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The Other Side of Plastic During a Pandemic

Plastics Industry Association CEO Tony Radoszewski was a voice in the wilderness when he testified to Congress about the health benefits of single-use plastics during the pandemic — he was drowned out by a gaggle of plastic haters.

Plastic-haters never give up. While Plastics Industry Association CEO Tony Radoszewski testified to Congress on July 7 about the health benefits of single-use plastics during the pandemic, another group of witnesses told a Congressional subcommittee on July 8 about the “serious health risks” of our over-reliance on plastics, health risks that have become of "heightened concern due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

Rep. HarleyRouda, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, held a virtual briefing on “Plastic Production, Pollution and Waste in the Time of Covid-19: The Life-Threatening Impact of Single Use Plastic on Human Health.”

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Radoszewski’s testimony was a lone voice in these hearings. He was up against Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and the former EPA Regional Administration; Monique Harden, Assistant Director of Law and Public Policy and Community Engagement Program Manager for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice; Kimberly Terrell, PhD, Staff Scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic; Yvette Arellano, Policy Research and Grassroots Advocate for T.E.J.A.S.; and Carroll Muffett, President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law.

According to a press release from the Committee on Oversight and Reform, all the briefers agreed there is a solid waste problem in the United States. However, that is about where the agreement stopped and the plastic haters took over.

Muffett stated that “the plastics industry is exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to increase demand for single-use plastic items through misinformation about health and safety benefits in comparison to more sustainable options.” She didn’t, however, state what those “more sustainable options” might be. Glass face shields vs. plastic sheet? Cotton or paper masks, gowns, and shoe covers vs. polymer nonwoven materials? What would Muffett suggest is a better, faster-to-produce, and more sustainable option?

Arellano shared her experience living in a “fence-line community” during the coronavirus pandemic. Her family suffers from underlying health conditions caused by high levels of industrial pollution in their community and her mother, an essential worker, has had coronavirus twice. Her LinkedIn profile shows she lives and works in Houston, TX. Fence-line communities are adjacent to industrial areas, which may have higher levels of noise and pollution.

Terrell stated that St. John the Baptist Parish, located in the “Cancer Alley” region of Louisiana, has the highest per-capita death rate in the United States and “this predominately African-American community is being hit particularly hard by the coronavirus crisis.” Researching this, I found that the DuPont-Denka plant is located in St. John the Baptist Parish, and that it produces the synthetic rubber neoprene using the chemical chloroprene. This has been investigated for many years, but the plant meets EPA emissions guidelines and continues to be operational.

Harden “stressed the injustices perpetuated through the permitting process for industrial facilities and the need to incorporate the voices of communities directly impacted by industrial pollution in the decision-making.”

Briefers also raised concerns regarding the pervasiveness of microplastics and the serious health risks that may be linked to the material. Muffett stated that “plastic enters our bodies in various ways — including through drinking water, the inhalation of polluted air, seafood, soils and crops, and surface contact.”

Former EPA Regional Administrator Enck stated that “it is a myth that we can recycle our way out of this problem and that we need to reduce the production of plastic and embrace non-plastic alternatives.” Again, Enck did not make suggestions as to what those non-plastic alternatives might be. Many studies and tests have proven time and again that plastic materials are more eco-friendly to produce, since they use less energy and produce less pollution. So, I’m not sure what materials Enck would suggest we use instead.

The briefers against plastics urged Congress to advance H.R. 5845, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act aimed at reducing the amount of single-use plastic, and encourage a “shift to reusable materials and other alternatives,” and require plastics producers to play a role in financing waste management.

The narrative of “toxic plastics” continues despite scientific studies — including those of the EPA — that show the benefits of plastics far outweigh their purported and still unproven detrimental aspects to human health. Decades of studies with human participants have failed to definitively prove any links between plastics and human health.

Still, the fight to rid the world of plastics continues. No one mentioned that the biggest problem involving waste plastics stems from humans who litter. Recycling could be an answer to the problem if people would care enough about the environment to make sure they put recyclable materials into the proper containers. If recycling companies can’t collect it, they certainly can’t recycle it!

As for the plastics industry exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to promote plastics, we’ve heard that for months. It’s not exploitation — it’s about producing face shields, masks, gowns, and other PPE at the lowest price and applying the most eco-friendly material to get these items to those who need them the most in the fastest way possible. Many plastics processors set aside their regular business to turn their attention to making face shields by the hundreds in a matter of days and weeks to supply frontline workers.

They at least deserve a thank you — not more “toxic plastics” bashing!

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