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Plastics Are Fossil Fuel Industry’s Plan B. Fenceline Communities Pay the Price.

Production is concentrated in poor communities and communities of color, and residents face elevated health threats.

Oil facilities are seen past neighborhoods in Port Arthur, Texas, on September 12, 2012.

Scientists are increasingly alarmed over the soaring amounts of microplastics (small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters) and nanoplastics (extremely small, sub-micrometer plastic particles) being discovered throughout our planet, our bodies and our food. Just this past January, new studies found huge numbers of plastic particles in bottled water and microplastics in nearly 90 percent of sampled proteins like beef and tofu. These reports follow many others that have found microplastics and nanoplastics in nearly every crevice of our world: clouds and rivers, Arctic sea ice and sea mammals, heart tissue and breast milk and even placentas.

With global plastics waste on pace to nearly triple by 2060, the problem is only set to worsen. The proliferation of microplastics is an outgrowth of the larger perils associated with plastics production. Plastic contains many toxic chemicals, and plastic waste saturates our land and oceans. According to a 2022 OECD report, only 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, with most of it “ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment.”

Major corporations, from chemical companies to consumer brands, have a vested interest in perpetuating plastics production. Powerful industry organizations spend millions every year lobbying to expand plastics production and kill regulatory efforts to limit harms tied to plastics.

The oil and gas industry sees plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, as an expanding avenue for profits. Plastics production is interlocked with the climate crisis and environmental injustice. Refineries and petrochemical facilities that turn crude oil and natural gas into polymers to make plastic are concentrated in poor communities and communities of color, like along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, where residents face elevated threats of cancer and respiratory diseases.

“These are toxic chemicals they use,” John Beard Jr., a resident of Port Arthur, Texas, and founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, told Truthout. “We’re poisoning ourselves with more and more pollution. This has to stop.”

Fossil Fuel Industry’s Plan B

The proliferation of microplastics across the world is so widespread that some scientists claim we’re living in a new historical epoch: the Plasticene.

“Microplastics are worth being concerned about, not just because our bodies are now containing plastic, but because that plastic contains a number of chemical additives, many of which we know to be toxic to human health,” said Melissa Valliant, communications director of Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit group working to reducing plastic pollution.

Numerous studies have raised alarm over dangers to public health associated with plastics production. A 2019 report by the Center for International Environmental Law extensively documented the ways that harmful toxins, chemicals and waste tied to numerous diseases, including cancer, pervade the entire production chain and life cycle. A recent study found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics “pose a serious threat to public health” and “cost the U.S. an estimated $250 billion in increased health care costs in 2018.”

While scientists say there’s still a lot of investigating to be done into the health impacts of microplastics, there is general worry over the expanding amount of plastics waste in the environment, especially because we still know little about many chemical additives used in plastics.

“We’ve got about 13,000 different chemical additives that are used in different types of plastic,” Valliant told Truthout. “Many of those are known to be carcinogens or toxic chemicals that affect hormone regulation, fertility, diabetes and other health conditions.”

Production of single-use plastics is a major source of the industry’s profits. By one estimate, the plastics packaging market will amount to $365 billion by 2025. Around 44 percent of plastics globally are used for packaging.

Plastics production is also tied to the climate crisis. Plastics production involves refining and “cracking” fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas into polymers that are combined with petrochemical additives to make different kinds of plastics. With diminishing oil- and gas-fired energy on the horizon, says Valliant, Big Oil is turning toward plastics as a way to keep ramping up production.

“Plastic is their Plan B,” said Valliant. “It’s an easy way to put their product into something that sells.” According to one report, if plastics production was a nation, it would be the fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.

“Plastics are fossil fuels,” said Beard. The precursor chemicals for plastics are derived from fossil fuels and petrochemicals, he says, and these precursor chemicals “come from communities of color on the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast.”

Environmental Racism

At the very center of plastics production lie cities like Port Arthur, Texas, a key hub within the Gulf Coast corridor of refineries and petrochemical facilities that stretch from the Houston area through Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” Around 55,000 people — overwhelmingly Black and Brown, and disproportionately poor — live in Port Arthur. The city hosts the nation’s largest refinery and numerous other refineries, petrochemical facilities and ethane cracker plants.

Beard knows a lot about the industry and its impacts on Port Arthur. Now in his 60s, he worked for decades at a petrochemical refinery. He is a former Port Arthur city council member and mayor pro tempore. “I was born and raised on the fence line,” he told Truthout.

Beard is a community leader and award-winning fighter for environmental justice. He founded the Port Arthur Community Action Network (PACAN), now a nonprofit that organizes to improve conditions in the city.

According to U.S. Census data, 42.3 percent of people in Port Arthur identify as Black, 34 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 30.8 percent as White and 6.2 percent as Asian. Per capita income is $24,065. The poverty rate is 26.7 percent, nearly double Texas’s poverty rate.

