Understanding the Different Types of Plastic

Updated October 3, 2023

In less than 30 days, three trains carrying toxic plastics and chemicals derailed in the U.S.—two in Ohio (East Palestine and Springfield) and one in Van Buren Township, MichiganNews of a fourth Norfolk Southern derailment in Calhoun County, Alabama, made headlines following these events on March 8, 2023, just as the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee convened a hearing on the catastrophic event in East Palestine.

Just days before the Calhoun County derailment, residents of Springfield—some living just 1,000 feet from the tracks—were placed under a shelter-in-place order, which has since been lifted, to prevent exposure to hazardous materials and chemicals. And while officials report that no such exposure risks exist, they have said that at least one train car spilled plastic polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic pellets—and these PVC pellets (nurdles) and the items they are used to create are in fact hazardous to human and environmental health.

In Van Buren Township, six cars of a 30-car train derailed in February just weeks after the disaster in East Palestine. While little information about this accident has been released, it’s known that at least one train car was carrying liquid chlorine, a “lung-damaging agent” (which was used as a chemical weapon during World War I) that could have caused serious environmental and potentially lethal human health effects if it had ignited or leaked.

The highly visible derailment in East Palestine that happened on February 3 has been deemed one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The event’s effects are serious and ongoing, and shed an unfortunate but necessary light on safety issues and a general lack of transparency existing around toxic and flammable plastics and chemicals carried by rail.

Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio: One of the Worst Environmental Disasters in U.S. History

Since February 3, the ignition and derailment of approximately 50 train cars carried by Norfolk Southern, holding polyethylene and polyvinyl plastics, and various chemicals used in plastics production (as well as other industrial materials and items, and food products) has released a yet unquantified amount of toxic chemicals and their byproducts into air, soils, and waterways in East Palestine, Ohio. 

Immediately following the derailment, workers were ordered to intentionally open and ignite five rail-car tankers containing vinyl chloride to avoid a possibly catastrophic explosion that could have leveled the small rural town, releasing toxic compounds and shrapnel. Vinyl chloride is a highly unstable and toxic colorless gas used to create PVC. PVC is a common type of plastic found in packaging, wires, cables, pipes, flooring, and many other products. When burned, the vinyl chloride tankers released a large dark plume of gases including hydrogen chloride and phosgene (which, like chlorine gas, was also used as a deadly chemical weapon during the first World War) high into the atmosphere. These chemicals were released far and wide into air, waters, and soils, along with a mixture of toxins released from the other train cars that had breached and caught fire. 

While people living within two miles of the East Palestine train disaster were evacuated for a short time in the derailment’s immediate aftermath, chemicals released are still being detected in the surrounding environment. People have reported finding dead fish in nearby waterways, dead and sickened pets, and many have said they are reporting chemical odors, headaches, and other health-related issues since the disaster occurred. While the full toxic impacts of this disaster are just coming to light, it’s important to know that people can be exposed to chemicals through inhalation in the air, absorption through the skin, and by consuming contaminated food and water. Transparent monitoring of environmental and human health of the numerous chemicals and their byproducts released will be essential to understand the long-term risks, which could be serious, according to experts and prevent further harm.

Frontline Communities in Ohio & Beyond Face Escalating Chemical Dangers

The East Palestine train disaster’s impacts continue to threaten frontline communities in Ohio and beyond. The waste created by the disaster is scheduled to be stored or disposed of in dangerous ways in close proximity to communities already overburdened by the presence and activities of an extensive array of hazardous petrochemical, chemical, and other industrial infrastructure and activities—resulting in serious injustice. Thus far, officials have made plans to ship the toxic wastes from the derailment firefighting operations and “cleanup” to: 

a deep hazardous-chemical injection well in the Houston Ship Channel in Deer Park, Texas

a hazardous waste landfill in Van Buren Township, Michigan

• hazardous-waste disposal sites in other parts of Ohio including a deep injection well in Vickery, and incinerators in East Liverpool and Grafton

a landfill in Putnam County, Indiana

Deep-injection chemical storage wells in the U.S., like the ones in Deer Park, Texas, and Vickery, Ohio, are among the most used and least expensive forms of disposal for hazardous chemicals and other liquid wastes (such liquids from oil and gas extraction and mining). in the U.S. More than 740,000 industrial injection wells were counted under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Underground Injection Control program by 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. Despite being so widespread across the country, these wells are notorious for being poorly regulated and unsafe, with a long history of scientific evidence linking their existence and use to earthquakes, groundwater contamination, and other serious hazards.

