It felt good to see the “TrashTag Challenge,” in which people posted before and after litter cleanup photos tagged with #TrashTag, go viral last weekend. It’s heartwarming to see people posing proudly with trash bags full of plastic waste that had been strewn along an otherwise beautiful beach.
Scrolling through the #TrashTag posts from around the world on social media, you may feel all those individual efforts are going to add up to make a big difference. Unfortunately, while cleanups are important, turning the tide on the ocean plastic pollution crisis requires more than social media-powered volunteering.
We need to challenge a corporate system that’s drastically increasing the production of plastic in the United States using our oversupply of cheap, fracked natural gas. Because cleanups won’t be able to offset senseless plans to increase plastic production by 40 percent over the next decade.
At current rates, plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050. In the ocean, plastic chokes sea turtles and other marine life and absorbs toxic pollutants as it gets eaten by fish and travels throughout the ocean food web. Or it washes up on beaches around the world or collects in ocean gyres that become massive floating dumps.
And as inspired volunteers struggle to bag trash, the plastic industry is cranking up production of this toxic junk. An increasing number of plastic plants in the United States are creating even more plastic pollution.
Formosa Plastics, for example, has allowed thousands of plastic pellets to escape into Texas waterways from its plant in Fort Comfort. State officials fined the company $122,000 in January — a slap on the wrist that pales in comparison to the damage caused and will do little to encourage better behavior by this billion-dollar corporation.
But local resident Diane Wilson and the San Antonio Estuarine Waterkeeper, which helped chronicle and expose this company’s pervasive plastic pollution, have also filed a civil lawsuit against Formosa that goes to trial March 25. They want Formosa fined as much as $179 million for continuous plastic pollution over the past three years.
This case has implications far beyond Texas — and beyond expected air and water pollution and unexpected discharges of plastic pellets. Formosa Plastics is also proposing another major plastics plant in St. James Parish, La., one of the dozens of plastic plants now in the pipeline for the Gulf Coast and Rust Belt.
All of them will be permitted to release thousands of tons of air and water pollution annually as they produce millions of tons of plastic, most of which will go into single-use plastic packaging and cheap throwaway products.
All that end-product plastic isn’t an unfortunate consequence — like the plastic pellets accidentally released into Texas waterways. Throwaway plastic is what this insidious system intends to produce. And it’s producing it with massive subsidies from U.S. taxpayers at every step of the process, from natural gas extraction to tax incentives for building plastic plants.
The plastic industry is the long arm of the fossil fuel industry, and the construction of hundreds of new plastic factories is due to the overproduction of fracked oil and gas.
Like the fossil fuel industry has denied its role in climate change, the plastic industry tries to hide its role in plastic pollution. But such denials are laughable: Perusing photos from the #Trashtag Challenge, you can see all-too-familiar plastic packaging, plastic pellets, plastic toys and empty plastic water bottles.
I’m glad that plastic trash got picked up. The intensive cleanups by people around the globe show that we see the problem and are deeply concerned.
But if we really want to clean up our oceans, beaches and landscapes, let’s all take up the “Stop Plastic Production Challenge.” Let’s build a campaign to stop fracking, stop producing so much excess natural gas, and stop the industry from turning it into ever more plastic pollution.
Miyoko Sakashita is director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.