Business is Booming, But Public Anger Toward Plastics Grows With Environmental Harms

Hundreds of recycled plastic water bottles are piled up inside the Recology recycling facility on March 15, 2011 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Frustrated with the sight of plastic bags and styrofoam containers piling up in its harbor, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, rang in the new year with a promise to start enforcing a ban on single-use plastic containers and utensils.

It's one of hundreds of similar bans that have been launched across the U.S. and Europe, amid a growing backlash to an industry that is expanding despite increasing evidence of the harm its products can do.

In just the past year, researchers have shown that tiny particles of plastic are pervasive in the environment, even high in the mountains and inside human bodies. Dead whales have washed up with dozens of pounds of plastic waste in their stomachs. And a new awareness of the role the plastics industry plays in climate change is emerging.

"If it's in our marshes, it's in our oysters, it's in our fish and it's in our dolphins," said Caroline Bradner, the Land, Water & Wildlife Project Manager for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. "And if there is plastic in them, there is plastic in us."

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The scientific studies and images of plastic waste have been shifting how the public sees plastics, and that has gotten the industry's attention at the highest levels. The industry has been simultaneously fighting to prevent local plastics bans and trying to promote itself as a solution, while its production keeps growing.

In Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, one giant plastics  plant is under construction, and a second awaits a decision on financing in an Appalachian region that federal officials have said could support even more manufacturing—an effort that the Trump administration may assist with loan guarantees this year.

On the Gulf Coast, seven large petrochemical facilities have been approved since 2015. Environmentalists are fighting them, with the latest lawsuit filed last week over the federal permits for what would be one of the world's largest plastics plants, planned near a wetlands area along the Mississippi River.

There is "an incredible disconnect" between public concerns about what plastics pollution is doing to the environment and all of the industry funding and tax dollars being invested in new plastics manufacturing, said Judith Enck, a former official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who in 2019 founded the Beyond Plastics campaign, a nonpartisan initiative that seeks to end plastic pollution.

Industry officials contend that they are just trying to meet consumer demand, and they say they are looking for ways to improve recycling and reduce waste.

"We fundamentally think plastics don't belong in the environment," said Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobby group with members in the alliance. But, he added, plastics are essential. "You may be able to do without a plastic bag, but most products there really isn't a substitute for or an ability to go without it."

'A Climate Crisis Hiding in Plain Sight'

From scientific research papers to reports by environmental groups, 2019 delivered a relentless stream of evidence about environmental and health concerns related to plastics.

"I must say it's been pretty uncomfortable ... as we have watched images of plastic strewn over beaches and pictures of sea animals with ingested plastic," Patty Long, the interim chief executive officer of the Plastics Industry Association, lamented at the Global Plastics Summit last year.

"We see it over and over and over again," she told the industry gathering, co-hosted by the Plastics Industry Association and IHS Markit, which closely tracks the industry.

For example:

  • Plastic particles were found in the stomachs of the deepest known marine animals, nearly seven miles below the surface of the sea.
  • The wind deposited as much microplastic per square meter in a secluded area high in the Pyrenees Mountains, along the French and Spanish border, as researchers would expect in the city of Paris.
  • The average American now ingests more than 70,000 particles of microplastics per year, according to a study in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.
  • The carcass of a dead sperm whale washed ashore in Italy with 49 pounds of plastic in its stomach; and a beached young Cuvier's beaked whale died in the Philippines, with a necropsy revealing 88 pounds of plastic including plastic bags from grocery stores.

The Center for International Environmental Law also published a report in May that found greenhouse gas emissions from the plastics lifecycle—from natural gas extraction to plastics production and disposal—could reach 850 million metric tons in 2019, about the same as 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants.

The total is projected to rise to 1.34 billion metric tons per year by 2030, equivalent to the emissions from nearly 300 coal plants of that size.

The group, working with the Environmental Integrity Project, FracTracker Alliance and others, concluded that the plastics' and petrochemical industries' plans could make it impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the most challenging benchmark established under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

"Plastics have been a climate crisis hiding in plain sight," said Carroll Muffett, president and chief executive officer of the law center.

