From Plastic Mythology to Environmental Reality: Experts Discuss the Crisis

Plastic pollution has evolved into one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, infiltrating every corner of our planet, from pristine oceans to remote wilderness. The proliferation of plastic products, coupled with the myth of effective recyclability, has lulled us into complacency, fostering a culture of convenience that has dire consequences for our environment. As we navigate a world awash with plastic waste, it becomes increasingly critical to shift our focus from industry-spun myths to genuine solutions that address the root causes of this crisis.

For decades, the plastic industry has skillfully perpetuated a narrative that recycling is the panacea for the plastic problem. It offered a comforting illusion, one that allowed us to believe that as long as we placed our plastic waste in the right bin, it would magically reemerge as new products, sparing our environment from harm. Yet, the truth remains elusive to many: a vast majority of plastic, born from fossil fuels, defies the promise of recycling, ending up as pollution in landfills, incinerators, or fragile ecosystems. 

How can we collectively dismantle false narratives and underscore the urgency of embracing real solutions that transcend recycling? In a conversation hosted by The Ecology Center, we talked to four plastic pollution experts about their work to expose the harsh realities of plastic pollution and production while debunking industry-driven myths.

The following is an edited transcript of a conversation that took place at the 2023 Bioneers Conference. It features:

SHILPI CHHOTRAY: I actually had the privilege of speaking at Bioneers in 2018, about five years ago. This morning, as I looked back over these five years of work, I couldn’t help but notice the substantial changes and forward momentum we’ve gained. Even when discussing a topic as challenging as Plastic Pollution, the tremendous grassroots activism worldwide fills me with great hope.

Back in 2018, I was involved in the Break Free from Plastic movement. At that time, the prevailing narrative on plastic pollution was heavily centered on the ocean, with the belief that recycling would be our savior. It was also around this period that the heart-wrenching video of a turtle with a straw up its nose went viral, appearing across social media and nightly news broadcasts. The industry seized this opportunity to reinforce the message that ocean cleanups were the solution and that the blame lay with irresponsible consumers who needed to improve their recycling habits. Yes, they claimed we just needed to put plastic in the correct bin.

Interestingly, the industry was somewhat relieved that the focus had narrowed to one single-use plastic item – the plastic straw – as it diverted attention from the broader range of problematic plastic products and packaging. Concurrently, the Break Free from Plastic movement was gaining significant strength worldwide.

“We’re talking about tracing plastic from extraction and production to consumption and disposal. It’s worth noting that 99% of plastic originates from oil and gas sources, with less than 9% being recycled globally – a figure even lower in the United States.”

Shilpi Chhotray

Our mission went beyond rescuing marine life and organizing beach cleanups. We aimed to connect all aspects of the plastic pollution life cycle, which was no small feat. We were talking about tracing plastic from extraction and production to consumption and disposal. It’s worth noting that 99% of plastic originates from oil and gas sources, with less than 9% being recycled globally – a figure even lower in the United States. Unfortunately, the communities most affected by plastic production and disposal, despite being the ones harmed the earliest and most severely, often receive minimal attention, especially regarding their vulnerability to additional impacts from climate change.

Our esteemed panelists today bring extensive personal experiences and unique expertise in understanding the health effects on communities, as well as community-driven solutions that prioritize equity and justice. I’m thrilled to share this stage with them – Yvette Arellano from Fenceline Watch, KT Morelli from Breathe Free Detroit, and Martin Bourque from Berkeley’s Ecology Center. Together, we’re here to reveal the true stories behind plastic pollution and how leaders within the movement continuously challenge the status quo of the industry. We’ll also discuss how you can actively contribute to tangible change in your community.

Now, let’s dive into the topics we’ll cover today. Yvette, who joins us from Houston, will shed light on the connections between fracking pipelines and petrochemical processes. KT, all the way from Detroit, will provide firsthand insights into the battles against waste incineration, which, for those unfamiliar, involves the burning of plastic – a solution that isn’t truly sustainable. And lastly, Martin will unveil the harsh truths and myths surrounding plastic recycling, particularly in the face of the booming consumer packaging industry.

