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Environment & Energy Report

INSIGHT: Plastic Pollution Is an Environmental Justice Issue

July 14, 2020, 8:00 AM

Recent conversations on social media and in print have highlighted institutional racism that exists in government policies and practices involving education, housing, employment, and the environment.

In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson discussed the disproportionate impacts people of color experience from environmental harms such as storms, heatwaves, and pollution. She argues that White people who care about maintaining a habitable planet need to be “actively anti-racist” and need to understand that the racial inequality crisis is intertwined with the climate crisis.

Like the climate crisis, the plastic crisis is also intertwined with racial inequalities. Who suffers most from harms associated with plastic production and disposal? Communities with more people of color, both in the U.S. and abroad. A consequence of environmental racism, plastic pollution requires an environmental justice response.

Waiving environmental reviews and fast-tracking infrastructure projects through executive orders, like the president did recently, will only perpetuate environmental racism. Instead, Congress should actively address existing environmental inequities through codifying environmental justice into environmental laws. Enacting the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act is one way to start.

People of Color Suffer Disproportionately From Air Pollution

In 2018, the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment published a report in the American Journal of Public Health that confirmed people of color are disproportionally impacted by air pollution, specifically, small airborne particles called particulate matter (PM) that have been linked to lung cancer.

The study looked at communities located within 2.5 miles of refineries, including those associated with plastic production, and found that these communities were disproportionately non-White, with the result that Black people were being exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than White people. Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic Whites.

Cancer Alley Is Now Coronavirus Alley

The impacts from plastic refineries are particularly apparent in an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans, dubbed Cancer Alley. This area, which is home to more than 150 plants and refineries, is also home to some of the highest cancer rates in the country.

The communities closest to the plants and refineries are predominately Black. (ProPublica and RollingStone Magazine have published detailed articles on Cancer Alley). Recently, Cancer Alley has been declared Coronavirus Alley; the respiratory illnesses that residents experience as a result of the refineries are also pre-existing conditions that make residents more susceptible to Covid-19.

In early 2020, Louisiana approved all environmental permits needed for a $9.4 billion plastic complex made up of 14 plants on 2,300 acres in the St. James Parish section of Cancer Alley. The complex is expected to double the release of toxic chemicals from 1.6 million pounds to 3.2 million pounds per year, making the plastic complex the state’s second-largest emitter of benzene and ethylene oxide, two cancer-causing chemicals. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act would have prevented this approval.

Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act

Introduced in February 2020 by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), the act calls for a moratorium on the construct of pollution producing plants that convert natural gas liquids into the polymers that make up plastic products. These facilities “crack” the molecular bonds of the ethane—a byproduct of the gas extracted from fracking—to form ethylene and propylene, the building blocks of plastic polymers.

During this process, benzene and other harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde and ammonia, are released, necessitating the need for permits under the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Under the Break Free from Pollution Act, the EPA would stop issuing permits to these refineries. During a three year pause, the EPA, together with the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health, would study the environmental justice impacts of these facilities and issue a report with their findings.

After three years, all proposed permits would be required to include an environmental justice assessment, and all permits would be required to include a plan to mitigate or eliminate any environmental justice impacts identified in the assessment of the initial permit.

Air pollution is just one environmental justice concern addressed by the Break Free from Pollution Act. The act also negates the impact plastic waste has on communities with more people of color by putting the onus on plastic producers to collect and process plastic waste and by prohibiting the export of plastic waste to developing countries that lack the infrastructure to manage plastic waste. These policies and practices are examples of the anti-racist actions our government can take.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Sarah J. Morath is an associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, where she teaches legal writing and writes about environmental and food law and policy. She is currently working on her second book “Our Plastic Problem: Costs and Solutions” (forthcoming Cambridge University Press 2021)

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