The Flip the Script on Plastics Toxic Tour

On June 13, 2023, a bus filled with television and film writers embarked on a “Toxic Tour” of fossil fuel and plastic pollution sites across Los Angeles, California, organized by Plastic Pollution Coalition and Hollywood, Health & Society. The day was eye-opening, making the connection for attendees that 99% of plastics are made from petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels. Following is a firsthand account of the day by Amelia Hanson, Project Coordinator for the Flip the Script on Plastics initiative and Olivia Sparks, Intern, both at Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Los Angeles is a City Built on “Black Gold”

On June 23, 1921, in the community of Signal Hill, California, just east of Long Beach, the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company struck “black gold,” otherwise known as crude oil. It was this discovery that helped drive forward the expansion of Los Angeles into the city we know today, built by oil barons now synonymous with popular Los Angeles tourist attractions, such as The Hammer Museum and The Getty Center. At one point, California produced a quarter of the world’s crude oil, with Los Angeles playing a central role in the state’s oil mecca. While we now consider Los Angeles to be the epicenter of entertainment, Los Angeles County remains the largest urban oil producing area in the United States, with many oil wells hidden in plain sight, in locations such as the Beverly Center and Cardiff Tower.

Our Toxic Tour took place just over 100 years after industrialists began pumping oil in Signal Hill. Our goal in taking television and film writers on this journey was to inform them of the harmful effects of plastics throughout their existence—from their origins as fossil fuels, to their production, use, disposal, and pollution—in hopes that content creators will turn this knowledge into compelling, factual entertainment—and ultimately help to Flip the Script on Plastics.

Witnessing Environmental Racism

As we made our way down the freeway, our first speaker, Tianna Shaw-Wakeman from Black Women for Wellness, encouraged us to watch the landscape around us as we passed by neighborhoods.

You notice where highways are placed and where they are not. You notice where trees are and where they are not. You notice where there’s green space or grocery stores and where there are not. You notice where there are health care facilities of a certain caliber and where there are not. You notice where water tastes better and where it might not.

–Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, Black Women for Wellness
Tianna Shaw-Wakeman. Photo by Dianna Cohen

We could clearly see that it was the lower income and communities of color that we drove through that lacked green spaces, grocery stories, and clean water. This included Signal Hill, a community that had the resources industry wanted, and whose residents are underserved, being exposed to pollutants, and facing various systemic injustices.

There’s another level of harm, and you know that so much of this is because of racism. It’s because of fossil fuel extraction and all of the myriad of effects that it can have. … So when we talk about environmental justice, and when we talk about environmental injustice, we’re talking about environmental racism.

–Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, Black Women for Wellness

Then Michele Prichard, who joined us from Liberty Hill Foundation, shared the story of Nalleli Cobo. Nalleli Cobo is a young Angeleno, who grew up across the street from an oil well, not far from the University of Southern California (USC), where our journey had begun. 

Nalleli’s activism began at age 9, when she noticed the foul smell from the oil well across from her house and experienced frequent nose bleeds, headaches, and heart palpitations. In 2020, after years of tireless work to bring attention to the pollution and injustice her community faced, while enduring her pollution inflicted illnesses, Nalleli was successful in getting the oil well from her neighborhood shut down. And, through her dedicated work, in 2021, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban new oil wells in unincorporated parts of the county and examine the status of existing ones.

Inglewood Oil Field

As Michele Prichard finished recounting Nalleli’s story, Tianna invited us to look out our windows, drawing our attention to the fact that we had just entered the Inglewood Oil Field. Covering approximately 1,100 acres, and stretching into the horizon on either side of the bus, the Inglewood Oil Field is the largest urban oil field in the United States. Much to our surprise, the landscape around these wells remained disconcertingly beautiful, with green grass and wildflowers growing tightly around them. Many of us on the bus expressed that we had expected something more apocalyptic, almost scorched earth, when we pictured an oil field. Perhaps this was why so many of us have been able to turn a blind eye to the industry despite our years living in the city that it helped create.

Inglewood Oil Field. Photo by Dianna Cohen.

When we turned the corner, the oil wells were suddenly replaced by the picturesque Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, which, on this day, was full of families playing sports, picnicking, and enjoying nature. Many of the tour’s attendees were familiar with the park and the surrounding area, yet somehow managed to block out the hundreds of oil wells spread out across the street. Many of us believed that the rigs must have been decommissioned—while in reality they remain in use pumping oil.

