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
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Amelia@plasticpollutioncoalition.org.