A miracle material. A scourge on the earth. An unfortunate, but necessary, part of modern life. Whatever your perception of plastics, few materials evoke more collective ire.
That vitriol and venom is usually directed at the downstream consequences: Dismal recycling rates; alarming pollution pileups in our lands and ocean; or the proliferation of microplastics — now so pervasive they can be found in human blood, lungs, breast milk and placenta.
As it turns out, it’s rarely understood just how harmful downstream plastics are to our health (although mounting evidence and common sense leads me to believe eating a credit card’s worth of plastic every week can’t be good for us).
What’s becoming evident is the often overlooked, underreported and devastating effects that plastics have on human health upstream. The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio — which spilled and burned the carcinogen vinyl chloride, a critical ingredient for certain hard plastic resins — is a top-of-mind example.
While the long-term health implications of this particular accident are concerning but unknown, one thing is clear: Many chemicals and manufacturing processes required to make plastics are toxic to life.
Meet Cancer Alley
In late January, I visited Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River in Louisiana and home to over 200 plastic and petrochemical plants. This industrial corridor pumps out high volumes of roughly 50 toxic chemicals and known carcinogens — including formaldehyde, benzene and ethylene oxide. With some of the most polluted air in the nation, Cancer Alley has been dubbed a "sacrifice zone."
What’s being sacrificed, you might ask? The lives, lands and cultural heritage of the predominantly Black and brown communities of St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist Parish.
My trip introduced me to several remarkable local women of color who are fighters and founders: fighters for their communities and founders of the nonprofits the Descendants Project, Inclusive Louisiana and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. Part of an impressive tradition of community activists from the area, they’re fighting to stop further petrochemical expansion. Fighting to protect cultural and historical landmarks. Fighting for acknowledgement of what they know to be true — that their family, friends and neighbors are dying at elevated rates because of petrochemicals and plastics.
In spite of a concerted effort by industry and the-powers-that-be to suggest otherwise, residents near this petrochemical buildout face significantly elevated risks for cancer and other illnesses. The community has 85 more incidents of cancer each year when compared to the state average, and nearly every household has lost someone and faced the trauma of illness.
As if to drive this point home, one of the female hosts of my trip — a woman who has lived in St. James Parish her entire life — revealed she was set to begin chemotherapy a week after my visit.
The clear correlation between air pollutants and illness in Cancer Alley has an uglier correlation with racism. As Kimberly Terrell, research scientist and director of community engagement at Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, shared during my trip, there is "unequivocal scientific evidence of racial discrimination" in the air pollution in Louisiana.
In the state, communities of color experience seven to 21 times the industrial emissions than their predominantly white counterparts — with chemical and petroleum product manufacturing being the largest contributor to this disparity.
And when it comes to Cancer Alley, this discriminatory, exploitative practice is unfortunately nothing new. Before earning its current moniker, Cancer Alley was known as Plantation Country, with many petrochemical plants following in the physical footsteps of former plantations.
As Barbara L. Allen, author of "Uneasy Alchemy," noted: "The Great River Road was built on the bodies of enslaved Black people. The chemical corridor is responsible for the body burden of their descendants… One oppressive economy begets another."
We must turn off the tap
As consumers, procurers and — in some cases — producers of plastics, what do we do with this ugly, uncomfortable truth?
"We cannot recycle our way out of this problem" is an oft-repeated rallying cry for those tackling downstream pollution — and the case is just as true when looking upstream. In order to truly protect these communities and reverse generational exploitation, we must reduce production.
We currently produce plastic at an alarming rate, pumping out more than 400 million tons of plastic worldwide each year.
And production is only growing: Plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past three decades; global plastic production rose by 6 million tons annually over the last several years; and petrochemical plants are still fighting to be built. Unless we reverse this trend, harmful pollutants will continue to plague our most vulnerable communities across the globe, including in places such as East Palestine and the river parishes of Louisiana.
This does not need to be the case.
It’s estimated that by 2040, plastic consumption can be reduced 47 percent by eliminating unnecessary plastics, establishing reuse systems, and by substituting plastics for paper and compostable alternatives. It’s up to us to elevate our ambition and place reduction and reuse — not recycling — at the top of our strategies.
Unless we do, production will grow, more petrochemical plants will threaten our water and air, and life — both human and otherwise — will be sacrificed for the sake of plastics.