What’s after banning straws? Going after rising plastic production

Dozens of U.S. cities made 2018 the year of the plastic straw ban. But if we really want to reduce the plastic pollution rapidly amassing in our oceans, 2019 must be the year we challenge the fossil fuel industry’s plan to aggressively expand plastic production.

Yes, those straw bans help. Straws contribute to ocean plastic pollution that’s expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050. Those who pushed the anti-straw #StopSucking campaign — and journalists who gave high-profile coverage to the plastic-pollution crisis — deserve tremendous credit for the quick adoption of plastic straw bans over the past year. Along with earlier plastic-bag bans and restrictions on Styrofoam packaging, these actions can significantly reduce the flow of plastic into our oceans. 

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But it’s not enough. These gains could easily be wiped out by dozens of new plastic-production plants being built along the Gulf Coast and in the Rust Belt. They’re part of the fossil fuel industry’s stated goal of increasing plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade.  

Even though we’re already dumping about 8 million tons of plastic into our oceans each year — which chokes marine life, absorbs toxins, travels throughout the ocean food web and doesn’t break down for decades — Big Oil wants to make more plastic. These ethane “cracker” plants would use our oversupply of cheap, fracked natural gas to create plastic pellets, the basic building blocks of cheap plastic packaging and products. 

Most of that plastic will end up in our oceans, landscapes and landfills. Almost 80 percent of the plastic we produce ends up in our landfills and the natural environment, a figure that could rise now that China has stopped accepting our plastic recycling. 

Yet, ExxonMobil, Shell, Dow, Formosa Plastics and other companies are planning to spend $180 billion on increased plastic production in the coming years. 

For example, ExxonMobil is now trying to build the world’s largest plastics plant in Texas, in partnership with Saudi Arabia thanks to a deal cut by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE, using about $1 billion in subsidies from Texas taxpayers. That means this project is paying a murderous regime and highly profitable oil company to create pollution we’ll all pay for later. 

Another massive plastic plant is slated for the banks of the Mississippi River, transforming an agricultural and wetland habitat into a dirty petrochemical plant. People nearby in the community of St. James Parish, Louisiana — in a predominantly African American district already known as Cancer Alley because of the toxins spewed by local petrochemical plants — are fighting the plastics plant proposed by the Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics. 

This is a company that has been heavily fined for spilling plastic pellets into Texas waterways, polluting the air in Louisiana, and a 2004 explosion and fire at its plant in Illinois. The fire killed five workers and forced the evacuation of a nearby town.  

So even if it doesn’t explode or sicken its impoverished neighbors, even if its industrial runoff doesn’t contaminate the region’s vital seafood industry, even in the best-case scenario where nothing goes terribly wrong, we still end up with a bunch of cheap plastic we don’t want or need. 

This plastic buildout is being repeated in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Mississippi and the other states now processing applications for plastic plants and the pipelines that feed them with fracked natural gas. Each project spews pollution into our air and water as it produces endless amounts of plastic.  

Now, 2019 will be a critical year in deciding whether we slow down this plastic-pollution juggernaut or simply let the problem get worse and pass it on to the next generations. As National Geographic put it in a special issue this year, it’s time to choose between “plastic or planet.” Let’s choose the planet. 

Steven T. Jones is a media specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. Jones was previously editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He worked as a journalist for 24 years, including covering coastal and environmental issues for seven different newspapers.