YVETTE ARELLANO: Good afternoon, everyone. I use they/them pronouns, and I call Houston, Texas, my home. Houston boasts the largest petrochemical complex globally, stretching for approximately 52 miles. My community, including Magnolia Park on Houston’s east end, is situated within the first 16 miles of this massive complex. I work alongside four other port communities to combat the encroachment of fossil fuels into our neighborhoods.

I’d like to start by refraining from showing you the complete Houston Ship Channel because I genuinely believe that what you see today is not our future. It’s crucial to understand that wealth does not equate to a sustainable or prosperous livelihood. If Texas were its own economy, it would rank as the 27th largest globally. Texas produces around 44% of the petrochemicals used in plastic production, not only for the nation but worldwide. 

“Plastic production is a significant component of the fossil fuel supply chain, with many fossil fuel companies owning plastic producers, and vice versa.”

Shilpi Chhotray

The ExxonMobil refinery in Baytown, Texas, is the second-largest refinery. Contrary to popular belief, all of Exxon’s facilities coexist on the same site, housing Exxon Chemical, Exxon Oil, Exxon refinery, and soon, Exxon’s hydrogen hub, which I’ll touch on later. Jobs and prosperity don’t necessarily follow in the wake of these industries. Many workers in the sector endure the grueling Dupont schedule – two weeks on, one week off, working 14 to 16 hours a day.

Numerous industry workers grapple with substance abuse to cope with the relentless hours. And the sacrifices made come with severe consequences, as evidenced by the release of toxic substances in our communities. These range from 14,000 pounds of cancer-causing benzene to over 25,000 pounds of ozone-polluting toxins. These are the impacts felt in my community.

With 99% of plastic originating from fossil fuels, the 618 plants lining the Houston Ship Channel are at the heart of global plastic production. Asthma and leukemia rates are alarmingly high in these areas. A Harris County study showed significantly elevated rates along the Houston Ship Channel compared to the rest of the nation, and the same holds true for brain and cervical cancer. 

In Texas, the absence of zoning regulations allows schools, nurseries, elementary schools, and communities to coexist adjacent to refineries. These conditions persist in other communities along the Houston Ship Channel as well. In contrast to other communities where children paint murals of their homes and schools, children in our community paint murals depicting nearby petrochemical facilities.

For me, the intersection of these issues lies in language. Spanish is my first language, and I had to learn English. By second grade, I was proficient enough to join English-only classes. Our communities are populated by migrant workers. In fact, a nearby school in Manchester has a 64% English language learner population, meaning English is their second language. Harmful substances like butane and ethane are being permitted at several times their legal limits in Spanish-speaking communities. 

Schools throughout the Houston Ship Channel face similar challenges. To address this, we formed Title 6, which received a remarkable 48-hour turnaround from the Department of Justice. This initiative now legally requires the petrochemical industry to translate their permits for air, water, and waste. It represents one more barrier to ensure public participation in the democratic process.

Our objective is to dismantle and transform systems that no longer serve us, allowing these roles to work in our favor, thereby fostering real systemic change.

To conclude, I emphasize the importance of rejecting false solutions. A report from the Principles for Responsible Investment reveals that while people acknowledge the harm caused by plastics, they still struggle to fully grasp the strong connection between plastics, chemicals, natural gas, and oil. It’s crucial to reinforce the idea of plastic as an extractive product rooted in the fossil fuel industry. We must not allow big businesses to escape accountability.

“We can’t solve this problem with the same mindset that led to it. The participation of First Nations people and the most impacted communities is essential.”

KT Morelli

SHILPI: I want to emphasize the crucial connection between plastic and climate change. Plastic production is a significant component of the fossil fuel supply chain, with many fossil fuel companies owning plastic producers, and vice versa. They are deeply intertwined, which underscores the importance of holding industry polluters accountable for the complete life cycle costs of pipelines, petrochemical plants, and plastic production.

