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:
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.