Fenceline communities, especially those in Texas, which leads the nation in uninsured and [is ranked] last in the nation for prenatal and maternal care, are forced to absorb the deadly costs of these toxic disasters. Waste transporter, Texas Molecular, has been the subject of 10 compliance investigations by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the past five years. Texas Molecular has admitted that there is potential for this injected toxic water to the surface, stating: ‘Could it come up someday? Yes…’

Fenceline Watch

The East Palestine train disaster is also affecting people’s physical and emotional health in eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and far beyond. Adding insult to injury, industries—including Norfolk Southern, the rail-shipping company responsible for the three recent derailments—have downplayed and ignored the very real risks to people and the environment. These factors conspire to cause serious and life-threatening hazards to communities, and major harm to the environment that all life—including humans—need to survive.

In August 2023, the EPA stated it may launch a formal health and safety investigation of vinyl chloride in the near future. Meanwhile, six months after the train derailment, people living in East Palestine continue to report emotional and physical health problems tied to the disaster, and feel they have been left without reliable guidance.

By September 2023, President Biden issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to continue to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for its derailment and assign a FEMA official to oversee the community’s recovery. The East Palestine community continues to call for more serious action, the president has not yet declared the event as an official “disaster.”

How You Can Help: Immediate Aid and Systemic Solutions

Experts agree this disaster should be a wake-up call to the world about the dangers of continued plastics and petrochemical production. It has also prompted numerous increased safety measures, including from the Federal Railroad Administration and, a proposed railway safety bill. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation into Norfolk Southern’s “safety practices and culture” came a day before the March derailment in Calhoun County and Senate hearing, and sadly, also as news of a Norfolk Southern train conductor’s death due to a collision with a dump truck in Cleveland, Ohio, was announced.

Local groups are calling for help to assist impacted communities in the aftermath of this disaster. Here’s how you can help:

• Give directly to River Valley Organizing, Three Rivers Waterkeeper, Fair Shake Legal Services, and Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch

Follow and give to Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, which works to monitor and end the petrochemical buildout—including Shell’s recently built plastic and petrochemical facility—and harm to communities in the Ohio River Valley and far beyond

Donate to support the distribution of free home air filters to people affected by the train derailment (people who are impacted can request an air filter here)

Tell the EPA to test for dioxins and related toxic emissions caused by the burning of vinyl chloride and PVC plastic following the derailment in impacted communities, which has been strongly suggested by Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and president of Beyond Plastics

Tell the governments of Ohio and Pennsylvania that the must take transparent and proactive actions to inform and support residents affected by the East Palestine train disaster

Tell the EPA and Norfolk Southern to “stop burning toxic chemicals from East Palestine train derailment in our community” to prevent the impacts of this crisis from expanding

Sign the Hip Hop Caucus’ petition to stop the expansion of the petrochemical industry which drives continued pollution and injustice

• Clean Air Council is working to limit chemical exposure within the homes of impacted residents by providing whole-home HEPA rated activated carbon air purifiers. Support Clean Air Council’s Direct Relief Fund

Familiarize yourself with what the community needs in the wake of the disaster

In addition to helping frontline communities in the wake of disasters, we must also call for systems-level change so that harm can be stopped and avoided in the first place. We need to end wasteful plastic and petrochemical production and expansion and push back as industries build up a vast and highly hazardous network of plastic and chemical railways, highways, pipelines, injection systems, and other toxic artificial arteries which are changing the very nature of the planet and our bodies. 