One attendee pointed out that this oil field sat on the edges of the highly desirable and affluent Black neighborhoods of Baldwin Hills and View Park. She said that when she was looking for real estate in the area, no one ever brought up the presence of the oil field, nor the possible health complications linked to oil extraction that could come along with moving into the area. She further pondered when “white flight” may have begun in this neighborhood, and which came first: the oil field or the Black community. Studies show that people of color are especially likely to live in communities overtaken by fossil fuel development and its pollution, particularly Black people, who make up 5.5 percent of California’s population but account for about 12 percent of Angelenos living in areas with the heaviest—and most dangerous—oil and gas production.

Our first stop at the Inglewood Oil Field was deeply emotional for me. I have always lived minutes away from the drilling site and across the street from Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, which serves as an illusion for the drilling site by secluding it with beautiful lush greenery and florals. I was heartbroken to realize that my beloved home and neighbors are being exposed to a multitude of environmental toxic chemicals and suffer from severe health issues, as a result of our proximity to the Inglewood Oil Field.

–Olivia Sparks, Flip the Script on Plastics Intern at Plastic Pollution Coalition

The Effects of Plastic Consumption

As we moved on, Venezia Ramirez, from the Environmental Justice Lab at USC, shared a story of how she and her community worked together to stop construction of a new Amazon warehouse, explaining that warehouses like this are a direct result of our endless plastic consumption.

All these repercussions of consumption of plastic and other sources outside the U.S. causes an increased demand for ports, operations, expansions of freeways, and the warehouses. Those are all impacting our communities. While other communities have those Whole Foods and have the Amazon stores, we bear the burden of that pollution. We have the Amazon warehouses.

–Venezia Ramirez, Environmental Justice Lab at the University of Southern California (USC)

These warehouses require freeways and trucks to transport goods, further polluting the air breathed by residents living nearby with particulate matter and other hazardous emissions. Research shows Black people are exposed to more than 1.5 times the amount of particulate matter compared to the overall population, which largely comes from diesel vehicle emissions.

Venezia Ramirez. Photo by Dianna Cohen

Venezia stressed the significance of the research that she and the Environmental Justice Lab at USC conducted, informing us that the reason corporations can get away with environmental pollution is often due to a lack of research that could otherwise hold them accountable. If voices and information communicating the facts are silenced or ignored, deadly corporations can’t easily be stopped. This is why Venezia spends all her time, both on and off the clock, researching and advocating for a better life for her neighbors and family. She explained that she does not have the privilege of stopping when her workday ends.

Phillips 66 Refinery in Wilmington, California

Next we pulled over in the city of Wilmington, just off the freeway, onto a small, residential cul-de-sac where the Phillips 66 refinery loomed in the background. Instantly, we were hit with a wave of noxious fumes, presumably streaming from its smokestacks and a nearby asphalt facility. As we exited the bus and walked to the end of the street, folks murmured to each other, curious how the fumes might be affecting residents, especially the children and also the dogs that greeted us from the yards as we walked past.

Alicia Rivera speaks to the Toxic Tour group. Photo by Kate Folb

At the end of the street, we met Alicia Rivera from Communities for a Better Environment, an activist who lives in Wilmington. We gathered around as she explained how, because of this refinery and others like it nearby, residents in Wilmington suffered frequent, and increasingly serious, health issues—such as asthma and cancer—due to the constant and highly concentrated chemical emissions and other pollutants in the air. She pointed out that most residents keep their windows closed all the time, even on hot summer days, in their attempts to shield themselves from the fumes. 

As she spoke, the tour attendees tried in vain to use scarves and shirts to cover their noses, as headaches and nausea quickly set in. Alicia pointed to every home on the street and explained that she had knocked on all of their doors over the years to learn how the refinery was affecting them. She let us know there wasn’t a single family that hadn’t experienced cancer, and some of the residents she spoke to had tragically passed away recently. Residents informed her that while they did not want to live in such a toxic environment, they could not afford to escape it by moving away. 

As we drove away from Wilmington and toward Long Beach Harbor, Alicia pointed out more refineries. She said that while they weren’t currently producing oil used to make plastics, as California progresses towards eliminating gas vehicles in favor of electric, many of these facilities could transition into refining fossil fuels for plastic production in the future. 

As soon as we crossed the bridge and entered the city of Long Beach, we saw the industrial sights and salvage yards vanish, replaced by restaurants, retails shops, and even a Ferris wheel. This didn’t mean the oil industry wasn’t present in Long Beach, just that the residents were wealthy enough to complain. So the oil wells were situated away from residents on islands across from the multi-million dollar beachfront mansions, and were disguised as picturesque statues and buildings designed to keep residents blissfully unaware of their presence.

