INSIGHT: Plastic pollution is an environmental justice issue

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

In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson the disproportionate impact of color experiences on people from environmental factors such as storms, heat waves and pollution. She argues that white people who care about the preservation of a habitable planet need to be “actively anti-racist” and understand that the racial inequality crisis is intertwined with the climate crisis.

Like the climate crisis, the plastic crisis is linked to racial inequalities. Who suffers the most from damage associated with the manufacture and disposal of plastics? More colored communities in the US and abroad. As a result of environmental racism, plastic pollution requires a response to environmental justice.

The elimination of environmental audits and the rapid pursuit of infrastructure projects through executive orders, as the president recently did, will only perpetuate environmental racism. Instead, Congress should actively address existing environmental inequalities by enshrining environmental justice in environmental law. Introducing the Plastic Pollution Free Act is one way to get started.

People of color suffer disproportionately from air pollution

In 2018, the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Impact Assessment published a report in the American Journal of Public Health confirming that people of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution, particularly small particles in the air known as particulate matter (PM) and have been linked to lung cancer.

The study looked at communities within 4 km of refineries, including those associated with plastics manufacturing, and found that those communities were disproportionately non-white, leaving blacks about 1.5 times more exposed to particulate matter than whites . Hispanics had approximately 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites.

Krebsgasse is now Coronavirus Alley

The effects of plastic refineries are particularly evident in an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge, La., And New Orleans known as Cancer Alley. This area, 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 mostly black. (ProPublica and RollingStone Magazine published detailed articles on Cancer Alley). The Krebsgasse was recently declared a Coronavirus Alley. The respiratory diseases 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 cleared all of the environmental clearances required 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 toxic chemical releases from 1.6 million pounds to 3.2 million pounds per year. This makes the plastic complex the second largest emitter of benzene and ethylene oxide, two cancer-causing chemicals. The Plastic Pollution Free Act would have prevented this permit.

Get rid of the plastic pollution law

Introduced in February 2020 by Senator Tom Udall (DN.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) The law calls for a moratorium on the construction of pollution-generating plants that convert natural gas liquids into the polymers that make up plastic products. These devices “crack” the molecular bonds of ethane – a by-product 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, which requires approval under clean air and water laws.

Under the Pollution Release Act, the EPA would stop issuing permits for these refineries. During a three-year hiatus, the EPA would work with the National Academy of Sciences and National Health Institutes to study the environmental justice impact of these institutions and issue a report of their findings.

After three years, all proposed permits should include an environmental justice assessment and all permits should include a plan to mitigate or eliminate the environmental justice impacts identified during the assessment of the original permit.

Air pollution is just one environmental justice issue addressed in the Pollution Free Act. The law also negates the impact of plastic waste on communities with more colored people by requiring plastic manufacturers to collect and process plastic waste and banning the export of plastic waste to developing countries that lack plastic waste disposal infrastructure. These policies and practices are examples of anti-racist measures our government can take.

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

Information about the author

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

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