What follows is an excerpt fromThicker Than Water: Finding Solutions to the Plastic Crisis by Erica CirinÖ.
Cancer Alley meanders 85 miles along both banks of the Mississippi River, forming a patchwork quilt of sugar cane plantations and petrochemical complexes, the former with a legacy of slavery and land degradation and the latter with a legacy of spills, explosions and widespread pollution. With the industry shut down, it was difficult to find respite. Many people living in the industrial fence fear for their lives.
At a fence in Welcome, St. James Parish, Louisiana, I met Sharon Lavigne, who recently won the Goldman Environmental Award for her environmental justice activism. Lavigne founded a Christian activist organization called RISE St. James in 2018 against a $1.25 billion plastics factory proposed by Chinese chemical company Wanhua. RISE spoke. The power station was never built.
Lavigne recently spoke out against the proposed construction of a $9.4 billion petrochemical and plastics complex in Welcome, a predominantly African-American community. So far, she and RISE have managed to delay the completion of this latest industrial development -- owned by FG LA LLC, a company affiliated with major Taiwanese manufacturing conglomerate Formosa Plastics -- to land in St. James Parish, through a variety of community-based justice efforts and other campaigns. Formosa Plastics is the world's fourth largest producer of petrochemicals and plastics.
Earlier this year, United Nations human rights experts called for an end to racism in Cancer Alley, a place where communities of color are at risk disproportionate to industrial risks. This month, a new report on Formosa Plastics delves into the company's bewildering environmental, economic and legal history. One of the top recommendations from experts: the licenses of Formosa in St. James, Louisiana; take company.
Some may believe that in a region already rich in chemicals, closing Formosa -- a plastics factory -- would bring only insignificant public health benefits. In reality, such a victory would not only save the residents of St. James from additional exposure to pollutants, but it would also be a victory in the fight against climate change - another major crisis we are facing right now.
Scientists agree that we must now rid ourselves of substances that contribute to climate change during extraction, processing and combustion - namely oil shale, bitumen, oil sands, coal, petroleum, natural gas and heavy oils - and halt industrial development.
[Related:Will we ever be able to recycle all of our plastic?]
As Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in New York and newly appointed co-chair of the first White House Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, told me, “It's important to disband these institutions because they won't take power from give themselves out. We need to transition from a fossil fuel based economy and that includes plastic. Our future depends on it.”
And as we build a new world powered by renewable energy, "we need to make sure it serves everyone — not just those currently in positions of power," Shepard added. She said focusing on equity rather than equality and prioritizing the transition of underserved communities from fossil fuel and plastic production to renewable energy sources and materials is a good start. “Decades of racism-driven divestments have left black communities at a tremendous disadvantage. This is our opportunity to fix that.”
Our collective attention to climate change continues to grow as its damaging impacts – including warmer air and seas, widespread wildfires, more intense and frequent storms and biodiversity loss – become more apparent to all of us. But humanity has collectively struggled to take the necessary step to shut down the fossil fuel and plastic industries because we have become totally dependent on fossil fuels to power our super-fast, hyper-connected modern human society.
We recently got a glimpse of what reducing our reliance on fossil fuels could mean for us - and for the industries we need to dismantle: those that trade in oil, gas, petrochemicals and plastics.
In April 2020, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the daily lives of many people around the world. At the peak of the pandemic, our carbon footprint was the smallest it has been in a long time. Lockdowns, travel bans, business closures, quarantines and curfews have forced people to stay put and find their way. As a result, global collective carbon emissions are down 17% from 2019.
That's a significant number when you consider that the world's leading climate scientists say global emissions need to fall by at least 7.6% annually through 2030 for humanity to even slightly mitigate the catastrophic and accelerating consequences of climate change .
As the pandemic hit and oil and gas demand and values plummeted, some smaller petrochemical companies were forced to close, while some larger companies imposed temporary plant closures and employee furloughs.
Meanwhile, residents of some of the world's largest cities -- at least those not living in wildfire zones -- collectively reported that the air they breathed seemed cleaner than usual, even in some notoriously polluted urban centers.
When regulations to contain the pandemic were eased later in the spring, global emissions began to rise and air quality fell again, particularly in industrial areas. According to a report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in June 2020, the lifting and unequal travel and work restrictions have pushed global greenhouse gas emissions a mere 5% below 2019 levels.
While the emissions slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was temporary, some experts, including climate activist Bill McKibben — author of The End of Nature, the first popular book on global warming, published in 1989 — have posited, that petrochemical companies are finally losing some of their political and economic clout. "It is by no means an exhausted force, but even in the last few weeks events have shown that it is declining where it has been increasing for a century and a half," McKibben wrote in The New Yorker in 2020. In his article, he cites grassroots efforts to protest petrochemical development, university divestiture campaigns, and affordable renewable energy development as major causes of the fossil fuel industry's energy reduction.