Plastics in the Water: Aboard the Alguita

We pulled over at a residential marina, and stepped onto the Alguita, a research vessel belonging to Captain Charles Moore, Founder of the Algalita Marine Research and Education organization and the first to bring attention to the plastic in the North Pacific Ocean gyre. After giving us an opportunity to look around the ship, Captain Moore showed us the “manta trawl,” which they used to pull plastics off the water’s surface, telling us that plastic is “now the most common surface feature. It’s changed our planet. It’s changed the actual appearance of our planet in the ocean.”

Captain Charles Moore speaks to the group. Photo by Dianna Cohen

Captain Moore was handed a jar of dirty water, swirling with bits of plastic, explaining that the manta trawl could only pull what plastic particles are on the sea surface, and in fact many plastic particles and items are colonized by microorganisms or are otherwise heavy enough to sink to the ocean floor.

That’s why we never find water bottles on the beach without a cap. If the cap is gone, the water bottle sinks and it’s on the bottom, we see big piles of them in the deep ocean.

–Captain Charles Moore, Founder of Algalita

He explained this is why we have to focus on stopping production of more plastics rather than investing in beach and ocean clean-ups. There is no hope of stopping this pollution unless we turn off the tap. Captain Moore made a point of telling us that nature does not make waste. The natural world operates circularly, with every stage of life supporting one another. He said it was humans, industry, and capitalism that created waste, which means it is on us to move away from our current systems and lifestyles and create a circular system once again, one where every product and byproduct serves a purpose.

Plastic-Free Lunch

Finally, it was time for us to take a break. We stepped across the street and into Captain Moore’s garden. There, the group found a delightful reprieve from the harsh realities we faced throughout the morning up until a few moments before. There we were greeted with freshly made lemonade and jamaica (hibiscus tea) that had been sweetened by stevia plucked from nearby bushes. Under verdant avocado trees were platters of deviled eggs, produced by a staff member’s family chickens. Walking deeper into the maze of a garden, we discovered Chef Paul Buchanon from Primal Alchemy Catering, who was lovingly cooking vegan pizzas in a portable stone oven.

Chef Paul Buchanon. Photo by Kate Folb

Just across the way, under a pergola woven with grape vines, tables were set up with plated salads, featuring sweet peas, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and greens, all grown on site and each garnished with  edible flowers. Captain Moore pointed out that he had covered the ground with fresh bay leaves, much like the Romans did for their own feasts. The smell was fantastic!

As we dined, Dianna Cohen, Co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, spoke about the importance of solutions. She reminded our entertainment-focused guests that the power of their words could influence audiences to see the realities of plastic’s endless toxic existence; to understand that divesting from fossil fuels means divesting from plastics; and to reach for reusables, refillables, and other systems that can help us build a just, nontoxic circular economy.

Salads fresh from the garden. Photo by Amelia Hanson

We finished our meal with a dessert of “chocolate pudding fruit,” or black Sapote, served with baby lemon bananas and loquats, adorned with a drizzle of honey, and a few tiny strawberries, which Captain Moore let us know came from a wild strawberry plant that appeared one day in his garden, seemingly from nowhere. With our bellies full, spirits lifted, and our chemical-emissions headaches a faint memory, we piled back onto the bus for our final stop.

Algalita Research Labs & a Refill Shop

Along the shorelines of Long Beach, we disembarked in front of the Algalita research labs and its neighboring refill shop. Still in the process of building, the members of Captain Moore’s team described their plans to fill the space with research and educational equipment. They showed us their reusable and accessible classroom kits, which are made available to educators, free of charge. The kits include a cell phone microscope attachment to look at plastics in fabrics, along with a beach sand sifting kit, with sand pulled from the nearby oceanside, full of pieces of plastic and waste of all sizes that students can examine and document.

Algalita Research Labs education table. Photo by Amelia Hanson

Before concluding his presentation, Captain Moore reminded us that we were on the ancestral lands of the Tongava people, and introduced us to his Tongva friend Anna Christensen, from Friends of Puvungna. She reminded us that we were presently standing on Native wetlands, and that these shorelines were a sacred site of creation, emergence, and gathering. She stressed the importance of reducing our society’s dependence on fossil fuels and transitioning to a green economy by listening to the land and the Indigenous people who originally lived here, and that restoration should not include bulldozing and erasing existing wetlands and wildlife habitats—which humans also need to survive. 

