Democrats in the House of Representatives are calling for a three-year moratorium on new plastics plants across the United States, while the National Academy of Sciences studies the health and climate impacts of a massive buildout in the country’s plastic manufacturing capacity.
“A far-reaching bill that Democrats call the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act has nary a Republican sponsor,” InsideClimate News reports. “But the legislation, which would also hold plastics manufacturers responsible for cleaning up plastic waste, helps frame a raging national debate over plastics in an election year. And it could set the stage for action on plastics reform, should the Democrats defeat [Donald] Trump and win the Senate.”
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“These plants are poisoning the land, air, and human beings,” said the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, Tom Udall (D-NM). “It’s having a dramatic impact. We have to pause any expansion.”
“We welcome the opportunity to work with Congress and other stakeholders to reduce plastic wastes,” countered Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets at the American Chemistry Council. But a moratorium on new facilities “would limit domestic manufacturing growth, jobs, tax revenues for local communities, and other benefits.”
InsideClimate opens its report along the Ohio River 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, where Shell is proposing the first of many new facilities in an area that was devastated by the collapse of the U.S. steel industry a generation ago. The Shell Polymers plant would take some of the massive volume of ethane extracted from the nearby Marcellus shale formation and turn it into 1.6 million tonnes of plastic pellets per year.
The plant would be one of many, all of them “tied together by an expanding network of natural gas wells, processing facilities, pipelines, and a giant underground storage facility, potentially funded in part by US$1.9 billion in Trump administration loan guarantees.”
“As industry and local authorities count thousands of new jobs and millions in tax revenues, battle lines have been drawn. Scientists warn of premature deaths from air pollution. Environmentalists foresee a plastics climate bomb,” InsideClimate writes. “A moratorium would hold off development of the plastics manufacturing hub in Appalachia and stall plant expansions in the nation’s primary petrochemical production area along the Gulf Coast, while scientists studied the impacts in both regions.”
By the time Shell began work on its plant to “crack” ethane into ethylene, a basic building block for plastics, residents and doctors in western Pennsylvania were already concerned about air pollution for natural gas “fracking” and processing. “They wanted to know why there had been a surge in Ewing sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer, in a four-county area outside Pittsburgh,” the news story states. “Like their counterparts along the Gulf Coast, where an existing petrochemical industry is rapidly expanding to meet a rising global demand for plastics, they have been asking for relief from a pollution burden that they say threatens their health and the climate.”
“The Shell cracker is intended to anchor more plants,” but “nobody is looking at the cumulative impacts,” said western Pennsylvania resident Terri Baumgardner. “We have a global plastics pollution crisis. We can’t go on doing what we are doing with plastics.”
A national ban “would also speak directly to concerns raised by residents in communities like St. James Parish, Louisiana, where environmentalists represented by Earthjustice are challenging new air permits for a $9.4-billion Formosa plastics plant expansion,” InsideClimate adds. “The environmental group argues that the community cannot withstand the burden of an extra 800 tons of toxic pollution annually, which would include emissions of the carcinogens ethylene oxide, benzene, and formaldehyde,” along with 13 million tons per year of carbon pollution.
The Pulitzer-winning news outlet traces community pushback to the massive health crisis, and gets into the details of the Democratic bill, co-sponsored by Udall and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA). It would require producers of plastic packaging and containers to collect and finance product waste, set a deposit refund system for beverage containers of all kinds, phase out some of the most common single-use plastics, and help build a market for recycled content by setting minimum standards for beverage containers, packaging, and food service products.
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