For those who are new to this topic, I recommend checking out the Center for International Environmental Law’s “Fueling Plastic” series. While it’s a few years old, it remains an invaluable resource that I personally reference regularly.

Additionally, Yvette’s organization, Fenceline Watch, consistently produces exceptional on-the-ground research on this issue. I encourage you to follow them on social media for the latest updates; we’ll provide a slide with their information shortly.

Now that we’ve discussed the origins of plastic and its impact on human lives, let’s delve deeper into the consumer-facing aspect of this issue, including the realities and misconceptions surrounding recycling. Martin, please take it from here.

MARTIN BOURQUE: You know, at the Ecology Center, we have been in this space for a very long time, founded around the first Earth Day. Recycling at the time was considered a radical notion, that we could take things out of the garbage and do something positive with them. Early in the 1970s, the Ecology Center and its supporters initiated the nation’s first curbside collection program. To this day, we continue to work with the City of Berkeley to promote responsible recycling and dispel recycling myths.

The hierarchy has always been reduce, reuse, and then recycle, as your last option. What’s happened is that the packaging industry has moved away from reduce and reuse, solely promoting recycling as the solution for everything from hair loss to erectile dysfunction. This paints an unrealistic picture of plastic recycling as a paradise of rainbows and unicorns.

The reality is much more challenging. The Ecology Center has been combating false narratives in plastic recycling from the beginning. We lost our bottle refill program in the 1980s as the bottling industry shifted from glass to plastic. Today, we fight to improve and maintain the Bottle Bill. We need to return to a model that prioritizes reuse and reduction.

“Focusing on marketing solutions and pushing more plastics into the recycling stream does not address the root problem of overproduction and overuse of plastics.”

Martin Bourque

In order to amplify our voice, we’ve partnered with other early adopters, leaders in their communities, and formed AMBR, the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers. Together with the Break Free from Plastic movement, we hold the industry accountable.

The plastics industry has spent millions convincing us that all plastics are recyclable. One of their campaigns, “Collect All Recyclables,” encouraged recycling programs to collect all packaging, even though only number 1 and number 2 bottles and jugs have viable markets. This created a global problem.

We must consider not just can we recycle, but should we? California’s recycling law focuses on diverting waste from landfills, but exporting our plastic scrap to other countries isn’t a solution. We need to prioritize reduce and reuse and consider the health impacts.

The surge in plastic exports coincided with the “collect all plastics” campaign and the growth of single-stream plastic in the US. However, China and amendments to the Basel Convention in 2018 and 2019 reduced this trade. Now, we need to determine where this plastic is going.

We’ve taken local action in Berkeley, focusing on reduction. We passed the Plastic Bag Reduction strategy, initiated a single-use disposable foodware and litter reduction ordinance, and are pushing for reusable alternatives. We must challenge industry myths that claim all plastics are recyclable, that recycling will solve everything, and that innovative technologies can magically fix the problem.

Petrochemical reprocessing of plastic and plastic-to-fuel are not the way forward. The truth is, recycling should be the last option after reduce and reuse. Recycling is generally beneficial, but it has its limits, especially for plastics. Most plastics should not be recycled due to toxicity and environmental issues.

“We must recognize the urgency of stopping their production in the first place.”

KT Morelli

SHILPI: Before we move forward, let’s clarify something for those new to the numbers. Martin discussed the numbers you find under plastic packaging, which are usually 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. The focus has typically been on recycling 1 and 2, but what about 3 through 7? That’s where the bulk of the issue lies – low-value, single-use plastic packaging that often ends up burned or shipped, rarely disposed of properly.

Additionally, it’s essential to recognize that using reusables is not a radical concept. Communities, especially people of color communities, have been doing this for generations. I recall going to India, where I’m from, and taking aluminum cans and tiffins to the market, getting them weighed, and then heading home. This is a practice deeply rooted in our culture.