But fossil-fuel companies have one last plan to counteract dwindling demand: produce more plastic. "It's no surprise to see fossil fuel companies turning to plastic as a lifeline as concerns about climate change reduce demand for fuel," John Hocevar, Greenpeace's director of ocean campaigns, told me. .
Indeed, in the face of a global shift in climate change policies and in response to new emissions deals, Big Oil and Gas is betting on converting old carbon stores - particularly shale gas - into plastic rather than continuing to produce primarily fossil fuels to be burned for energy. . According to the American Chemistry Council, major petrochemical companies such as ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco and Shell have invested more than $200 billion in several hundred natural gas chemical and plastics plants since 2010.
[Related:To avoid catastrophic global warming, we must keep fossil fuels in the ground.]
Plastic production reached 311 million tons worldwide in 2014. That number is expected to double by 2030 and quadruple by 2050. The sale of petrochemicals, including those used to make plastics, routinely brings in tens of billions of dollars a year for the largest fossil fuel traders. These super-rich companies continue to direct their development toward underserved communities. In the US, plastic production is increasing along the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coasts and in Cancer Alley, where so much petrochemical infrastructure already exists in black communities. It's also spreading to rural Ohio River Valley and Appalachia, where natural gas-filled fracking pits are polluting thousands of low-income neighborhoods.
Plastic can be made from oil or gas, as can most of its additives. The main components of plastic are derived from freshly mined fossil fuels in oil refineries and gas processing plants: naphtha, a crude oil-based substance; and ethane, a liquid natural gas.
Extracting fossil fuels from the earth and turning them into plastic not only requires huge amounts of petrochemicals, but also energy – and that energy comes from burning more fossil fuels these days. Petrochemicals - including those used to make plastics - are projected to become the biggest growth driver for the global oil industry by 2050. And petrochemicals are becoming a key growth driver for the gas industry: by 2030, global petrochemical production will require an additional 56 billion cubic meters of gas – about half of Canada's current natural gas consumption. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic production now amount to about 900 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. By 2030, that number is expected to surpass 1.3 billion tons, equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of nearly 300 coal-fired power plants. These figures exclude greenhouse gas emissions from recycling and incineration, which also require energy, landfill, which emits high levels of potent greenhouse gases, and plastic itself.
Many of the people most affected by the climate crisis are also affected by environmental racism. Like Sharon Lavigne and her neighbors in St. James. Southern Louisiana has proven to be one of the regions hardest hit by severe weather events such as high temperatures and humidity, and rising and warming seas. Katrina, Rita, Harvey, Laura, Delta, Ida…. The storms come faster, stronger, more devastating.
Clearly, the more plastic humans are putting on the planet, the more humanity is condemning itself to living on a dangerously hot planet – which unfairly weighs some down more than others.
Excerpted from Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, by Erica Cirino; Copyright © 2021 by the author. Reprinted with permission from Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Does plastic production use fossil fuels? ›
Looking at how companies create plastics, this isn't that surprising. Plastics are part of a sector called “petrochemicals,” or products made from fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas. That's right, corporations make plastic using dirty fossil fuels.Can plastic be made without fossil fuel? ›
Yes, it is possible to create plastic from sources other than oil. Although crude oil is the principal source of carbon for moden plastic, an array of variants are manufactured from renewable materials. Plastic made without oil is marketed as biobased plastic or bioplastics.What is the answer to the plastic problem? ›
Wean yourself off disposable plastics.
Ninety percent of the plastic items in our daily lives are used once and then chucked: grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, coffee-cup lids. Take note of how often you rely on these products and replace them with reusable versions.
Only about 8.4 percent of plastic is recycled. But, according to scientists from UC Santa Barbara, even recycling plastic produces greenhouse gas emissions, as fossil fuels are combusted to run the machines that shred plastic waste and heat it up to make other products.How much of plastic is fossil fuels? ›
The vast majority of plastics are made from oil and gas; in fact, more than 99 per cent is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels.How much fossil fuel does it take to make plastic? ›
Plastic is produced from crude oil and natural gas, both nonrenewable fossil fuels. Producing one kilogram of plastic from crude oil requires 62-108 MJ, making it far and away the least energy efficient of these three materials.Can plastic be turned back into fuel? ›
Pyrolysis involves heating plastic in an oxygen-free environment, causing the materials to break down and creating new liquid or gas fuels in the process.Can plastic be made from natural gas? ›
Plastics are produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining.Can plastic be made from renewable energy? ›
In recent years, natural renewable resources have successfully been used to produce plastic that is biodegradable under certain temperature and humidity conditions.