Toxic Plastics, Fossil Fuels, and Chemicals are All Around Us

Toxic plastics, fossil fuels, and chemicals are often produced, transported, stored, and disposed of, just out of sight or in ways you might not notice. Past and recent train-related plastic and petrochemical accidents, including the recent freight train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, have shed unfortunate but necessary light on the hazards of moving highly flammable and toxic materials by rail. 

Yet, railways are just one piece of the toxic trail of plastics, fossil fuels, and related chemicals that pollutes the planet and our bodies. These dangerous materials and substances are also frequently shipped by heavy-duty trucks, cargo ships, airplanes, pipelines, and other vessels, and are produced, stored, and disposed of in ways that constantly threaten the health and safety of people and the environment.

Transportation Arteries are Clogged By Toxic Plastics and Fossil Fuels

The tangled web of toxic transportation arteries is extensive globally. Serious accidents are unfortunately common, especially in the United States, where little regulation currently exists on how and where these dangerous substances and materials can be shipped, and what happens after an accident. 

Plastics, fossil fuels, and related chemicals are highly flammable and often volatile, especially when mixed, leaked, or ignited during transportation accidents. When released, these materials and substances are not easily contained. This can cause life-threatening fires, explosions, spills, leaks, and all manner of serious short- and long-term pollution. And, like all plastics and fossil fuel industry activities, movement of plastics and fossil fuels is also a serious contributor to the climate crisis

Last year, more than 1,000 freight railway accidents across the nation’s 140,000 miles of freight railroad tracks were logged with the U.S. Department of Transportation. About a third of those accidents involved trains carrying hazardous materials, including plastics, fossil fuels, and chemicals. Roadways, especially designated hazardous waste routes, are also commonly frequented by plastics, fossil fuels, and wastes related to their production and use. Last year, more than 23,000 incidents occurred on U.S. highways involving hazardous materials including plastics and fossil fuels—and this number appears to be increasing over time.

A smaller but still significant number of accidents occurred in 2022 involving air and water transportation of dangerous cargo, leading to dozens of immediate injuries and several fatalities. What’s more, at least 469 incidents involving natural gas and other hazardous liquid pipelines were recorded last year, causing three-dozen combined injuries and fatalities across the U.S. 

Plastics, Fossil Fuels, and Chemical Byproducts are Dangerous When Stored and Disposed

The industrial infrastructure that’s been built up to produce, store, and dispose of plastics, fossil fuels, and related chemicals, is another vast and dangerous part of this toxic trail. 

At the front of the plastics pipeline are fossil fuel extraction sites, such as oil and gas wells (including several hundred-thousand to millions of unplugged and abandoned wells in the U.S. alone), tar sands, and coal mines. There are also refineries where these fuels are processed into petrochemicals, and plastic production and manufacturing plants, with many of these substances stored hazardously above ground. Plastic consumer products are commonly stored in warehouses that pollute communities in various ways. Nearly 570,000 underground storage tanks for fossil fuels and other chemicals have been recorded as leaking around the country since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began monitoring in 1984.

At the other end of the plastics pipeline are facilities storing and disposing of plastic wastes—including landfills, incinerators, illegal dumps, and plants claiming to sort, recycle, or “chemical/advanced recycle” plastics, specifically those accepting hazardous wastes. Transport and transfer hubs, including those where plastics, fossil fuels, chemicals, and wastes are loaded to travel along the plastics pipeline, are often contaminated and are common sites for spills of plastic pellets (nurdles) and chemicals, and pose serious fire dangers.

There are also more than 740,000 industrial injection wells—among the most used and least expensive forms of hazardous chemical disposal—in the U.S., as counted by the EPA by 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. Despite being so widespread across the country, underground injection wells are notorious for being poorly regulated and unsafe, with a long history of science linking their existence and use to earthquakes, groundwater contamination, and other serious hazards.

