Audrey Alix 

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, it’s possible that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight). There’s more bad news. The oil industry is facing a problem: thanks to improvements in sustainable technology, they are facing a decline in demand for fossil fuels. Their solution? Increase plastic production, regardless of the known harm it does to the environment and people. 

It’s a well-known fact that plastic is bad. It produces emissions both being made and being disposed of, it litters our beaches and waters, it endangers wildlife and vegetation, and the production of plastic unjustly puts the health of minority groups at risk. 

But why do we produce so much plastic? Why do people keep buying it? Alan Gelder, from Wood Mackenzie, an energy research and consultancy firm, puts it best when he says that petrochemicals, the chemical product used to make plastics, “are fantastically good at what they do in terms of lightweight flexibility, durability, versatility” (CNBC). They’re also the cheaper option. Given this, one may think that big oil will get away with their plan to increase production. But there’s good news: they won’t. 

How plastic is unjust

Here in the US, people of color are being systematically harmed by the production and management of petrochemicals, the chemical that creates plastics. Look at St. James Parish, Louisiana, a 90% black community that contains more than 150 petrochemical sites, emitting air pollution which increases cancer risk. In an interview with CNBC resident Sharon Lavigne says when the city council was voting on where to build a petrochemical plant, all the council members voted no on building it in a primarily white district. But, they all voted yes to building it in district 5, where 91% of its residents are black (CNBC). 

Graphic source:
This graphic is used to demonstrate incidences of cancer nationwide. Louisiana is one of the four (three of which are shown) states with the highest cancer rate, of 492.2/100,000 people, likely because of the sheer number of petrochemical plants (more than 150) within the state. An article from Tulane University titled “Tulane Study: Louisiana’s severe air pollution linked to dozens of cancer cases each year” provides a graphic showing that the areas that follow the petrochemical plant path (the 85-mile stretch) have the highest cancer risk (Check out that study and graphic, here). 

As promised, the good news: 
Big oil wants more plastic, but the people are pushing back. New estimates show that people are tired of plastics. 71% of people say they’d like to ban single-use plastics as soon as possible. This kind of public sentiment creates a push for legislation, such as the plastic bag ban in New York State, and the ban of expanded polystyrene (EP) in over 100 US cities and towns. The oil industry’s plan to place its energies on plastic production and petrochemicals isn’t going to fly with the lawmakers and the voters who elect them. 

In addition, the push for plastic makes little economic and mathematical sense, considering that only a fraction of all fossil fuels actually goes towards plastic production. Petrochemicals, the chemical product used to make plastics, is only 14% of oil use. 

Although this is good news, the situation is still not good. The projections for the future aren’t great, and environmental injustice is more prevalent than ever. So, this is not a reason to sigh a breath of relief, but more of a reminder that there is hope for our future, we just need to keep pushing.