Now, shifting gears a bit, we have KT Morelli presenting on the impacts of waste incineration. Both Martin and Yvette touched on this briefly. KT Morelli is the campaign organizer of Breathe Free Detroit, an experienced activist who has lived in the shadow of Detroit’s incinerator for a decade.

KT MORELLI: I come from Detroit, and in 2019, we successfully shut down the largest incinerator in the country, located about a mile from my house. This incinerator had a long history of causing problems for our neighborhood and continues to affect us today.

I will provide some insights into the history, health issues, transitions, and future directions related to our fight against this incinerator.

Our battle spanned 33 years, with people opposing the incinerator’s construction since 1986. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, incineration seemed like a viable option due to landfill space depletion. However, trash, especially plastics, isn’t designed to be burned at the end of its life. Despite being easily combustible, the chemical changes and environmental impacts make burning plastics detrimental to our health and the environment.

In 2019, the Breathe Free Detroit campaign took the lead in the fight to shut down the incinerator, following in the footsteps of many other dedicated activists. When it closed, we learned on the same day that the workers would lose their jobs after 2:00 pm. Incinerator facilities often neglect their employees. Detroit lacks a robust zero-waste system, which could have provided better alternatives for these workers.

When waste is burned, 30% of it becomes toxic ash, often containing microplastics. This ash is typically unregulated and often ends up in landfills. Landfills, if not properly managed, can lead to environmental issues, such as soil contamination and leachate leakage into water systems. Although landfills might be a marginally better option than incineration, a just transition to zero waste is the best solution.

Communities living near incinerators worldwide face health problems stemming from contaminants such as lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, particulate matter, and nitrous oxides. These communities share common health issues, and the thermal treatment of plastic waste, including incineration, exacerbates these problems.

“It’s crucial to reinforce the idea of plastic as an extractive product rooted in the fossil fuel industry. We must not allow big businesses to escape accountability.”

Yvette Arellano

Recent studies by GAIA reveal a substantial presence of microplastics in incinerator ash, which ultimately enters our waterways. Even though our incinerator shut down in 2019, the lifelong health effects persist. Our community, plagued by respiratory and heart issues from living near an incinerator for generations, faced severe impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 22 neighborhood members succumbing to the virus due to pre-existing health conditions caused by incinerator pollution.

Incinerators require waste as fuel, diverting recyclables and compostables away from more sustainable solutions. When money and effort are directed toward incinerators, opportunities to establish effective zero-waste systems are missed.

Community-led policies are crucial in the fight against the fossil fuel industry and plastics. Environmental justice communities are at the forefront of creating climate justice solutions. We implement these solutions out of necessity and possess valuable knowledge on how to combat the problem and protect our communities. It’s imperative to have our voices at the table to drive these changes.

I’d like to highlight the Environmental Justice Delegation, a group of EJ advocates representing communities directly affected by the entire life cycle of plastic pollution. We recently participated in the first international negotiating committee for a global plastics treaty held in Uruguay. We demand justice for human rights violations, climate damage, and biodiversity loss caused by plastic pollution.

We can’t solve this problem with the same mindset that led to it. The participation of First Nations people and the most impacted communities is essential. A legally binding global agreement is a rare opportunity to address the multi-generational harm caused by the plastic pollution crisis, affecting human rights, climate, and biodiversity.

“The plastics industry has spent millions convincing us that all plastics are recyclable.”

Martin Bourque

SHILPI:  Now, let’s discuss what you should be cautious about because there are numerous false solutions circulating. As Martin hinted at earlier, to provide some context, the plastics industry has invested millions of dollars since the ’80s in PR campaigns, media sound bites, and nightly news clips asserting that plastic can and should be recycled. We’ve all seen that infamous “crying Indian” commercial, which had its own set of issues, including the fact that the person wasn’t even Native American.

Regrettably, this issue is at risk of becoming increasingly politicized as we connect it to other movements, such as climate, labor, and food justice. So I’d like to delve into this topic with the three of you, exploring what false solutions we’re encountering and what our audience should be wary of. Additionally, how can they actively engage in advocating for real solutions?