You can advocate for a healthy, just, regenerative world free of plastic pollution and divested from fossil fuels. Get the facts, learn about solutions, and take action.

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February 12, 2023 , 12:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

We can achieve a world without plastic pollution but we need to build a bigger, more powerful grassroots movement to do it.

How can you help? That’s easy! Just register for the upcoming Beyond Plastics Trainings for Local Groups and Affiliates to learn practical and powerful ways to end plastic pollution and engage your larger community.

This online training is divided into two sessions that are each two hours long. You must complete both sessions, but you can attend them in any order you wish, and they are each offered twice to ensure you can find a time that works with your schedule.

We will cover the following: 

  • Plastics 101 – Your background and guide to the plastics crisis, how it evolved, and what changes are necessary to solve it (spoiler alert: those changes are regulatory!);

  • Ready, set, action! – How ordinary people can make legislative change. Figure out who your elected representatives are, what powers they hold, and how to meet with them;

  • Essential media skills, such as how to hold a press conference, draft a strong news release, and write a letter to the editor that will get published;

  • Grassroots organizing skills, including organizing constituent meetings and call-in days;

  • Community education, such as how to host a virtual panel event; and

  • Many more skills and strategies you can use to make any campaign more effective. 

Are you in?

Please choose the two dates below that work best for you and click below now to register via Zoom, then add the log-in information Zoom provides to your calendar.

Atencion hispanohablantes

Si necesita una traducción al español, envíe un correo electrónico a Megan a meganwolff2@bennington.edu.

Session 2: The ABC’s of Activism

Please choose whichever one of the two dates below works best with your schedule and register now via Zoom. PLEASE CHOOSE ONLY ONE OF THE OPTIONS BELOW.

Each session uses a different link. Once you’ve registered via Zoom, don’t forget to add the two trainings to your calendar.

Please note: These trainings are geared toward people in the United States, where Beyond Plastics has deep experience with policy change. People from other countries are welcome to take part, but we most likely will not be able to support you in seeking regulatory change in your own country. We also regret that we cannot offer translation in languages other than Spanish at this time.

February 11, 2023 , 12:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

We can achieve a world without plastic pollution but we need to build a bigger, more powerful grassroots movement to do it.

How can you help? That’s easy! Just register for the upcoming Beyond Plastics Trainings for Local Groups and Affiliates to learn practical and powerful ways to end plastic pollution and engage your larger community.

This online training is divided into two sessions that are each two hours long. You must complete both sessions, but you can attend them in any order you wish, and they are each offered twice to ensure you can find a time that works with your schedule.

We will cover the following: 

  • Plastics 101 – Your background and guide to the plastics crisis, how it evolved, and what changes are necessary to solve it (spoiler alert: those changes are regulatory!);

  • Ready, set, action! – How ordinary people can make legislative change. Figure out who your elected representatives are, what powers they hold, and how to meet with them;

  • Essential media skills, such as how to hold a press conference, draft a strong news release, and write a letter to the editor that will get published;

  • Grassroots organizing skills, including organizing constituent meetings and call-in days;

  • Community education, such as how to host a virtual panel event; and

  • Many more skills and strategies you can use to make any campaign more effective. 

Are you in?

Please choose the two dates below that work best for you and click below now to register via Zoom, then add the log-in information Zoom provides to your calendar.

Atencion hispanohablantes

Si necesita una traducción al español, envíe un correo electrónico a Megan a meganwolff2@bennington.edu.

Session 1: Laying the Foundation

Please choose whichever one of the two dates below works best with your schedule and register now via Zoom. PLEASE CHOOSE ONLY ONE OF THE OPTIONS BELOW.

Please note: These trainings are geared toward people in the United States, where Beyond Plastics has deep experience with policy change. People from other countries are welcome to take part, but we most likely will not be able to support you in seeking regulatory change in your own country. We also regret that we cannot offer translation in languages other than Spanish at this time.

Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) agreed on a mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty addressing the full life cycle of plastics. This month, the first of five planned sessions to formulate that treaty began, with the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-1) in Punta Del Este, Uruguay. Representatives from UN Environment Assembly governments, the private sector, and civil society—including Plastic Pollution Coalition members and partners from the Break Free From Plastic global movement—attended the meeting. With some positive developments come significant challenges, such as industry interests that run counter to ending plastic pollution, which must be overcome in order to craft an effective global agreement.

On Monday morning, UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Volker Türk made an unprecedented statement about plastics on Twitter:

“The whole cycle of plastics is now a global threat to human rights. We must ensure free, active, meaningful and informed participation in the new negotiations. We need clear boundaries on conflict of interest to ensure the new Treaty puts people before profits.”

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner of Human Rights

Never before has there been wider recognition of the fact that plastic pollution is an urgent global crisis. Plastic pollution is a human health, social justice, environmental, climate, and wildlife issue. People and communities across the world are finally waking up to the fact that plastic pollution impacts everything. Plastics pollute from the moment their fossil fuel ingredients are extracted from the Earth to their eventual fate as microplastics that we are breathing in and consuming in our foods and water—at great risk to our health.

Member Countries Divided on the Way Forward

There is widespread agreement that a Global Plastics Treaty is needed. Individuals, activist groups, frontline communities, and scientists from around the world are speaking out about what’s necessary to make the Treaty effective.

During this week’s negotiations it emerged that major oil and gas producing nations like the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and many Asian countries are proposing an agreement where countries would create their own National Action Plans and set their own non-binding targets.

“The US is calling for a treaty with no binding obligations and no requirements to achieve its goal, such as bans on toxic polymers or a reduction in overall production. Every country just does what it wants to. I think that’s a terrible idea.”

Neil Tangri, Science and Policy Director, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives

A “high-ambition coalition” of countries led by Norway and Rwanda is calling for a curb in plastic production and a phase-out of certain plastic products and toxic chemical additives. Many other UN member states, including African nations, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and others are also advocating for a global approach.

Top UN officials weighed in as well. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights statement identified key human rights considerations for the Global Plastics Treaty. On the final day of INC-1, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres sent a strong message:

“Plastics are fossil fuels in another form & pose a serious threat to human rights, the climate & biodiversity. As negotiations towards an agreement to #BeatPlasticPollution continue, I call on countries to look beyond waste and turn off the tap on plastic.”

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General

Allies Criticize Industry Participation in the Negotiations

Break Free From Plastic allies and activists conveyed the message that an effective Global Plastics Treaty must address plastic production and the toxic chemicals in plastics. Downstream solutions like cleanups and reduction legislation like bans do not go far enough to stem the plastic tide. The Plastic Treaty must address environmental injustices and hold corporations, especially petrochemical and plastics companies, and governments, accountable for their roles in creating the plastic crisis. This is why the presence of major plastic producers at INC-1 is a major source of concern for civil society groups, environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and frontline activists.

“To date, the plastics and petrochemical industries have largely self-regulated. This, despite the fact that plastic’s many forms of pollution now pollute every part of our environment and have entered our bodies. Plastic contaminates our waters, soil, air, food, wildlife; our bodies and our children’s bodies. We need a strong, binding global treaty that stops plastic pollution at the source—petrochemical production. We can not afford to allow polluters to continue regulating themselves.”

Jackie Nuñez, PPC Advocacy and Engagement Manager & Founder of The Last Plastic Straw

Break Free From Plastic Allies Deliver Powerful Messages to the UN

Projection on a beach in Uruguay at INC-1 on November 29, 2022. Photo credit: Fenceline Watch & Break Free From Plastic

Powerful remarks were delivered by many partners and allies at the meeting, including this statement by the BFFP US Environmental Justice Delegation. Christopher Chin, Executive Director, The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE), delivered the following statement on November 29, 2022, at INC-1:

“Our understanding of plastic — and its polluting impacts on the environment, climate, human rights, and human health — has evolved greatly over the years, and has led us to these negotiations.

