Yesterday, an unusually broad coalition of environmental groups, numbering more than 550, called on the incoming Biden-Harris administration to address plastic pollution alongside fossil fuels, releasing an eight-point platform that largely focuses on ways the next administration could act without a Democratic majority in the Senate.
“More than 99 percent of plastic is created from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, including an oversupply of fracked gas, which is spurring a global boom in new plastic production,” the groups wrote in their Presidential Plastics Action Plan. “That plastic is causing serious environmental problems at every step of its lifecycle.”
The eight-point plan drew endorsements from organizations that have worked on problems created by plastic production at every stage, from the production of fossil fuels used by the plastics industry all the way to the plastics trash problems that follow consumer use of single-use products like straws and bags.
That plan calls for the Biden administration to take specific actions in 2021, including using the spending power of the federal government to curb taxpayer-funded consumption of single-use plastic products, rejecting permits for new or expanded plastics manufacturing sites, and requiring existing plastics plants to use the best available technology to curb their pollution.
“We’re really just asking that President Biden start enforcing the laws that we have,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit which helped to organize the plan, “instead of rubber-stamping these destructive plastics projects.”
The groups called for Biden to direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update its plastic-related regulations under the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which governs hazardous waste). These groups, which range from town and county-level grassroots groups to major national and international green NGOs, also want the U.S. government to stop subsidizing plastic production, asking Biden to take steps like ending Department of Energy loan financing for fossil fuel and plastic production.
Newly manufactured plastic pellets, known as nurdles, washed up on the bank of the Mississippi River in Chalmette, Louisiana, after a lost shipping container spilled them on August 2, 2020. Credit: ©2020 Julie Dermansky
The plan also zeroes in on the issue of discarded and lost fishing gear, which environmental groups say has increasingly clogged the world’s oceans. “This fishing gear is often called ‘ghost gear’ because long after it is lost it entangles, captures, and kills sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals, and fish,” the groups wrote. “It changes the marine environment, poses navigational hazards, introduces plastic into the marine food web, and creates a persistent marine debris and pollution problem, with high cleanup costs.”
Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon praised the initiative at a press conference today, arguing that plastic recycling has fallen far short of what’s necessary to respond to the problems that plastics have created. “The problem right now is that for decades, the mantra of the environmental story has been reduce, reuse, and recycle,” he said. “But when it comes to plastic, it’s not really what happens.”
Since plastic production first began 60 years ago, manufacturers have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of the stuff, National Geographic reported in 2018 — and a stunning 91 percent of it was never recycled. According to a September NPR investigation, the oil and plastics industries have misled the public for years about the feasibility of recycling plastics, despite knowing the substantial economic and technical challenges.
Instead, most plastic has met one of three fates: buried in landfills, burned in incinerators, or bobbing in the world’s streams, rivers, and waterways as it washes towards the oceans.
Diane Wilson returning from collecting plastic pellets known as nurdles from one of Formosa’s outfall areas on January 15, 2020. Wilson was a lead plaintiff in a case against Formosa Plastics Corp. USA that resulted in a $50-million-dollar settlement and a consent decree that requires the company to stop releasing the nurdles it manufactures into local waterways leading to the Texas Gulf Coast. Wilson was also one of the organizers of the plan announced today. Credit: ©2020 Julie Dermansky
That last category represents an enormous amount of trash — so much that a 2016 report from the World Economic Forum projected that by 2050, the world’s oceans will hold more plastic, measured by weight, than fish.
That’s part of the reason that some groups participating in today’s call to action for the Biden administration have organized beach cleanups to collect plastic waste that’s washed ashore worldwide — and that they are now working together with organizations that focus on how and where plastics are produced.
In 2019, for example, the Surfrider Foundation organized over 47,000 volunteers to participate in 941 cleanups, removing nearly 300,000 pounds of trash from beaches around the U.S. But they’re also now endorsing the Presidential Plastics Action Plan to address the problem at its source.
