We all know plastics are bad. But you may not know how bad.
The fossil fuel industry has its finger in a lot of pies, and plastics infrastructure is one of the deadliest pies of all. Almost all plastics (99 percent) are made from fossil fuels, and as we move toward renewable energy in electricity and transportation, the industry is pushing hard to make growth of plastics its lifeline.
Petrochemical facilities emit all of the pollutants that coal plants do, plus a toxic mix of chemicals like dioxin and ethylene oxide. These disrupt human hormones and cause serious birth abnormalities, cancer, and other diseases. People living near petrochemical facilities have a 30 percent higher risk of developing leukemia and a 20 percent higher risk of developing lung cancer.
Petrochemical production is the US’s greatest source of toxic air pollution. The terrible health impacts of these facilities can be seen most clearly in areas like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” where residents are exposed to constant carcinogenic fumes and toxic waste. People of color and those living below the poverty line are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities, including those by petrochemical facilities. And that is no accident.
Petrochemicals are everywhere: in workout clothes, hand sanitizer, cosmetics, and crayons. They’re part of our everyday lives and everyday items—things most people don’t associate with fossil fuels, which are often thrown in the trash and forgotten, making their way to landfills or the sea. And while plastic pollution in the ocean is truly horrible, it’s merely a symptom of the larger issue. This is an “upstream problem.” Downstream are the plastic products, all the things we can see and touch, while upstream are the petrochemicals, insidious and invisible to most of us in our daily lives.
The US is already the world’s largest producer of petrochemicals, with roughly 900 existing facilities. And as we write this, some 150 new petrochemical facilities are under consideration. If they’re built, and plastic growth continues as planned, their additional carbon emissions would make it impossible for the US to get to net-zero emissions in time to avoid the worst-case scenario.