One of the things that has become ever more clear is that we do not have time to waste. We are currently producing more than 400 million tons of plastics per year, and we are already drowning in plastic pollution. . . And that production is planned to double or even triple to many hundreds of millions of tons each year. This scale of production is already creating an urgent crisis — a common concern of humankind — and our very future hangs in the balance of these proceedings.

Let’s be honest: 99% of what goes into plastic is fossil fuels; plastics are essentially fossil fuel in a different format, and we cannot address plastic pollution without addressing plastic production. We must put limitations on the amount of plastics being produced, because we are already drowning.

The fact is that our society is overflowing with plastic, and we have allowed this to happen. It is more than just an indulgence, however — this is literally killing people.

A clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a recognized human right — and a right for all, not just a privilege for some.

Dr. Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights has noted that there are human rights infringements across the entire life cycle of plastic, and we’ve seen and heard that these effects are most dire for vulnerable populations.

Industry must stop producing toxic materials and stop using toxicants in the production of plastics.  We need transparency so that we can identify and avoid hazardous substances and additives — not only in the production and use of materials and products, but also in their reuse, disposal, and end of life. There is absolutely no room for circularity when potentially poisonous substances are hidden in the waste stream.

Innovation will most certainly be necessary as we pursue a future free of plastic pollution. However, innovation should include scalable systems of re-use and refilling — for example — and not simply new ways to try to sell old ideas.

There is no room and no time for false solutions like so-called ‘advanced recycling’ and ‘chemical recycling.’ These terms are just a fancy way to mask the burning of plastic, and they cannot meet the scale of the onslaught of plastics production we are facing.

With the very industry creating plastic and plastic pollution weighing in so strongly in the discussion of possible solutions, industry’s self-serving interest is painfully obvious.

We can no longer continue to put profit before the planet, and we can no longer continue to put profit before people.

Previous processes on the environment — such as climate change — leave civil society tired of empty promises and goals that have not been met. The plastics pollution treaty must establish the global rules, regulations, and support mechanisms needed to end plastic pollution and its harmful effects on the environment, animals, human health, and vulnerable communities.

We will judge the treaty not by what it promises, but by what it actually does.”

Christopher Chin, Executive Director, The Center for Oceanic Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE)

Take Action

Plastic Pollution Coalition supports legislative and regulatory solutions that address the plastic pollution crisis at the source, reduce plastic production and use, center environmental justice, extend producer responsibility by holding corporations accountable, and create policies that support a regenerative circular economy free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts.

“Plastic threatens human health at every stage of its existence, from extraction of plastic’s fossil fuel ingredients to production, use, transportation, and disposal. The new plastics treaty must address plastic as a material, beginning with production, and safeguard the human right to a healthy environment, particularly for women, children, and vulnerable communities impacted by this global planetary crisis.”

Julia Cohen, MPH, Co-Founder & Managing Director, Plastic Pollution Coalition

Further Global Plastics Treaty negotiations are tentatively planned on the following dates and locations:

Learn more about real solutions to the plastic crisis here, and add your name in support of a strong Global Plastics Treaty.

1

November 9, 2022 @ 4:00 am November 13, 2022 @ 5:00 pm

Post Landfill Action Network (PLAN) is hosting its Students for Zero Waste Conference (SZC) 2022 this November! SZC brings together students, staff, industry innovators, activists, and community members from across the country each Fall. Since 2014, SZW has served as a space for community-building and solution sharing to push the movement forward. It prioritizes “walking the walk” of Zero Waste and centering the needs of those most impacted by the Waste Crisis and systems of oppression. 

SZW 2022 is back in a hybrid format! Tune in to the digital conference platform for live-streamed sessions, events, and student panels. Additionally, PLAN will be hosting a small in-person gathering with local campuses in Philadelphia from November 11-13. Check here for more information.