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Consumer Technology

Forever Chemicals, Plastic Waste — The World As Industry’s Toilet

Making the Earth a dumping ground for forever chemicals and plastics is a dumb idea.

Visitors to the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, can view a portion of the Blackstone Canal. Built in 1824 to help move goods to market, it ran alongside many of the water-powered textile mills that dotted southern New England. Those mills dumped millions of gallons of dye into the water over the years. For some, the Blackstone was a commercial highway, but for others it was little more than a toilet where industrial waste products could be disposed of free of charge. Today, almost 200 years later, visitors to the park can still see the faded yellow, green, blue, and red streaks in the granite walls of the canal.

The notion that industry should pay little to nothing to dispose of its waste products is embedded deep in capitalist theory. If the one and only goal is to make as much money as possible, foisting off the cost of disposing of waste products onto to the general population is an excellent way to boost profits.

The same thinking that encouraged mill owners to dump their waste products into the Blackstone Canal still holds sway today. Industrial groups like the American Chemical Council are incensed that people would try to hold its members responsible for the harm caused by so-called “forever chemicals” because they take a long time to break down in nature. They are highly toxic and are associated with a long list of health risks, including many forms of cancer. They are routinely used in fracking, mining, chemical manufacturing, plastics, waste management, airplane de-icing, and fire suppression foams.

natural gas fracking boom

Image credit: US DOE

According to The Guardian, the EPA has identified 120,000 sites in the United States where forever chemicals are concentrated — four times as many as were previously thought to exist. Colorado has 21,400 such sites. People living near those sites “are certain to be exposed, some at very high levels,” says David Brown, a public health toxicologist and former director of environmental epidemiology at the Connecticut department of health.

Brown says he suspects there are far more sites than even those on the EPA list, posing long-term health risks for unsuspecting people who live near them. “Once it’s in the environment it almost never breaks down,” Brown says. He warns of the dangers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — among the most toxic of the forever chemicals. “This is such a potent compound in terms of its toxicity and it tends to bio-accumulate. This is one of the compounds that persists forever.”

PFAS chemicals are a group of more than 5,000 human made compounds used by a variety of industries since the 1940s for such things as electronics manufacturing, oil recovery, paints, fire-fighting foams, cleaning products and non-stick cookware. People can be exposed through contaminated drinking water, food and air, as well as contact with commercial products made with PFAS.

A Guardian analysis of the EPA data set shows that in Colorado, one county alone — Weld county — houses more than 8,000 potential PFAS handling sites, with 7,900 described as oil and gas operations. In July, a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility presented evidence that oil and gas companies have been using PFAS, or substances that can degrade into PFAS, during fracking. But many states have laws that protect those companies from having to disclose what chemicals they are using in their fracking operations, which makes it hard to get accurate information about the risks involved.

The list of facilities handling PFAS is one part of a larger effort by the EPA to “better understand and reduce the potential risks to human health and the environment caused by PFAS,” EPA deputy press secretary Tim Carroll tells The Guardian. “EPA has made addressing PFAS a top priority. Together we are identifying flexible and pragmatic approaches that will deliver critical public health protections.”

The American Chemistry Council is having none of it. On its website, it says, “Fluorinated chemicals, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a large and diverse family of chemistry that makes possible the products that power our lives — the cellphones, tablets and telecommunications we use every day to connect with our friends and family; the aircrafts that power the U.S. military; alternative energy sources; and medical devices that help keep us healthy. PFAS are vital to enabling our lives in the 21st century.” It claims many PFAS have not been proven to be hazardous to humans. One wonders if anyone at the Council be willing to down a couple of pints of the stuff to prove their point.

The Scourge Of Plastics

It is fairly common knowledge that the world is awash in single-use plastic. Somehow over the past several decades, we have decided it is perfectly acceptable to trash our planet so we can drink from single-use bottles, eat with single-use utensils, and carry our groceries home from the market in single-use plastic bags. The stupidity of doing this should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, but we are willing to sacrifice the very planet that sustains us in the name of convenience.

In an email to CleanTechnica, Break Free From Plastic says that carbon emissions from the single-use plastic industry are greater than those from all but the top 4 emitting countries — the US,  China, India, and Russia. In its 4th annual study, it finds the top producers of single use plastics are Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, Nestlé, Mondelēz, Danone, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Mars. The packaging they use is sourced from giant fossil fuel companies such as  ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron Phillips, Ineos, and Dow.

In an odd twist, Unilever is a major sponsor of the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow, where it no doubt will keep the delegates well supplied with beverages and food packaged in single-use plastic. We swear we don’t make this stuff up!

Break Free From Plastic says, “Petrochemicals — the category of fossil fuels that are made into plastic — now account for 14% of oil use and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050. With the electric vehicle market rapidly expanding and 2020 breaking records for renewable energy, the fossil industry is increasingly relying on plastics as its lifeline.

“According to new research, top polluting consumer goods companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Pepsi are enabling the fossil fuel industry’s expansion of plastic production. Corporate decisions to continue producing ever more plastic packaging significantly undermine humanity’s chances of limiting global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

Oh, The Horror!

Just as the American Chemistry Council spreads fear about what will  happen to the US economy it forever chemicals are banned, warns of the horrors that await if legislation to reduce the use of plastics is enacted. The so-called Break Free From Plastic Act will “stall efforts to address plastic waste in the environment and limit the essential role plastic plays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If enacted, this bill would:

  • block advanced recycling technologies, which allow us to recycle significantly more types and greater amounts of plastic to create new products and provide well-paying jobs
  • cost Americans nearly 1 million jobs by 2026 – many of them permanent losses; cut economic output by more than $400 billion by 2026
  • restrict availability of the very products needed to combat climate change, such as wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles, as well as the lightweight plastics that make our cars and homes dramatically more energy efficient, which significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions
  • result in shortages of essential materials used throughout the medical supply chain to fight the pandemic, including face masks, shields, medical gowns, syringes, and sanitary packaging
  • pause the production of plastic, resulting in supply chain disruptions that would impede America’s manufacturing resilience and our ability to bounce back economically after crises, such as the current pandemic.”

In other words, reducing the use of plastics is down right un-American, the planet be damned!

Good Stewards Of The Earth

There are those who insist that God specifically authorized Man to have dominion over the Earth and everything on it. Assuming you believe that texts which are thousands of years old are scrupulously accurate — and that God is not sexist and meant to include women in all that dominion stuff — it seems a stretch to believe that the Creator gave humans carte blanche to destroy the Earth while they were going about their business. It seems axiomatic that turning the Earth into an overheated, toxic blob was not part of God’s plan, and yet many true believers dispute this.

Nevertheless, the economic imperative at the heart of capitalism is doing precisely that and lots of captains of industry at least purport to be staunch believers in the teachings contained in the Bible. Of course, over the centuries they have invoked the word of God to justify enslaving human beings, evicting Indigenous people from their homelands, and making women subservient to men. There seems to be quite a lot of cognitive dissonance associated with the worldview presented by the Bible.

What should be clear to everyone is that we cannot continue to pollute our terrestrial home in perpetuity and expect our species to thrive. Regardless of what the American Chemistry Council and the Plastic Makers organization say, treating the Earth as a toilet is bad for business. It’s time we stopped doing so if we have any intention of surviving as a species for more than a few more centuries. Now would be a good time to reexamine our fundamental beliefs and realign them with reality.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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