People working or living along all portions of the plastics pipeline face numerous serious physical and emotional health risks linked to:

Toxic chemical and microplastic pollution (linked to serious cancer risks)

Noxious odors and noise and light pollution

Increased diesel truck and heavy vehicle traffic

Climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions

Heightened risk of fires and explosions

Groundwater and soil contamination from microplastics, fossil fuel, and chemical leachates

Exposure to radiation

Plastics and Fossil Fuels Drive Severe Environmental Injustice Along their Toxic Trails

People living in predominantly Black, Brown, Indigenous, rural, and low-income communities are particularly impacted by the toxic trail of plastics, fossil fuels, chemicals and wastes. These underserved populations are disproportionately forced to live in proximity to plastics and fossil fuel production, disposal, storage, and shipping along railroad tracks, highways, shipping ports, and pipeline routes. 

Sadly, underserved communities such as Mossville, and Diamond, Louisiana, have been, and continue to be, destroyed by pollution and subsequent buy-outs by plastic- and fossil fuel industries. The U.S. also continues to ship plastic waste to other countries, driving serious injustice overseas, particularly in the Global South. In addition, workers tasked with monitoring and managing hazardous substances are at high risk of toxic exposures and fatal accidents like explosions.

It’s not just people but also the Earth that suffers from industrial pollution and accidents, as well as every living being that calls this planet home. Water runs through the veins of living beings (including humans!), and through the veins of the planet, constantly moving through watersheds and weather systems. 

As many Indigenous peoples have long emphasized, without water, there would be no life. We are losing healthy, safe waters—and also losing our health and innate connection to the planet—more every day to this buildup of artificial transportation arteries carrying plastics and fossil fuels. Loss of clean water is an emergency in the U.S. and around the world. Now, not only are there plastics and chemicals contaminating Earth’s waterways, but these toxins are also found in human veins and bloodstreams

Stop the Toxic Trail of Plastics and Fossil Fuels

There is no safe way to produce, transport, store, or dispose of plastics, fossil fuels, related chemicals, and their wastes. These hazardous industrial activities and substances are directly tied to industries’ production of plastics and plastics’ petrochemical ingredients, and they create a toxic trail that poses a danger to people and the planet. Plastic pollution is a human health, social justice, environmental, climate, and wildlife issue, and a planetary crisis. People and communities across the world are finally waking up to the fact that plastic pollution impacts everything.

Solutions to plastic pollution exist. Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more and take action.

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Despite commitments to end plastic pollution, corporations like Nestlé, PepsiCo, and The Coca-Cola Company have only increased their plastic production, according to a new report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme.

The Global Commitment 2022 Progress Report is used to track the progress of corporations and governments around the world that have voluntarily committed to curbing plastic production and use. The Global Commitment 2022 has attracted more than 500 signatories representing 20% of all plastic packaging producers globally, including major consumer brands such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever, Walmart, Amcor, Berry Global, and Veolia.

The report found that these corporations will “almost certainly” not meet their own voluntary target of using plastic packaging that is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable by the year 2025. What’s more, instead of taking serious action to reach this target through product packaging redesign and implementation of systemic solutions, these corporations have only increased the production of new plastic.

In response, Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Co-Founder and Managing Director Julia Cohen said: 

This year’s Global Commitment Report reveals that many corporations that have ‘committed’ to reducing plastics production have not actually made any attempt to do so. This, despite the fact that plastic and its petrochemical ingredients are deadly to all life on Earth: contributing to climate change, spreading toxic chemicals, and helping to drive Earth’s most severe extinction event.

Hiding behind these false commitments, most major corporations have only increased their plastic production. Industries and corporations must stop prioritizing profit while exploiting people and polluting the planet. Instead, they should invest the fortunes they have made from others’ misfortunes into real solutions to address the crises they have created.

Julia Cohen, Plastic Pollution Coalition

This year, the United Nations has called for creation of a Global Plastics Treaty to hold industries, corporations, and governments accountable for plastic pollution. Such a treaty must be binding and legally enforceable in order to seriously and systemically address plastic pollution and implement non-toxic, zero-waste solutions. Learn more about plastic pollution facts and solutions, and find out how to take action here.

