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Plastic’s long life tends to shorten yours


Be mindful of consumption to protect families and environment

Last year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced an investigation into fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their role in causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis. 

That crisis was the focus of a recent presentation by the environmental justice team of Black Women for Wellness - Los Angeles (BWW).

“When we’re thinking of environmental justice as a principle, we’re talking about the principle that everyone — regardless of what you look like; where you’re from; what your income is — deserves to live in a clean and healthy neighborhood and deserves to raise their families in a clean and healthy neighborhood,” said team leader Tianna Shaw-Wakeman.

“But that’s currently not the reality. Especially here in South L.A.”

Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are encountered throughout our everyday lives, from polyester clothing, to product packaging, to microplastics in drinking water.

Locally, residents are harmed at every one of plastic’s stages of life, Shaw-Wakeman said. The first stage of plastic is fossil fuel extraction.

“LA County is home to thousands of active and inactive oil wells,” she noted. “A significant amount of these oil wells are in significant areas, by homes and schools and hospitals and churches and parks.”

The largest urban oil field in the entire country is the local Inglewood oil field, which at over 1,000 acres, has produced over 400 million barrels of oil since 1924. 

Research has shown connections between living near active oil sites and health issues, including lower weights in newborn babies; children developing asthma from the air pollution; reduced lung function in adults; evidence of headaches and nosebleeds in residents; along with  cancer and premature deaths.

In the second stage of plastics, fuel extracted from the earth is refined into petrochemicals at local facilities. These processes pollute the surrounding environment.

Plastic’s third stage of life is transportation. The chemicals that create the familiar plastics in local stores and homes must be transported to production facilities (and there are over 300 different chemicals in one plastic bottle). Communities are often contaminated by oil spills and train derailments. 

The fourth stage involves production in other facilities. Petrochemicals go through an intensive process to be turned into plastic at plants which harm the environment.

The fifth stage is Distribution and consumption of the final products are the fifth stage of plastic’s life. Plastics are used and distributed worldwide.

“U.S. demand for plastic is actually going down, because we have a lot of it,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “These companies are trying to pollute nations in Africa and Asia now so that they can continue to make money.”

Over 380 million tons of plastic are produced every year. About half of that is for single use purposes. (Think of that fork from a fast food place, or a plastic bag that held that food.)

In her presentation, Shaw-Wakeman stressed that although individual efforts to reduce plastic use are commendable, it is the oil companies which must be called to take action as the producers of these plastics. 

“None of this is our fault. None of this is about individual action” she said. “We’ve been pushed to plastic. None of us consented to this reality. It’s a reality that’s been forced upon us. Consumption matters, but the bigger problem is the allowing of these companies to produce so much plastic and harm to our people.”

The final stage of plastic is disposal.

“Unfortunately, all plastic that has ever been produced, ever, still exists,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “There is no disposing of plastic. Plastic is either one, incinerated; two, disposed of in a landfill; or three, left in the environment.” She noted that all of these options pollute the air, water or soil, and harm human health.

Toxic chemicals are emitted from incineration and produce greenhouse gasses. Landfills leak, contaminating water supplies. Plastic trash sullies the environment in parks and oceans, killing wildlife.

“Unfortunately, recycling is a false solution to our plastic problem,” said Shaw-Wakeman, noting that even if everyone recycled, the other five stages of plastic’s life would still happen.

“All of this requires system change, not individual actions,” she said, noting that it is virtually impossible to go a day without using plastic at home. “But there are some things you can do to try and protect yourself.”

She suggested reducing usage when possible, especially when eating and drinking from plastic. Try and use more sustainable options — reusable glass items and silverware, for example. 

Shaw-Wakeman also noted that when plastic containers containing lunch or dinner are microwaved, it is more likely for the chemicals in the plastic to leach into the food being consumed into the body. Plastic bottles left in the sun also leach chemicals.

Lastly, try to reduce the use of polyester, she suggested.

“Again, it’s very difficult. The overwhelming majority of clothing that you can buy is made of polyester, or has polyester in it.” Shaw-Wakeman said, adding that when these fabrics are washed, the microplastics get into the water supply – in both the water we drink and the water that is washed out to sea, ending up in the fish consumers eat. 

“Microplastics have been found in the poop of babies,” she added. “There’s probably plastic in all of our bodies right now.”

The pollution problem is about more than consumer choice. According to BWW, it is the fault of corporations and the government. 

“Please be kind to yourself.” the BWW pamphlet reads.

On Sept. 16, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced his lawsuit against five of the world’s largest oil and gas companies. Those companies, in addition to creating the gasoline for automobiles, also create plastics used in homes.

“Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades – that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change – but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment,” said Bonta. “Enough is enough.”

ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and British Petroleum Company (BP) are named in the suit, along with the American Petroleum Institute (API). The complaint asserts that although the companies have known since the 1960s that the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet and change the climate, they denied or downplayed climate change in public statements and marketing.

In 1968, API and its members received a report from the Stanford Research Institute, which it had hired. The report stated: “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and… there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom stood beside Bonta during his announcement, which made California the largest economy to sue giant oil companies.

“With this lawsuit, California is taking action to hold big polluters accountable and deliver the justice our people deserve,” he said.