The U.S. Department of Energy’s recent pledge to invest millions in research projects touted as making plastics production more environmentally friendly will only further entrench a planet-wrecking and profoundly unjust status quo, say environmental groups.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) says its recent US$13.4 million earmarked for research funding will address environmental problems while simultaneously creating an “influx of clean manufacturing jobs for American workers.” But green advocates aren’t convinced, Grist reports.
“What this funding does is perpetuate our reliance on single-use plastic,” said Beyond Plastics founder Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s not good for the environment, it’s not good for health, and it’s not good for environmental justice.”
The DOE grants will focus on projects it says will make plastics more environmentally friendly, rather than those seeking to replace plastic altogether. These are “false solutions,” Enck said, that do little to reduce the volume of plastic waste entering oceans each year. Furthermore, the majority of the seven projects now lined up for funding are far from planet-friendly since they involve some form of chemical recycling, a toxic and extremely energy-intensive process of converting old plastic into new that has yet to live up to billing. (Canadian fossil interests tried to secure government funds for a similar approach called “advanced recycling”.)
Citing a 2020 analysis by the non-profit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), Grist writes that “of the 37 chemical recycling facilities proposed in the U.S. since 2000, only three are operational, and zero specialize in plastic-to-plastic conversion.”
That is, the three that are operational do not recycle plastic at all. Rather, they convert plastic back into fossil fuels, which are then sold for combustion.
Industry claims that closed-loop recycling systems for plastics require only a bit of tweaking to become reality are “disingenuous,” GAIA Policy and Research Coordinator Tok Oyewole told Grist, adding that DOE funds would be much better spent on projects that aim to reduce plastic production in the first place.
Kim Warner, a senior scientist for the non-profit Oceana, said some of the DOE funding should be funnelled towards efforts to reduce harmful chemicals in essential plastics, like those used in medical equipment and aircraft.
Other recent news reports illustrate how pro-plastic policy like the DOE funding plan puts public health and environmental justice at stake. On December 6, a ground-level flaring event was set off at the Exxon SABIC plastics plant northeast of Corpus Christi, Texas to burn off leftover gas. Described by the company as “similar to a giant barbecue”—and as something closer to “Dante’s Inferno” by a witness—the flaring lit up the sky and was visible for miles, reports DeSmog Blog. “Massive, smelly flames” rose above the flare’s protective walls, leaving locals concerned about residential exposure to carcinogens like benzene and vinyl chloride.
“The people in the area are going to be guinea pigs. It’s a sacrifice zone,” Neil Carman, clean air director at the Lone Star Chapter of the U.S. Sierra Club, told the Rolling Stone last May. He said residents will be exposed to a “toxic soup of carcinogens, mutagens that change the DNA, teratogens that cause birth defects, and many, many other health effects.”
Industry maintains that flaring excess hydrocarbons is better than just letting them leak to the atmosphere. But that does not mean that plants like Exxon SABIC, poised to become the world’s largest ethane cracker plant, operate emissions-free.
DeSmog says the plant’s air quality permit allows it to emit about 2.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Citing a 2018 report by the Environmental Integrity Project, DeSmog adds that similar allowances granted to the 31 fossil and petrochemical plants then on the books would mean another 45 million tonnes of CO2 legally released into the atmosphere per year, “the equivalent of 11 new coal-fired power plants.”
Some in the local community welcome the some “$50+ billion in economic gains” promised Gulf Coast Growth Venture, the consortium spearheading the cracker plant. But Elida Castillo, whose mother died from respiratory failure linked to long-term exposure to air pollution, said people don’t really grasp what they’re signing up for.
Along with increasingly poisonous air and risk of massive industrial accidents, courtesy of monster hurricanes like Harvey in 2017 and Ida in 2021, the drought-prone region will have to contend with Exxon-SABIC’s ravenous thirst for water. Citing the Rolling Stone report, DeSmog says the Exxon-SABIC plant will consume 20 million gallons of fresh water every day.