Congressional Democrats Join the Debate Over Plastics’ Booming Future

A new bill would impose a three-year moratorium on new plant construction in parts of Appalachia and the Gulf Coast.

Feb 21, 2020
Construction at an ethene cracker plant on the Ohio River for making the building blocks of plastics. Credit: James Bruggers

Construction at an ethene cracker plant on the Ohio River for making the building blocks of plastics. Credit: James Bruggers

Towers and tanks rise from the banks of the Ohio River 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, where Shell Polymers plans to produce 1.6 million metric tons of plastic pellets annually. 

To the Trump administration, the petrochemical industry and regional economic development officials, this state-of-the-art petrochemical plant offers a glimpse of the new economy for a part of Appalachia devastated when the steel industry collapsed a generation ago.

Promoters of the Shell plant see it as the first among a number of new plastics manufacturers conveniently located amid thousands of fracking sites in the region's Marcellus shale, a natural gas field that produces a massive amount of ethane. The gas is used in plastics production. 

The sites would be tied together by an expanding network of natural gas wells, processing facilities, pipelines and a giant underground storage facility, potentially funded in part by $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. And now congressional Democrats have entered the fray, proposing a three-year moratorium on all new plastics plant construction nationwide, while the National Academy of Science studies the consequences of such a build-out on health and climate change. 

A far-reaching bill that Democrats call the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, has nary a Republican sponsor. 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 President Trump and win the Senate. 

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. 

"These plants are poisoning the land, air and human beings," said Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat and the bill's lead sponsor in the Senate. "It's having a dramatic impact. We have to pause any expansion."

The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry lobby group which envisions as many as five plastics manufacturing plants in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, countered by touting the benefits of plastics, such as making cars lighter so they use less petroleum and emit fewer greenhouse gases.

"We welcome the opportunity to work with Congress and other stakeholders to reduce plastic wastes," said Keith Christman, the council's managing director of plastic markets. But a moratorium on new plastic production plants "would limit domestic manufacturing growth, jobs, tax revenues for local communities, and other benefits," he said.

Environmentalists Cite Fracking's Adverse Health Effects

Long before Shell began construction on a plant in western Pennsylvania for splitting—or "cracking"—molecules of ethane into ethylene, a basic building block for plastics, nearby residents and doctors had been alarmed by air pollution from fracking and natural gas 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.

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, and we just had (state) legislation (pass) that will give tax breaks to make more of that happen," said Terri Baumgardner, a western Pennsylvania resident who has been fighting the Shell plant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

"Nobody is looking at the cumulative impacts," she said. "We have a global plastics pollution crisis. We can't go on doing what we are doing with plastics."

Plastics: From the Gas Well to Your Home

Should a moratorium on new plant construction ever become law, it 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.

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. 

Earthjustice said the plant also should not be allowed to emit more than 13 million tons of climate-harming carbon pollution each year, equivalent to the emissions from 2.6 million cars.

Too often, people don't make the link between plastics manufacturing and people's health, said Yvette Arellano, with the Texas Environmental Advocacy Services in Houston. There, she said, communities live with the burden of toxic air from expanding plastics and petrochemical plants.

The Democrats' plastics legislation, which Udall co-wrote with U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, would require the EPA to develop new regulations to prevent further pollution and protect what environmentalists call the "front line communities," often populated by low-income residents and people of color.

Jack Manning, a Republican on the Beaver County Commission in western Pennsylvania, said supporters of the Democrats' bill, like fracking opponents, "are losing sight" of the economic benefits that come from new jobs and tax revenues. The Shell plant, he said, shows how the region, which was hurt by the earlier decline of the steel industry, has been trying to revitalize itself using natural gas as a feedstock for plastics manufacturing.

Industry critics say the problems with plastics production are well known. 

Last year, for example, a report by the Center for International Environmental Law and several other environmental groups estimated that for 2019, the production and incineration of plastic globally would produce more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, an amount equal to the emissions from 189 large coal-fired power plants. The groups found that the plastics industry's carbon footprint was on track to grow rapidly in the coming decades.