Sharon Lavigne and RISE St. James have worked for years to block Formosa Plastics from constructing a gigantic plastics factory in Welcome, a small town with a predominantly Black population in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Thanks to RISE’s advocacy, legal actions, community-building efforts, and speaking truth to power, the community has now successfully—and permanently—fended off Formosa’s nearly 2,500 acre, $9.4 billion plastics factory.

The news came last week when Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District Court reversed the state’s  previous decision to issue Formosa the air pollution permits needed to proceed with construction and ultimately operation. With the permits, Formosa’s plastics factory would have tripled cancer-causing air pollution in the region, spewing out more than 800 tons of toxic air pollution annually. Now Formosa must leave St. James Parish, or attempt to start the process of building a plastics factory in St. James from square one, which is unlikely due to the steep price.

Sharon Lavigne in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Photo by Erica Cirino

Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath. The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.

Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of RISE St. James

In St. James Parish, as in many other parishes along the southern banks of the MIssissippi River, heavy industry—particularly relating to petrochemical and plastics—is overtaking the rural landscape. St. James alone is already overburdened by 12 polluting facilities. Like all plastic-manufacturing plants, Formosa’s proposed plant would have polluted the air, land, water, plants, animals, and people; it would also have added to the serious injustices and health disparities that the people of color who live in this parish have been subjected to face. It would have released significant amounts of climate-warming gases; a serious concern, especially in a region so often hard-hit by serious storms. 

The court’s decision on Formosa builds upon another recent victory in the community, with the news that South Louisiana Methanol was effectively ousted from St. James when the Parish Council voted to reject the company’s appeal to build a factory in a residential area. For more than a decade, Lavigne and her community have worked to block these kinds of industrial developments in St. James Parish. In 2018, Lavigne, a retired teacher, dedicated herself full-time to the cause of addressing environmental injustice in her community: She joined her neighbors to form RISE St. James, a faith-based grassroots organization.

Formosa is only one of many major petrochemical and plastic companies that have attempted to set up shop in St. James in recent years. It’s now just become the latest to have been pushed out as a result of RISE’s local efforts. People living in St. James and other communities affected by injustice and pollution spend much time active in community meetings and hearings, sharing testimony, gathering documentation of pollution, and much more to keep polluters at bay. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a problem that could be better addressed if we acted proactively instead of reactively.

Communities should not be fighting for their lives, but they are forced to due to systemic injustice. Justice cannot be served until we choose to protect rather than subject communities of color and other underserved groups to dangerous and dirty industrial development and activities.

Erica Cirino, Plastic Pollution Coalition Communications Manager
Petrochemical landscape in southern Louisiana. Photo by Erica Cirino

Plastic Helps Fuel Environmental Injustice

In recent years, environmental injustice has increasingly been recognized as a core component of the issue of plastic pollution disproportionately impacting Black, Brown, and Indigenous (BIPOC), and rural and low-income communities. These systemic injustices are built into government policies, society, and our economy. There is a strong connection between environmental and social injustice, racism, and classism and exposure to air pollution caused by waste incineration, landfills and illegal dumps; industrial water and soil contamination; heightened risk of accidents and explosions; and myriad other environmental injustices in the U.S. and globally.

There is no plastic production that is aligned with the right to a healthy environment.

Jane Patton, Louisiana resident and Campaign Manager, Plastics & Petrochemicals, Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)

For communities facing environmental injustice, Sharon Lavigne has this advice to offer:

First of all, believe in God and believe in yourself. Stand up and fight for your rights and the rights of your community and never give up. Make noise! If your local politicians are not helping you and your community, replace them! Get them out of office and put people in place who care about you and your community.

Sharon Lavigne, RISE St. James

Plastic Pollution Coalition recognizes that social and environmental justice are all part of a single, globally connected Movement for Justice. Vulnerable communities like St. James deserve protection and respect. Every unjust industrial development that is stopped, like the Formosa facility in St. James Parish, is one less polluting project that could potentially harm people and the environment.