MARTIN: I’d like to begin by pointing out that the plastics industry, packaging companies, and major consumer brands are currently facing immense pressure from the global movement against plastic pollution. However, they tend to view this challenge as a marketing issue, a matter of consumer loyalty, and a problem with their brand image. Consequently, their proposed solutions often revolve around marketing tactics. Many of these solutions include introducing new terminology and planting ideas about chemical recycling and advanced recycling as the miraculous solutions to the problem. They often advocate for recycling more and advise against ceasing production or consumption of plastic.

One of the major concerns within the recycling industry is the potential flood of new types of plastic packaging being encouraged to go into the recycling bin, even though they should not be produced in the first place and are better suited for landfills. For instance, plastic pouches have become increasingly popular for everything from soup to nuts, often equipped with zip locks. These pouches are not recyclable due to their multi-material composition. However, companies like Dow Chemical have introduced 100% polypropylene pouches and claim they are recyclable. In practice, these pouches often end up mixed with paper in recycling bins. When these paper bales are exported to paper mills, especially in countries like Indonesia, the plastic is separated out, as you saw in the video. This false narrative could lead to a significant increase in the types of plastic being placed in recycling bins, creating challenges for environmentally responsible disposal methods.

The critical issue here is that focusing on marketing solutions and pushing more plastics into the recycling stream does not address the root problem of overproduction and overuse of plastics. We must remain vigilant and discerning consumers to avoid falling for these marketing-driven false solutions.

“The carbon capture initiative, which involves massive fans to capture carbon, isn’t a viable solution.”

Yvette Arellano

YVETTE: I want to highlight that for quite some time, many people haven’t been aware that the fracking industry employs plastics extensively. They utilize a thick, gooey substance, almost like sludge, and inject it into the ground. This substance is reactive and aids in determining whether the borehole is proceeding in the right direction. Plastic is already being used in various ways that most of us aren’t even aware of to support extraction processes.

Adding to this, we must also be vigilant about future false solutions that involve not only the continued production of plastics but its expansion, as exemplified in Corpus Christi with the largest ethylene plant partially funded by SABIC Aramco. This expansion is exacerbating another existential crisis—the water crisis.

Across the nation, desalination plants are sprouting up along the coastlines, posing dangers. Not only do they hyper-salinate waters, causing harm to ecosystems, but the filters used in these plants are predominantly plastic.

Furthermore, we should be concerned about the convergence of hydrogen hubs, carbon capture and sequestration, and nuclear energy. These elements are rapidly emerging under the guise of clean energy markets, and they are infiltrating the plastics market for various purposes, such as creating membranes for hydrogen storage. This, however, prolongs the problem.

The carbon capture initiative, which involves massive fans to capture carbon, isn’t a viable solution. And the coupling of offshore hydrogen plants with desalination facilities powered by wind turbines raises questions about what truly constitutes clean energy. We need to inquire about what’s being decommissioned and the feedstocks for these new energy sources. It’s essential that we begin reducing our reliance on dirty energy sources, including plastics.

“We need to inquire about what’s being decommissioned and the feedstocks for these new energy sources. It’s essential that we begin reducing our reliance on dirty energy sources, including plastics.”

Yvette Arellano

KT: I’d like to add to this discussion since I work in the waste management field. Every day, I’m surrounded by objects, and I constantly wonder about their ultimate destination. Unfortunately, there’s no favorable outcome for plastics. When you encounter a park bench made from thousands of recycled water bottles, it may seem like a positive recycling effort. However, as that bench deteriorates due to factors like teenage vandalism or exposure to the elements, it simply releases more microplastics into our environment. The same goes for items like work vests made from recycled bottles—when washed, they shed microplastics into our water systems.

The key takeaway here is that there is no environmentally friendly destination for plastics. We must recognize the urgency of stopping their production in the first place.

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