The Deep Injustice of Plastic Pollution


On August 14, 2021, the U.S. Army ordered an environmental review of Formosa Group's proposed petrochemical plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana. This is an important step in the right direction towards stopping this dirty and dangerous operation. You can support further work to oppose the project with RISE St. James here.

 The Fossil Fuel Industry's Insidious Plans to Pollute our World with Plastics

Think about plastic pollution. What do you see? A tangled sea turtle? A dead bird with a belly full of bottle caps? A floating pile of ocean debris?

If you've ever lived near a petrochemical facility, you might instead envision a scene similar to the image above, which was photographed by Sierra Club organizer Bryan Parras. It was taken on March 22, 2018, overlooking the community of Manchester in Houston, Texas. The flare is coming from the Valero refinery. 

Valero and hundreds of other petrochemicals facilities across the United States produce the plastic pellets used to make soda bottles, six-pack holders, and grocery bags. The struggling fossil fuel industry sees plastic production as a lifeline for maintaining its profits as demand in the electric and transportation sector drops. 

Petrochemical manufacturing, a precursor to creating plastic, makes up 14 percent of oil use and is predicted to account for 50 percent of oil and fracked gas demand growth by 2050—the same year that it's estimated there will be more plastic pollution than fish, by weight, in our oceans.

The pollution from plastic starts long before these toxic, single-use products ever reach the sea.

Houston accounts for "42 percent of the nation's petrochemical manufacturing capacity," according to the city's website, which appears to have been created in proud partnership with Shell, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other oil and gas corporations. However, the reality for people living near these plants is not so rosy. A 2016 study titled "Double Jeopardy," by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), found "compelling evidence that Houston-area communities with higher populations of color and higher poverty levels face higher risks from chemical accidents and everyday toxic exposure."

Across the nation, corporate polluters are building the majority of these polluting facilities in low income communities and communities of color—most of which are located in Texas and Louisiana, with a threat of expansion into Appalachia. In east Houston, residents who live in proximity to chemical manufacturing are burdened with a high level of exposure to toxic chemicals in their air, water, and soil. These chemicals include cancer-causing benzene, ethylene dibromide, and formaldehyde. 

The pollution created by these toxic facilities during normal operations is bad enough—but it's catastrophic when something goes wrong. In March of 2019, in Deer Park, which is five miles southeast of Houston, a massive tank holding millions of gallons of petrochemicals caught on fire. The fire released six million pounds of pollutants into the air in the first 24 hours. It burned for five days. This was not an isolated incident. The EPA estimates that 150 "catastrophic accidents," such as fires or explosions that release toxic chemicals, happen each year in these sorts of facilities.

On the other side of the Texas and Louisiana border, Formosa Plastics, a corporate serial offender with a long history of environmental racism, plans to build 14 plastic production plants in Louisiana. The venture, which would pour toxic pollution into the air of surrounding cities and towns, was greenlit by the state in January, but is being met with staunch resistance from the communities that would be most harmed by the pollution. 

Residents of Port Lavaca, Texas, a majority Latinx community, won a decades-long legal fight to hold the Formosa Plastic Company liable for unlawfully dumping billions of plastic pellets and other pollutants into Lavaca Bay, Cox Creek, and other waterways. The company was also responsible for one of the worst environmental disasters in Vietnam, destroying the livelihoods of thousands of fishers after poisoning fish by releasing chemicals, including cyanide, into the ocean. 

Now, Formosa Plastics has its sights set on St. James Parish, Louisiana, which is part of a series of predominantly Black communities that line the banks of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Currently, the parish is home to 32 petrochemical plants—one for every 656 residents. According to the Center for Biological Diversity: 

"In Louisiana opponents of the Formosa project decry its location adjacent to a low-income, predominantly African-American community that has suffered severe health effects from decades of exposure to industrial pollutants. St. James, St. John, and St. Charles parishes—known as Cancer Alley or Death Alley—have some of the highest levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air and water of any area in the United States." 

As reported by ProPublica, the proposed Formosa projects could triple nearby residents' exposure to air pollution in a region already infamous for killing its residents with pollution. If permitted, the petrochemical facilities would be allowed to release up to 1.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals annually.