“Beach cleanups alone simply won’t solve the environmental disaster we have all played a part in creating in recent decades,” Angela Howe, legal director for the Surfrider Foundation, said today as the plan was announced. “Our ocean is dying a death of a thousand cuts, and we need a powerful, multifaceted approach to address it.”
The plan also focuses on the needs of those who live in communities where fossil fuels and plastics manufacturing takes place, including places where Biden campaigned.
Joe Biden, now President-elect, visited the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) in New Orleans, Louisiana, on July 23, 2019. Credit: ©2019 Julie Dermansky
Petrochemical companies continue to locate new and expanded plastics facilities near existing fossil fuel infrastructure, which means they are targeting the Gulf Coast, Appalachia, the Ohio River Valley, and other communities that already shoulder a heavy burden of oil, gas, and plastic industry pollution,” the plan says. “Across the United States, these facilities are often located in and have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority neighborhoods.”
During this year’s presidential debates, former Vice President Joe Biden recalled his own experiences growing up in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, which was and remains home to a dense array of fossil fuel refineries and chemical plants.
“When my mom got in the car when our first frost, to drive me to school, turned on the windshield wipers and there would be an oil slick in the window,” Biden said. “That’s why so many people in my state were dying and getting cancer. The fact is those frontline communities, it doesn’t matter what you’re paying them. It matters how you keep them safe.”
That’s a familiar message to organizers living along the Gulf Coast as well.
“Houston, Texas is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the nation, and it continues to expand,” Yvette Arellano, the founder of Fenceline Watch, a Houston-based environmental justice campaign, and a recipient of the 2020 Community Sentinel award. “The true cost of plastic is our health.”
Yvette Arellano with Jane Collins during a “toxic tour” at Buffalo Bayou across from Sims Metal Management’s Proler Southwest recycling facility in 2016. Credit: ©2016 Julie Dermansky
“There is nothing common-sense about increasing cancer rates, sterility, or developmental issues in poor communities of color just for plastic,” she added.
Sharon Lavigne of the Louisiana-based RISE St. James also spoke about her experiences living in an historically Black community where plastic and industrial pollution has left many of her neighbors with weakened immune systems as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
“Americans have been in the streets shouting Black Lives Matter and We Can’t Breathe all year,” Lavigne, who also recently launched the Protect Our Parish project in opposition to the planned $9.4 billion Formosa plastics complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, said. “Well, our lives do matter and we can’t keep breathing this polluted air.”
The Holy Rosary Cemetery next to Dow Chemical in Taft, Louisiana, located across the Mississippi River in the stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is heavily concentrated with chemical plants and oil refineries. The area has been dubbed both the “Petrochemical Corridor” and “Cancer Alley.” Credit: ©2020 Julie Dermansky
Lavigne made one other ask of the Biden administration. “I would like for them to come and see for themselves what’s going on in St. James Parish,” she said. “I would like for them to just ride around the community and see what we are going through. And if they stay for two hours, I promise you, they would leave with a stomachache or a headache.”
Organizers acknowledged that it would take work to convince the Biden administration to act on their plan. “We are going to keep pushing him,” said Teel Simmonds, adding that the shale gas used as a petrochemical feedstock cannot be a “bridge fuel” as the Obama administration had suggested.
Other signatories connected plastics production to climate change as well as to people’s health, signaling perhaps a generational shift in attitudes toward these interconnected problems.
“I began by studying climate change,” said Duke University PhD student Imari Walker, “and then realized how plastic pollution is deeply intertwined.”
“We have left every phase of the plastic pipeline unregulated for too long,” said Walker. “My generation is being left with a warming world being filled with plastic pollution and we demand action.”
Sharon Lavigne (center), founder of RISE St. James, stands with her daughter Shamyra Lavigne (right) and RISE member Beverly Alexander (left), holding gift bags with masks and hand sanitizer that they distributed to community members in St. James Parish, on November 18, 2020. Credit: ©2020 Julie DermanskyMain image: New Orleans advocates for federal action to address the plastic pollution crisis projecting an anti-plastic message onto a New Orleans post office on December 7. Similar projections took place in San Francisco, Houston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. Credit: All photos by Julie Dermansky for DeSmog