Christman, with the chemical industry lobby group, argued that the law center should have compared the carbon emissions from plastics when they are used as substitutes to materials like glass or steel. Greenhouse gas emissions are spared when cars are made lighter and more fuel-efficient with plastic parts, he said, and when plastic wrapping preserves food to avoid spoilage and disposal in methane-producing landfills.

"With all of these issues, yes, we have to avoid regrettable substitution," Muffett responded. But the "simple argument that all the possible substitutes are going to be worse than plastics" is wrong, he added.

Plastics Could Grow 3.5 to 4 Percent Annually Through 2035

For years, the public relied on recycling to justify its plastics use, but now that, too, is in crisis.

In 2018, China's decided to stop accepting most plastic materials for recycling, and last May, 187 countries added plastics to an international treaty that controls the movement of hazardous waste around the globe, requiring exporters to obtain government permission before shipping lower quality plastic wastes to their countries.

That's not all that's preventing effective recycling. The economics of recycling "are still upside down," largely because of a glut of the fossil fuels used to make plastic, said Nina Bellucci Butler, the chief executive officer of More Recycling, a research and consulting company that works with the plastics industry on recycling,

"We are just awash in natural gas and oil," she said. "The only thing we can do is make an incredible amount of plastics."

The plastics industry has tried to show that it is responding to waste concerns. It announced a $1.5 billion Alliance to End Plastic Waste with the goal of improving plastic waste management in Asia.

But it is also moving ahead with new plastics manufacturing plants, as the oil and gas industry eyes plastics as a growing part of its future.

The data firm IHS Markit has forecast that plastics production will grow on average 3.5 to 4 percent per year through at least 2035.

In western Pennsylvania outside Pittsburgh, hundreds of workers are building a massive Shell Polymers plant to turn ethane—a product of a decade-old natural gas fracking boom there—into the basic building blocks of plastic products. Analysts have said the region could support as many as five of these plants, which "crack" ethane molecules to make ethylene and polyethylene resin pellets. One has already obtained environmental permits in Belmont County, Ohio, and is awaiting a financing decision.

In 2020, the Trump administration could decide whether to provide $1.9 billion in loan guarantees for the development of underground storage for ethane it says would help establish a whole new plastics manufacturing hub in Appalachia.

Environmental groups and some Democrats in Congress are fighting the loan guarantees, which would go to a West Virginia business, Appalachia Development Group, that has proposed developing the storage in mined salt or limestone caverns underground.

Near the Gulf Coast, environmentalists are also fighting new or expanding petrochemical and plastics manufacturing plants. The Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate reported in late November that seven large petrochemical facilities and expansions had been approved in that area since 2015, and five more were awaiting permits.

One of them stands out for its cost and size: the $9.6 billion Formosa plastics and petrochemical complex, proposed on 2,400 acres in St. James Parish. In early January, it was granted air quality permits, and the Center for Biological Diversity is now suing, arguing that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to disclose environmental damage and public health risks of the plastic facility under the National Environmental Policy Act. More lawsuits are expected.

Congress Eyes Competing Approaches to Plastics Regulation

At the state level, lawmakers introduced at least 95 bills in 2019 related to plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most, including those in New YorkMaine and Vermont, sought to ban or place a fee on plastic bags. However, some went in the opposite direction, attempting to prevent local governments from making their own decisions on how to manage plastic waste.

Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota all blocked their cities from passing local bag rules in 2019. South Carolina lawmakers have been trying to pass a similar law, promoted by lobbyists for the industry. A "ban on bans" bill, S.394, will pick up this month where it left off last year, and could come to a vote before the full South Carolina Senate, said Bradner, of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

Whether a divided Congress in a heated election year can pass meaningful legislation remains an open question. But some federal lawmakers are trying, with competing approaches focused either on government funding or manufacturer responsibility.

The industry backs bills like Save Our Seas 2.0 and the RECOVER Act, which aim to improve waste management and recycling. Neither would slow the production of plastics.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) are floating another proposal that would require plastics producers to establish a national container deposit program, collect fees on non-reusable plastic bags, increase the amount of recycled plastic used in new products and establish a moratorium on new plastics manufacturing plants.

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"The financial burden of cleaning up pollution should not be solely on the taxpayers," Lowenthal said at a Congressional hearing last fall. "It's imperative the the companies that manufacture and sell these products take ownership of their environmental impacts."