Shutting down plastics at the source

Shutting down plastics at the source
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Plastics are everywhere. Every day, we breathe, drink and eat plastic particles. Right now, Congress has a chance to stop President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE from misusing a clean energy program to give nearly $2 billion to support the industries that are inundating our oceans, streams and lived environment with even more synthetic particles.

We are producing massive amounts of these materials every year: In 2015, for example, the United States manufactured 320 million tons of plastic. And a new report from Food & Water Watch shows that massive new investment in additional petrochemical facilities are planned, which will drive more drilling and pollution.

These materials don’t go away; they break into particles so small and ubiquitous that they have now infiltrated our most important resources.


My research focuses on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, where we found that Lake Erie and Lake Ontario had concentrations of microplastics rivaling those within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We have also looked for plastic within human consumables like bottled water. We found microplastics in 93 percent of bottled water brands such as Evian, Aquafina, Dasani, Nestle Pure Life and Pellegrino. In another study we found plastic particles in tap water, beer and sea salt, which simply added to the growing body of scientific literature finding plastics within shellfish, game fish and even our air.

Regulatory agencies have started to respond to our findings: In 2012, the Food & Drug Administration banned microbeads in shampoos and face creams and in 2018 the World Health Organization called for a human health impact assessment regarding microplastics. But we have so much more work to do, and the plastics industry is using its considerable political power to protect its profits.

In Western Pennsylvania, where I live and teach, the fossil fuel industry and the plastics companies are pushing hard to make this pollution problem even worse. Shell is currently constructing what’s called an ethane “cracker,” an enormous facility that essentially takes in fossil fuels from fracking and spits out more plastic. The plant will instantly become the largest emitter of air pollution in the region. Shell isn’t alone. Several other corporations are looking to build similar facilities throughout the Ohio River Valley, to turn the area into a new petrochemical hot spot — similar to the one along the Mississippi River in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley”.

The worst part is the fact that the federal government is actively supporting these polluting schemes. Trump’s Department of Energy is backing this dangerous buildout with a $1.9 billion federal loan guarantee for the Appalachian Storage Hub, which would be a repository for the fracked hydrocarbons that the petrochemical corporations will turn into plastic.

There’s an urgent need to vigorously pursue solutions to the growing plastic pollution crisis. Instead, Trump and Energy Secretary Rick PerryRick PerryChip Roy fends off challenge from Wendy Davis to win reelection in Texas The Memo: Texas could deliver political earthquake The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump, Biden blitz battleground states MORE are using the federal government to support the industry that is causing the problem.


Thankfully, Congress can stop this plan. Reps. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalBiden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Trump, attorneys step up efforts to reverse election's outcome MORE (D-Wash.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarBiden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far GOP congresswoman-elect wants to form Republican 'Squad' called 'The Force' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations MORE (D-Minn.) introduced an amendment to a massive appropriations bill that would block the government from using a clean energy loan guarantee program to support polluting projects like the Appalachian Storage Hub. Jayapal and Omar understand the threat petrochemicals pose to our food, water and climate—and their colleagues in the House agreed.

My research has shown that plastics don’t just wind up in landfills or floating in an unsightly garbage patch in the ocean. The deluge of disposable plastics makes its way into our food, water and air, threatening the natural resources we depend on for life. Congress is taking the only responsible course of action by voting in favor of this amendment.


Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D., won The Heinz Award in Public Policy for her groundbreaking research identifying the presence of microbeads and microfibers in fresh water. Her work has drawn international acclaim, led to the passage of state measures banning microbeads, and to the enactment of the federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.