The proposed chemical facilities would also emit upwards of 13 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. That's the equivalent of three coal-fired power plants and would be the largest new source of greenhouse gases of any chemical, oil, or gas project in the US. Adding insult to injury, the project will be built over historic cemeteries, most likely burial grounds of enslaved people.

"In Taiwan the government treats petrochemical investment as a polluting industry and stigmatizes us. The [US] government encourages investment as long as you meet the requirements of environmental protection regulation"

When the company was asked why it builds in the US, rather than in its corporate home of Taiwan, Formosa Plastics chairman Jason Lin said, "In Taiwan the government treats petrochemical investment as a polluting industry and stigmatizes us." In contrast, "the [US] government encourages investment as long as you meet the requirements of environmental protection regulation" -- environmental protection requirements the Trump administration has been fervently stripping.


The proposed Formosa projects could triple nearby residents' exposure to air pollution in a region already infamous for killing its residents with pollution.

Rise St. James, a local community organization, and others continue to fight the "Sunshine Project." Opponents delivered a petition at the Formosa Plastics annual shareholder meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, to demand the company abandon the project. They also hosted protests during the recent Juneteenth holiday to call on Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards to place a moratorium on the developments.

These existing and proposed petrochemical facilities are clear cases of environmental racism at its worst. In his article, "Racism Is Killing the Planet," Hop Hopkins, the Sierra Club's director of Strategic Partnerships, wrote: "When we pollute the hell out of a place, that’s a way of saying that the place—and the people and all the other life that calls that place home—are of no value… If our society valued all people’s lives equally, there wouldn’t be any sacrifice zones to put the pollution in. If every place was sacred, there wouldn’t be a Cancer Alley." Similar stories to the ones in Houston and Louisiana will continue to play out across the country as long as we rely on an overabundance of cheap, disposable, single-use plastic products that last virtually forever in our environment. 

In recent years, there has been a public outcry against plastic waste, specifically single-use items. Communities adopted safeguards, companies made commitments, and Congress proposed bills to tackle the problem. 

Then COVID-19 swept the globe—another catastrophe that is disproportionately killing communities of color and is more deadly when linked with fine particulate air pollution. Throughout this crisis, polluting industries, including Big Plastic, have been lobbying for rollbacks on environmental protections and enforcement. Big Plastic has asked for a one billion dollar bailout. The Trump administration has often been more than happy to comply, once again prioritizing the well-being of corporations over people. 

Some plastic products are needed in this crisis; many life-saving protective devices are made of plastic—from masks, to gloves, to ventilators. But crossing the line of necessity, the plastic industry saw an opportunity that had nothing to do with protecting our health, and it didn't hesitate to take full advantage.

The industry quickly launched a public relations campaign in an attempt to restore its tattered reputation. Its efforts included international fear-mongering and claiming without credible evidence that plastics are somehow safer than reusable products, which it called "virus-laden." The misinformation was so outrageous that 119 scientists recently published a statement to reassure the public that reusable containers and products are safe to use during the pandemic.

Making new plastic products from fossil fuels is far cheaper than making them from recycled materials, particularly with oil prices dropping during the pandemic. This is especially problematic when combined with the surge of single-use plastic products due to COVID.

Even before this calamity, to fuel the demand for new plastic, there were plans to build over 300 new petrochemical facilities across the nation, including Formosa's. This would be catastrophic for our climate: The growth in plastic production would produce the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of 295 coal plants by 2030. And the people living in the cities and towns adjacent to those proposed facilities would continue to be caught in the crosshairs. 

No one solution will end our plastic crisis but, far too often, all of the responsibility is placed on us—often by Big Plastic—to solve it as consumers and individuals. We can and must all do our best to use less plastic, continue to push local legislators to instate critical plastic bag bans and fees, and urge companies to do better. These solutions are necessary; however, we can't protect communities without broad policies that also address pollution at its root: which means regulating petrochemical production.

Fortunately, bold legislators are working to do just that. In February, Senator Tom Udall and Representative Alan Lowenthal introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act. The bill would, among other things, place a moratorium on new plastic-producing facilities and investigate the harm caused by these facilities when they poison our air, water, and climate. Speak up to support this ambitious legislation here. 

Together, we must continue to demand—in our actions, purchases, and votes—that companies and elected leaders protect our communities by holding Big Plastic accountable for its egregious behavior.

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