By Jasleen Kahlon
As the world tries to claw its way out from under what seems like an insurmountable amount of plastic waste, it is vital to address the negative externalities associated with its production and its disposal. While most have a general understanding of the environmental toll of plastic pollution, few are aware of the serious human health implications and the environmental racism associated with the creation of the ubiquitous material. And as is the case with many climate change-related issues, it is the vulnerable, low-income, and communities of color who are impacted most.
99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels, either from petroleum or natural gas. In order to formulate the material, the fossil fuels in their liquid form are converted to polymers in large petrochemical plants. During this process, chemicals such as benzene, ethylene dibromide, and formaldehyde are released into the atmosphere, contaminating the surrounding air, water, and soil. The majority of these petrochemical and plastic producing facilities are located in low-income communities of color in the US. This is not by coincidence. Being in close proximity to such facilities results in a multitude of health issues for these community members, including but not limited to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer, and leukemia.
Beyond the production process of plastics, commonly utilized methods of disposal result in environmental justice issues as well. A large fraction of plastic being produced is for single-use items that get disposed of frequently and recurrently. These plastics are disposed of in landfills or incinerators, which, in the US, are often located in close proximity to lower-income neighborhoods that have a higher percentage of people of color. Toxic coal ash, the captured airborne pollutants from the incineration process, are most often disposed of in landfills. Coal ash contains high concentrations of arsenic, and mercury (among several other toxic substances), and has a high potential to leak and release toxins into the local environment. Coal ash disposal in such locations is linked to respiratory issues, mental health problems, and various forms of cancer. The burning of plastics also poses serious health risks, as it releases toxic heavy metals such as lead and mercury into the surrounding atmosphere. The release of these metals into the air results in ailments such as severe asthma, cardiovascular disease, and overall higher mortality rates.
Because of the lower cost of operation, plastic production plants and landfills are intentionally opened in these lower-income communities. This exposes these communities to toxic air pollution and in turn, negatively affects the health and wellbeing of these community members. The burden of the health consequences on these communities is augmented, as many lack the financial means or adequate health insurance needed to properly address these alarming health issues.
And although it is vital that this widespread injustice is addressed at both the local and federal governmental levels, the impact goes far beyond US borders. The high rate of plastic production, combined with inadequate infrastructure has forced the US among other developed countries to ship plastic waste overseas to less developed countries, ones that certainly do not have the proper infrastructure in place to deal with the immense volume of plastic waste either. Several countries in Southeast Asia have become the receptacles of our plastic waste, posing a human health and environmental crisis for these nations.
One of the major ways in which the U.S. is trying to mitigate the plastic pollution crisis is through legislation. Recently proposed to congress, The CLEAN Future Act has many elements that overlap with notable federal recycling-centric bills like the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which was introduced last year. This piece of legislation calls for a suspension on the construction of plastic production plants and would enact a three-year period during which the EPA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Institutes of Health, would study and publish the environmental justice impacts of plastic production. During the three-year pause, the EPA would stop issuing permits to refineries to be able to release harmful chemicals during the production process. Once the three-year period has elapsed, the issuance of permits would require an environmental justice assessment, and require a plan to eliminate or mitigate such impacts. The act would also prohibit the overseas export of plastic waste.
Basic stewardship led by local governments is another important step that can be taken to address environmental injustice. Through public awareness and education campaigns, local governments can help ensure that reduction, reuse, and recycling initiatives are properly executed with the best possible management strategies. Implementation of third-party verifying certification programs such as the SWEEP Standard can offer local governments a tangible target to aim for, allowing them to work towards more sustainable waste management practices. Standards like SWEEP also have great potential to lessen the environmental and human rights impact of waste disposal — allowing the U.S and beyond to take measurable steps towards creating a more equitable materials management industry.