Finally, we made our way into the charming BYO Long Beach refill shop next door, which offers bulk soaps, detergents, teas and lotions, high-quality refillable safety razors built to last a lifetime, beauty products in cardboard, and countless other alternatives to toxic single-use plastics. Inside, Flip the Script on Plastics Project Coordinator Amelia Hanson pointed out how many of these products conveniently lacked branding, making shops like this ideal for TV and film shoots, which frequently struggle with finding creative ways to hide branded products from the camera. 

As we made our way back to USC, where we had started our tour, we took the opportunity to discuss the day and share stories of experiences as writers on set. One guest looked out the window as we again passed the Phillips 66 refinery to see that from one of the stacks, flames were emerging. It was a flare, which Alicia Rivera has told us signaled some sort of emergency in that area of the facility. We drew everyone’s attention to it, and some passengers noted that, where they were from in Ohio and Texas, they had seen those flares countless times, regarding them as a normal sight. The tour had changed their perspectives and reminded them that there was nothing that should be viewed as normal or natural about oil refineries and plastic’s toxic cycle of existence.

Learn More & Get Involved

Learn more about Flip the Script on Plastics, and if you are interested in attending or supporting a future tour, event, or experience like this, please contact

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Julia Bogoney from Friends of Puvungna as speaking to the group. Julia Bogoney passed away in 2021


NBC4 Los Angeles
June 30, 2021

Officials from Los Angeles City and County, CA joined community stakeholders and representatives from various water organizations in honor of the fifth annual Tap Water Day LA on May 9.

The local, Los Angeles based non-profit WeTap initiated Tap Water Day in 2015 with support from Mayor Eric Garcetti, the CA State Water Board, LADWP, LACDPH, The California Endowment and others with the goal of raising awareness of cities’ clean, reliable drinking water.

“Tap water in LA – our tap water is great – it’s clean, it’s high quality, it tastes great … Our tap water is better than bottled water.” said Mayor Eric Garcetti in his 2017 Tap Water Day speech.

Tap Water Day LA reminds us of the importance clean drinking water plays in our lives and should be a point of civic pride especially in light of water quality issues in other parts of the country and the world. “We are grateful for our civic leaders coming together to renew their commitment to improving and maintain existing drinking fountains and add new filling stations in our neighborhoods,” said Evelyn Wendel, Founding Director, WeTap. “We look forward in the coming years when all schools, all parks and all public hubs have a robust drinking fountain network for the health of our communities and our environment.”

In many parts of the world, access to safe drinking water is a luxury — one that many Angelenos take for granted or worse, mistakenly fear tap water and instead opt for bottled water. “Every day, LADWP delivers 550 million gallons of the highest quality water at the lowest possible cost to our 4 million customers in LA,” said Marty Adams, LADWP Senior Assistant General Manager. “We want the public to know that our drinking water is protected by hundreds of employees who manage our treatment processes, operate and maintain our treatment facilities and vigilantly monitor and test the water we serve.” Today LADWP is the largest municipally owned and operated retail water utility in the country, serving a population of about 4 million residents and an area of 464 square miles.

Los Angeles’ drinking water meets and exceeds state and federal drinking water standards for all contaminants. In 2016, LADWP supplied nearly 160 billion gallons of drinking water to more than 4 million residents and businesses. Over the 12-month period, water quality teams collected nearly 40,000 water samples throughout the city and conducted more than 140,000 water quality tests for compliance as well as for research and operational improvements.

The U.S. federal government requires more rigorous safety monitoring of municipal tap water than it does of bottled water. Today’s celebration serves to highlight the importance of using our vital water resources for drinking and builds awareness that public fountains provide a sustainable solution for weaning the public off single-use plastic bottles. On average, the U.S. purchases and consumes close to 50 billion plastic bottles a year with only 40 percent being recycled. Bottling and shipping increases the cost and result in unnecessary increases in carbon emissions. The cost of bottled water can cost about $7.50 a gallon. On average LADWP drinking water costs ¢0.02 per gallon.

Public fountains not only provide free drinking water for residents, but also serve as symbols of an expansive system supplying water, which includes a state-of-the-art filtration plant, two aqueducts, three groundwater treatment facilities, dozens of treatment stations, 78 pumping stations, 114 tanks and reservoirs, 421 pressure regulator stations, and 500 miles of trunklines and a 7,200 mile network of distribution pipes. Tap Water Day is a time to remind Angelenos that our public drinking fountains provide an alternative to wasteful plastic bottles and are a direct access to delicious, healthy water.