In Pennsylvania, environmentalists are already piecing together the cost to public health and the environment of that region's natural gas boom, from fracking to plastics manufacturing, and calling for a time-out on further growth.

"Our region seems to continue to want to commit economic development malpractice," said Matt Mehalik, executive director of Pittsburgh's Breathe Project, a regional collaboration of some 40 organizations working to improve air quality and fight climate change. 

He cited a new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton that compared the economic costs and benefits of the region's oil and gas boom from 2004 to 2018 and found that the costs from premature deaths linked to air pollution, as well as the impacts from climate change, were substantially greater than the benefits from added jobs.

The authors estimated that a tax on the production of natural gas of $2 per thousand cubic feet of gas would be needed to compensate for the cumulative effects of climate and air quality—almost as much as the price of natural gas being sold to electric utilities. The current Pennsylvania tax is just eight cents per 1,000 cubic feet.

Still, he said, Pennsylvania lawmakers this month passed a bill that could deliver hundreds of millions of dollars of tax breaks to new plastics, petrochemical or fertilizer plants that use Pennsylvania natural gas as a feedstock. Gov. Tom Wolf has said he would veto the bill.

Mehalik said the region should focus on economic development that doesn't make people sick and won't worsen climate change.

Dr. Edward C. Ketyer, a pediatrician and Pennsylvania board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the Democrats' bill, while not banning fracking, would have a laudatory "chilling effect on the fracking industry." 

He conveyed a sense of urgency. "I would call it a childhood cancer crisis in four fracked counties—Washington, Green, Westmoreland and Fayette," Ketyer said. "The governor has called for an investigation. We want it soon, and we want it transparent."

'The Single Most Effective Plastics Pollution Bill Ever Introduced' 

The Democrats' bill is not likely to become law anytime soon, with President  Trump's deregulation agenda and his support for fossil fuels. 

Beyond the proposed construction moratorium on plastics plants, Sen. Udall and Rep. Lowenthal say it is intended to shift the burden of managing plastics used in consumer bottling and packaging to plastics manufacturers and away from communities and taxpayers struggling to keep their recycling programs running.

"If you produce the product you have a responsibility to clean it up," said Lowenthal.

"This particular bill is the single most effective plastics pollution bill ever introduced in Congress," said Judith Enck, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator who, in 2019 who founded the Beyond Plastics campaign, a nonpartisan initiative that seeks to end plastic pollution. 

The bill would:

  • Require producers of packaging and containers to design, manage and finance programs to collect and process product waste. Normally, the collection and recycling of plastic waste fall on state and local governments. 
  • Establish a 10-cent national refund program for all beverage containers, regardless of material. The industry has aggressively fought these so-called "bottle bills," and only 10 states have deposit-refund systems for beverage containers.
  • Phase out some of the most common, single-use plastic products, such as lightweight plastic carryout bags, polystyrene plates or cups, plastic stirrers and plastic utensils.
  • Establish minimum recycled content requirements for allowed beverage containers, packaging and food-service products, to help create a market for recycling. 

Recycling has now become largely uneconomical, thanks to China's rejection of plastic waste from the United States and a glut of cheap natural gas that makes it more cost effective to make new plastic products, as opposed to recycling old ones. As a result, communities across the United States have been paring back expensive recycling programs. 

In an effort to solve that problem, the bill would mandate what's called extended producer responsibility, requiring manufacturers to finance the costs of recycling or safely disposing of plastic products that consumers no longer want. The European Union already has these so-called "polluter pays" regulations for plastics.

Nine U.S. states, from Maine to California, are actively working to pass extended producer responsibility legislation for plastics, said Scott Cassel, the chief executive office of the Product Stewardship Institute, a group that works with governments and industry to reduce waste.

"Local governments do not need to pay millions of dollars for these (recycling) programs," Cassel said.

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