Unfortunately, concessions attached to the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act may soon be advanced, and these could fast-track numerous coal, crude oil, and gas development projects across the country. Just today, the executive directors of 13 climate and environmental justice organizations risked arrest at the Capitol to denounce Senators Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer’s “dirty deal” to fast-track fossil fuel project approvals. Manchin yesterday released the text of his deal, which was written by and for the fossil fuel industry. 

You can help prevent more frontline communities from being threatened by plastics and petrochemical expansion in the United States by signing a petition against this “dirty deal.” Take and help amplify this action at a key moment when Congress must decide whether or not to decide to stop the deal from moving forward.

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September 29, 2022 , 7:00 pm 8:30 pm EDT

Join activists from around the country for a webinar to learn how Wall Street bankrolls fossil fuel sacrifice zones and how you can join in on efforts to stop it. Find out more about industry plans and community resistance in Ohio, Louisiana, and the Gulf South. Plug in, take action together, and send Wall Street a message: NO to More Sacrifice Zones!

Hosted by RISE St. James, Earthworks, AVAAZ, and Friends of the Earth.

Over the last several years, growing numbers of people have seen or heard the fact that traditional “mechanical” plastic recycling has epically failed: At most, only 9 percent of all plastic made since the mid-1900s has been sorted apart, shredded up, and melted down for reuse in new batches of plastic stuff, downcycled into other objects. Meanwhile, most plastic collected as “recycling” is actually landfilled, burned, or shipped to other nations and cause pollution, and is a major contributor to the climate crisis. Meanwhile, global production of plastics continues to climb, and is only expected to problematically rise in the future.

As a result of the increasing awareness around plastic recycling’s failure, the plastic and petrochemical industries—as well as consumer brands using huge amounts of plastic in their products—now face significant backlash. Corporate giants churning out plastic pollution, which decades ago answered the public outcry over plastic pollution with mechanical recycling and anti-litter campaigns, are working to counter society’s growing consciousness. 

This time around they are pitching “advanced recycling,” sometimes also called “chemical recycling,” to the public, media, and policymakers as a revamped strategy for coping with their rapidly accumulating plastic pollution. In reality, “advanced recycling” is just another harmful industry-driven false fix that delays and distracts from real solutions—most notably among them, turning off the plastic tap.

There’s Nothing Advanced About “Advanced Recycling”

Over the last decade, companies dealing in fossil fuels, petrochemicals, consumer goods, and plastics have launched or planned more than 120 “advanced recycling” operations worldwide, yet less than 10 percent are reportedly in operation. “Advanced recycling” facilities turn plastic waste into low-grade fossil fuels and petrochemicals (called “feedstock” in industry speak) by subjecting it to high heat, microwave radiation, pressure, and/or chemicals. 

Industries that support “advanced recycling” claim it is a “sustainable” and “circular” way to address plastic waste by turning it into substances that could be turned into plastic again. But the process is far from circular in practice: converting what yields from “advanced recycling” plastic would require significant input of extra chemicals, energy, and additives. The industry has no track record of reliably doing this. 

Most commonly, “advanced recycling” operations transform plastics into low-grade fuels that, just like freshly extracted gas or oil, release toxic pollution and greenhouse gases when burned for energy—and that’s when they produce anything at all. Currently, “advanced recycling” operations are predominantly small scale. The industry reportedly struggles with problems relating to sorting and cleaning mixed plastic waste, as some plastics like polyethylene (PET) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) appear to gunk up “advanced recycling” equipment.