Beard says that environmental racism is at the root of Port Arthur’s crisis. “They don’t locate these facilities in white communities,” he says. “They don’t put them on Madison Avenue or in Beverly Hills. But they do it here, in communities of color, where people don’t have much of an ability to fight back against these companies, and they do it with impunity.”

“We all have a right to breathe clean air,” he says.

Beard says Port Arthur is a “cancer cluster.” A 2017 Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) report found that “the cancer mortality rate for African Americans in Jefferson County, including the predominantly black community of Port Arthur, is consistently about 40 percent higher than Texas’ overall cancer mortality rate.” ProPublica found parts of Port Arthur to have “an estimated excess lifetime cancer risk from industrial sources of about 1 in 53,” which is 190 times the EPA’s acceptable risk.

The EIP report also noted “230 illegal air pollution ‘upset’ events from industries in Port Arthur” from 2012 to 2016, many of which “released toxic chemicals including benzene, a carcinogen,” and that asthma rates for children in the county are more than twice the national average.

To educate people about the industry’s impacts on the community, Beard gives regular “Toxic Tours” that highlight the refineries and chemical plants in the area, from Total’s massive petrochemical plant that spews cancer-causing benzine, to Saudi Aramco’s Motiva’s super-refinery, to Koch Industries’ polluting Oxbow Calcining plant, to the Valero refinery that’s faced numerous violations.

Beard rattles off a long list of chemicals and pollutants these operations release. “We’re basically being embalmed and bombarded,” he says. “We’re dead men walking here.”

Why Industry Touts Recycling

Behind the plastics industry rests a powerful machine that spends tens of millions of dollars annually on lobbying, campaign donations and public relations campaigns, all backed by corporate money. Key players include the Plastics Industry Association and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, as well as industry-backed groups like the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, which critics say greenwash plastics production.

One of the biggest backers of plastics is the American Chemistry Council (ACC), whose website prominently features its advocacy for plastics production among interrelated industries such as fossil fuels and chemicals.

The ACC is backed by the fossil fuel and chemical industries. Its board includes oil and petrochemical giants like Chevron, Shell, Honeywell, Huntsman, and many others. Its members include dozens of industry powerhouses like BP, Chevron, Dow, DuPont, ExxonMobil and Shell, and corporate law, consulting and accounting firms like Deloitte, KPMG, McKinsey and Ernst & Young.

The ACC spends massive amounts of money to influence politics. From 2021 through 2023 alone it spent $58.25 million on federal lobbying efforts, according to Truthout’s analysis of lobbying filings.

This lobbying activity occurred through the ACC’s in-house lobbying time as well as 10 outside lobbying firms. The ACC lobbied on broad topics like “microplastics,” “plastics innovation and recycling,” and “PFAS,” as well as against specific legislation like the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act of 2023, which would “reduce the production and use of certain single-use plastic products and packaging,” and the Protecting Communities From Plastics Act, which “sets forth a variety of requirements and incentives to reduce the production and use of plastics and other petrochemicals.”

The ACC relied on a host of revolving door lobbyists to push their agenda on these and other issues. For example, Ryan Jackson, the ACC’s vice president of federal affairs, served as the chief of staff of the Environmental Protection Agency for three years until 2020, while lobbyist Amy Swonger served as Donald Trump’s legislative affairs director and as an aide to Mitch McConnell.

As the Intercept’s Schuyler Mitchell and Sharon Lerner have shown, the ACC has also lobbied intensely at the state level against plastic bag bans and for chemical recycling. Promoted by the industry as a means to address plastics pollution, a recent report by Beyond Plastics and the International Pollutants Elimination Network calls chemical recycling a “false solution” that “has failed for decades” while producing toxic emissions and hazardous waste.

Valliant says the industry’s touting of recycling amounts to greenwashing aimed at maintaining the status quo. Levels of plastics recycling are very low, and the rate of plastics production, already huge, is set to vastly expand.

Valliant says we must address the plastics crisis at its point of production, “We can’t recycle our way out of this problem,” she says. “The only way to do it is to reduce plastic production.”

“There’s No Planet B”

Despite the powerful forces that PACAN is up against, Beard remains driven by “a sense of personal and moral outrage” over conditions in Port Arthur and elsewhere. PACAN has connected with environmental justice groups around the region, country, and even the world, and this larger framing of the local fight in Port Arthur motivates Beard.

“It’s a global struggle,” he says, listing off a chain of movement battles from Brownsville, Texas, to Appalachia, to the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, to organizing in Europe and the Pacific Rim. “It’s all one fight. We have to put ourselves in the position where there’s something salvageable for the human species, because there’s no planet B.”

Moreover, PACAN has made progress. The group has helped bring major attention from media, elected officials and regulators to Port Arthur. It testifies to regulators about conditions in the area and has filed complaints with the EPA. It has received EPA funding to monitor air emissions.

While Beard knows PACAN has powerful industry foes, he remains steadfast. “They got more money to spend on advertising,” he says, “but I believe we’ll win.”

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