 2019

During a congressional hearing Tuesday, a plastics industry executive echoed a common refrain from the industry: “Plastic saves lives.”

However, for many communities of color living in close proximity to the petrochemical plants producing those plastics, the exact opposite is often true.

It’s the people who live on the fenceline of [plastics] manufacturing facilities” who shoulder the health costs of plastics production, Monique Harden, Assistant Director of Law and Public Policy at the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, explained during that same hearing.

The cost of plastics is lives,” added Yvette Arellano of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

Harden and Arellano were two of several speakers highlighting environmental justice concerns associated with plastics during a virtual hearing held Tuesday, July 7 by the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment. The hearing titled “Plastic Production, Pollution, and Waste in the Time of COVID-19” put a spotlight on expanding plastics use and the pollution that comes with it. Both have risen during the pandemic, in part due to the plastics industry’s insistence that single-use plastics help slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

While some might proclaim continued reliance on single-use plastics as the safest option to slow or prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it appears that these claims as presented by groups like the Plastics Industry Association are aimed at reaping profits for the plastics and petrochemical companies,” Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA), chair of the Environment Subcommittee, said during his opening remarks. “I hope that today’s dialogue will help put this misinformation to rest.”

As Rouda pointed out, the U.S. produces 300 millions tons of plastic every year. The vast majority of plastic is not recycled and much of it ends up in the oceans. From eating seafood to drinking from plastic water bottles, consumers are regularly ingesting tiny fibers or particles of plastic, an estimated five grams each week on average, according to a 2019 study by the University of Newcastle and commissioned by WWF International. That's the equivalent of eating a credit card every week, the study estimates.

Plastic is everywhere,” said Judith Enck, president of a group called Beyond Plastics and a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator. She said the waste issue is evident and that she’s “never met a plastic pollution denier.” The focus, she suggested, should be on producing less plastic in the first place.

We need to turn off the tap,” she said.

Converging Public Health Crises

Plastic production comes from fossil fuel feedstocks, a glut of which are coming from fracked oil and gas fields in the U.S. Those feedstocks are then processed at facilities that are overwhelmingly located in lower-income, minority communities. Harden referenced the historic community of Mossville, Louisiana — a community founded by former enslaved Black people whose 21st century residents were largely displaced to make way for a Sasol Corporation plastics complex.  

We have lost historic African-American communities,” she said during the hearing. “What’s left are the gravesites of these communities and over those gravesites the towering smokestacks, storage tanks, and processing units of those petrochemical facilities.”

Part of Louisiana is known as Cancer Alley due to the prevalence of health problems and toxic pollution from roughly a hundred refineries and petrochemical plants in an 85-mile stretch of land along the Mississippi River. There, the predominately Black communities face converging public health crises from long-term exposure — often under permitted levels — to industrial chemicals and now from exposure to the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Kimberly Terrell, staff scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, mentioned during the hearing that these communities, like St. James Parish, which is fighting a proposed Formosa plastics plant, are disproportionately impacted by both air pollution and COVID-19. A recent study that she helped conduct examining race, pollution, and COVID-19 in Louisiana found that parishes with higher death rates from coronavirus are the same communities with higher exposure to toxic air pollution.

Yvette Arellano, the environmental justice advocate from Texas, called out the plastics industry in her own state. She said it “is using the pandemic as an opportunity like it did during Hurricane Harvey to request from the state permission to exceed emissions and escape regulatory oversight at the very moment when our most vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected.”

Arellano’s own family has been impacted by COVID-19. That includes her mother who works as a grocery store cashier. Arellano addressed the industry-driven narrative that plastic bags must be used in grocery stores during the pandemic, pointing to a recent statement from virologists and public health experts from 18 different countries stating that reusable containers are safe to use (as long as they're washed). She urged consumers to fight the industry narrative by bagging their own groceries with their reusable bags.

The bottom line is that plastics cost lives,” she said.

Tony Radoszewski, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, was making a very different claim. “Plastic saves lives,” he said during the hearing. He discussed how plastics are used in personal protective equipment (PPE) and in many other applications and products. “People live longer, healthier, and better because of plastics,” he said.

But Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, countered this assertion, saying that the plastics industry, like the fossil fuel industry, has long known about the risks of its product but chose to prioritize profits ahead of health and safety.  

Those companies, just as they were aware of the risks of climate change from the 1950s-60s onward, were aware of the mounting risks, both the toxics risks and the physical pollution risks, of plastics from the 1960s onwards as well,” Muffett said.

This is not about recycling, it is not about PPE,” he added. “It is about an industry that is looking to put profit above people in every country on the planet.”

Main image: An environmental justice march along Highway 44 in Louisiana's Cancer Alley, during a five-day march in May and June 2019. Credit: Julie Dermansky for DeSmog

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