“Advanced Recycling” Means More Pollution

As they did with mechanical recycling, industries and corporations are now painting “advanced recycling” as a “green,” “circular” panacea to the plastic crisis they created—despite plenty of recent truth-telling done by frontline groups, scientists, and the media about its true costs. While doing nothing to stop plastic production—the key cause of plastic pollution—“advanced recycling” operations cause serious harm to people and the environment in many ways, including by:

  • creating large amounts of air, soil, and water pollution through releases of toxic chemicals, such as benzene, dioxins, ethyl benzene, toluene, and xylenes, which can cause cancers (an alarming one in four lifetime risk of cancer from at least one “advanced recycling” process), nervous system damage, and harm to reproductive and developmental health
  • creating toxic waste products from “advanced recycling” that are not reliably tracked, tested, and logged for their harm to human and environmental health
  • being overwhelmingly sited for BIPOC, rural, and low-income communities, causing environmental injustice and dire public health disparities
  • relying upon continued production of plastic and exploitation of fossil fuels to exist
  • contributing to the climate crisis by demanding energy that releases greenhouse gases and creating products that continue to release greenhouse gases when they are subsequently used (most often burned as fuel)
  • requiring storage and release of hazardous chemicals on site
  • carrying risk of fires and explosions at facilities that could harm workers and communities, due to high heat and chemicals used as well as plastic waste stored

False Solutions Keep Industries in Business…at Our Expense

With waste incinerators increasingly under fire for pouring out streams of toxic ash, hazardous chemicals, and greenhouse gases in underserved communities, not “burning plastic for energy” is something that “advanced recycling” operators sometimes tout. However, “advanced recycling” operations require significant amounts of energy, the sources of which are predominantly fossil fuels. This continued reliance on fossil fuel exploitation and plastic production that “advanced recycling” relies upon deeply undermines global climate, environmental, and justice commitments. 

Just this year, the United Nations agreed on a mandate for a legally binding global plastics treaty that addresses plastics up and down the pipeline, and called plastics an urgent human rights issue. “Advanced recycling” should not be accepted as a solution to plastic pollution at a time when humanity’s uncontrolled release of manmade chemicals and materials—namely, petrochemical-derived plastic—has breached a threshold of both safety and accountability. 

If not for plastics, petrochemicals, and fossil fuels, “advanced recycling” would not exist. Allowing industries to continue exploiting and producing these substances is a major concern on a planet where leading scientists agree they must urgently stop doing so, or risk raising Earth’s temperature past a dangerous threshold within the next five years.

The only thing advanced about ‘advanced recycling’ is that it’s ‘advanced pollution’: a toxic transfer of pollution to pollutants.

Jackie Nuñez, Advocacy & Engagement Manager, Plastic Pollution Coalition, & Founder, The Last Plastic Straw 

Tell Your Representatives to Oppose “Advanced Recycling”

Earlier this year, citing scientific evidence, lawmakers urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to continue regulating “advanced recycling” as big industrial and corporate investments in lobbying to promote “advanced recycling,” particularly by the American Chemistry Council, have so far proven alarmingly successful at persuading many policymakers to welcome these harmful technologies to their jurisdictions.

To date, more than 20 states have passed laws that reclassify these “advanced recycling” technologies as manufacturing rather than solid waste management. This reclassification ensures that these facilities are exempt from the Clean Air Act, so they can emit anything they want into the air. Such classification also makes it more likely for “advanced recycling” facilities to qualify for government subsidies and other financial incentives, and qualify for less stringent pollution permitting regulations than if they were considered solid waste facilities. In the US, the EPA currently regulates pollution created by these so called “advanced recycling” facilities as “municipal waste combustion units.” But the plastic industry is actively working at both the state and national level for bad policy bills allowing them to reclassify incinerators as “manufacturing or recycling,” which allows Big Plastic to sidestep the more stringent Clean Air Act requirements as well as excuses them from getting a Solid Waste Facility permit, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

On a federal level, industry-friendly legislation, such as the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, further undermines real solutions to plastic pollution and the climate crisis instead of supporting local renewable, reusable, and regenerative projects that would help people and the planet. Policies are presently shaped in ways that maintain the fossil fuel status quo by enabling lethal industries to continue operating. 

Ensure your local representatives know the truths about “advanced recycling.” Share this article and show up to hearings prepared to speak out. Help center frontline voices by listening, supporting, and being present. Plastic never was and never will be disposable and neither are we. Together we can continue pushing forward real solutions to the plastic pollution crisis.

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