Executive Director Wendel reminds us, “The goal of Tap Water Day is to simply value tap water – both the quality and access. Public awareness is essential to ensuring our water remains available, tasty and protected.”

For more information, visit PPC member WeTap.

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April 15, 2010

A Special Report from a League of Women Voters of Santa Monica Educational Forum held April 3, 2010 on the Costs of Managing Plastic Pollution in the Environment, and Solutions

Just blocks from the Santa Monica shore on a beautiful beach day, sat a very serious panel of experts in suits.  The panelists were California, Los Angeles, and Santa Monica government officials tasked with managing the plastic pollution that flows daily in every waterway to the sea along California’s great coast.   Each had their own photographs, facts and statistics to prove the same point:  plastic pollution is extremely difficult to control, terribly costly, and there is a desperate need for legislation to stop the overwhelming flow of plastic pollution.

Several panelists were veterans of previous legislative battles to control plastic pollution, a few of these successful like AB 258, California’s Nurdle Control Law that establishes best management practices for manufacturers and transporters of preproduction plastic pellets .  Nurdles are a plague to sea creatures who mistake the fish egg sized spheres as food.

But all of the panelists were in active service in an ongoing battle against American Chemistry Council (ACC) lobbyists who have formed groups such as “Save the Plastic Bag,”  successfully lobbied for California state legislation banning a fee on plastic bags, and repeatedly sued municipalities that have tried to ban plastic bags, with very creative use of The California Environmental Quality Act.  These government officials and a legislative analyst from the Santa Monica based nonprofit Heal the Bay were unified in their belief that legislative solutions are required for the worst offending single use plastics that plague our coast, chief amongst these, the plastic bag.  Agreeing that there is no way to recycle our way out of the plastic pollution problem in general, the panelists specifically rejected recycling as a reasonable solution for plastic bags.  Plastic bags are light- weight and often take flight making them hard to control. Plastic bags are often contaminated with food and other substances making them poor candidates for recycling.  In addition, they jam the recycling equipment, and do not produce valuable recycled content.  In fact, plastic bags cost more to recycle than they are worth.  These reasons may account for the fact that less than 5 % of plastic bags are recycled.

Backed into a corner by the ACC lobbyists who have spent great amounts of money to protect the plastic bag, the panelists spoke of a new strategy to protect our coast and sea life from the billowing, blowing plastic bags that jam the storm water catch basins and mimic sea jellies to unsuspecting ocean feeders.  Because the ACC was successful in banning fees on bags, new legislation is proposed that will simply ban plastic bags.  Because the ACC has successfully challenged bans on plastic bags with demands under The California Environmental Quality Act for environmental impact reports to show the environmental costs of relying on paper bags, the newly proposed legislation bans BOTH plastic and paper bags.  What are the chances for such a law to survive the political process that has doomed other attempts to control plastic bags?

Julia Brownlee, Democratic State Assembly Member representing coastal Santa Monica and author of Assembly Bill 1998 to impose a ban on single-use bags, believes her bill has a better shot than previous attempts.  For the first time, the California Grocers Association is on board to cooperate on the bill.  Single-use bags cost money that they have to pass on in the costs of food, and in tough economic times cutting costs is good for business. Also, with prominent publications like Time Magazine reporting on “The Perils of Plastic,” scientific information and reporting about the harms of plastic pollution is hard to ignore.

“Plastic Pollution is injuring and killing marine life, spoiling our beaches and costing Californians tens of millions of dollars to clean up every year. Now is the time to drastically reduce this pollution by switching to reusable bags. “

“Paper bags are not a good alternative to plastic. Paper bags contribute to deforestation, air pollution and warehouse wastes from the manufacturing process.  With just a little foresight, we can change our nasty bag habit by making a small investment in reusable bags and by bringing them with us when we enter a store. That is why I’m carrying Assembly Bill 1998, which will impose a ban on single-use bags…”

The panelists:

  • Jonathan Bishop: Chief Deputy Director State Water Resources Control Board
  • Richard Bloom: Santa Monica City Council Member, California Coastal Commissioner, and Chair Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission
  • Sonia Diaz: Legislative Analyst for Heal the Bay
  • James Bassett:  UCLA Professor of Business Sustainability
  • Dean Kubani: Senior Environmental Analyst, City of Santa Monica Office of Sustainability and the Environment
  • Coby Skye:  Civil Engineer, Los Angles County Department of Public Works