How a local victory against petrochemicals can spur global action on plastics

Comment: The Banner sisters fought for the preservation of land in America’s ‘Cancer Alley’. They are now in Paris to demand a global cap on plastic production.

The parish of St. John the Baptist facing the Garyville oil refinery on the banks of the Mississippi River. Photo: Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation


A few weeks ago, Jo and Dr. Joy Banner stood before a crowd gathered in the West Bank of St. John’s Parish along the Mississippi River to celebrate a rare and precious milestone in the long struggle for environmental justice.

After years of work to “preserve and protect the health, land, and lives of the Black descendant community located in Louisiana’s River Parishes” through their non-profit, The Descendants Project, they were one step closer to halting decades of plastic, petrochemical, and industrial pollution inflicted on their community.

This last stretch of undeveloped land in the 85-mile long chemical corridor–known as Cancer Alley–was placed on a list of “endangered sites” by the National Trust of Historic Preservation, due to its rare cultural and historical significance. Once a site makes it on this list, it is likely to be preserved for generations to come.

While celebrated, this progress came with some trepidation. The Banner sisters know that without a unified movement to put people over pollution, local victories will be short-lived if we lose the global battle for climate action.

From the Mississippi River to Paris

This week, the Banners are joining me and other members of the Beyond Petrochemicals campaign at the Global Plastics Treaty negotiations in Paris.

This is the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) where 175 world leaders will hammer out a solution to address the plastics crisis. If done right, the plastics treaty could be one of the most significant environmental agreements in history.

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Today, one-third of plastic production is devoted to making single-use plastics, specifically plastic packaging. We all know what spaghetti looks like, so why do we need the little plastic window on every box?

These “pointless plastics” are difficult to recycle so the majority end up in landfills, rivers, lakes, and ultimately the ocean.

Recycling not the answer

Only six percent of plastic in the U.S. is recycled. Any improvements in recycling rates and capacities will be outpaced by continued rapid growth in plastics production, which is projected to double by 2040.

We are not going to recycle our way out of this problem.

Ninety-nine percent of plastics are made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, contributing to the climate crisis.

Petrochemicals are known carcinogens including chloroprene, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde and benzene, which poison the air, water and land of communities near industry facilities, deemed “fenceline communities”.

An oil refinery along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Photo: Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation

While people in fenceline communities experience the most acute exposure to toxins from these plants, petrochemicals impact everyone.

Drinking from a disposable water bottle, putting on makeup, or ordering takeout, nearly every aspect of our daily lives intersects with petrochemicals. It is no surprise that every one of us ingests a credit card’s worth of plastic each week.

Petrochemical expansion

The petrochemical industry’s impact on climate progress is staggering. It is the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases and rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.

A report by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) found that “emissions from the plastics sector rose 15 percent from 2012 to 2018”. In 2019 alone, plastic production equaled the emissions of 189 large coal plants.

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From Cancer Alley in Louisiana to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the pollution and other dangers from these facilities are concentrated in places the oil and gas industry deems “sacrifice zones”: low-income, Black and Latino communities.

The fossil fuel industry is planning a massive build-out to increase production of single-use plastics. More than 120 new or expanded petrochemical plants are expected in the U.S. alone. This is a threat to public health, precious natural resources, and any progress we’ve made on climate change.

The time to act is now.

Low ambition

In the first round of plastics treaty negotiations last November, the US presented a proposal to achieve “the sustainable production and consumption of plastic”. It wants to achieve that by incentivizing chemical recycling, facilitating reuse, and strengthening demand for more recycled content.

This does not include the most meaningful action we could take: capping the production of plastics. For this and other reasons, the US was relegated to a category of so-called “Low Ambition” countries.

Climate movement must switch on to UAE threat

Since then, the Biden Administration has made strides in environmental justice with its Justice 40 Initiative, new EPA pollution rules that acknowledge the communities hardest hit with petrochemical pollution, and ensuring disadvantaged cities and towns are first in line for investments to create new clean energy jobs.

We need our policy leaders to bring that same energy to the international stage and set a global tone of environmental justice for all.

Plastic production cap

The Beyond Petrochemicals campaign is helping support the activists, organizers and academics who are standing up to the petrochemical industry. We are in Paris to advocate for a cap on plastic production and pollution so we can stop digging the deep hole we find ourselves in.

Our campaign is a collage of communities where we live, work, play and pray. Communities that experience the impacts of plastic and petrochemical pollution day in and day out. Communities where we have lost friends and loved ones, but where babies continue to be born, and where we all want something better for the next generation.

It is the voices of these communities that push us to Paris and with the urgency of ten generations of ancestors poisoned by toxic water, air, and land.

We’re showing up from cities on the frontlines to stake a claim in the City of Lights – for environmental justice, for climate action and for putting people over pollution. We hope the US delegation joins us.

Heather McTeer Toney is the Executive Director of the Beyond Petrochemicals campaign, which aims to halt the expansion of the petrochemical industry. 

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