When a train carrying chemicals derailed on Feb. 3, it was the beginning of a nightmare for the residents of East Palestine, Ohio. A fire broke out, and three days later, authorities burned off the contents of five cars in hopes of preventing an explosion. A plume of black smoke rose above homes, schools, and businesses, and peculiar smells — nail polish remover, super glue — wafted through streets. Residents began to report strange rashes, headaches, nausea. While citizens struggle to hold the train’s operator to account, and the contamination’s long-term effects remain unclear, the intended use of some of the chemicals holds no mysteries. They were on their way to be made into plastic.
When plastic first entwined its future with that of humanity, it seemed innocuous enough. Celluloid combs and buttons introduced people to a material advertised as durable, inert, and cheap. In reality, none of those things are completely true: Plastics, which are often petrochemicals treated with thousands of softeners, additives, and dyes, flake and fall apart quickly and are, despite what you’ve been told, essentially unrecyclable. As wrappers, plastics can leach substances into the products they are supposed to preserve. And they are only cheap if the safety of the people of East Palestine and billions of others, including yourself, counts for nothing: There is so much plastic in the world now that adults ingest around 800 particles of microplastic a day, on average, scientists have found. For children, it’s 500. Plastic now drifts through the deepest parts of the ocean. On beaches it has fused with sand. And in lava flows where it’s swirled into the rock in technicolor veins, it has formed a new kind of mineral, called plastiglomerate. “Call it,” one writer reflected in The Atlantic, “the birthstone of the age of unintended consequences.”
Is this the moment where we realize that plastic is not cheap — and we should treat it as something costly? Precious, instead of disposable?
It would not be the first time something we’ve taken for granted has assumed new proportions. Buying a new shirt each week used to turn few heads. Making meat the centerpiece of every meal used to be, for those who could afford it, fairly standard. But as the environmental and social costs of fast fashion and heavy meat consumption have percolated into the public consciousness, more and more people appear to have realized their true costs, and decided that they don’t want to be part of either. The pandemic and inflation have wrought other changes as well. In many communities recently, eggs were scarce and expensive enough to take on a new sheen of value, each one no longer a mundane staple but a miracle in a shell.
But seeing plastic for what it truly is may be harder. Plastic production continues to grow: “In the last 65 years alone, the rate of plastic production increased by 18,300 percent,” says Erica Cirino of the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition. “It sounds made up, but it’s true.” Half of all the plastic ever made was made in the last decade or so, and production is expected to ramp up still more.
Single-use plastics — like the clamshell containers that hold berries and cut watermelon in grocery stores — in particular have seen explosive growth. This is a conscious strategy that dates back to the 1950s, says Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko, an anthropologist who studies the material. When plastic was invented, manufacturers touted its durability to thrifty householders. But as production costs dropped, they changed their tune. Now plastic was made to be thrown away, a barrier that kept food, deodorant, or whatever else you were buying clean, until the point you put the wrapper in the trash and forgot about it. “In 1956,” wrote Abrahms-Kavunenko, “the editor of Modern Packaging Magazine, Lloyd Stouffer, proclaimed that ‘the future of plastics is in the trash can,’ making a call to industry that increasing plastic production rested on the design of ‘single use’ plastics.”
When I reached her by phone recently, Abrahms-Kavunenko was on Christmas Island, a speck of land in the Indian Ocean where the Indonesian Flowthrough current, having borne thick wads of plastic thousands of miles, lays them to rest on the beaches. “It’s this mess of unrelenting waste. It doesn’t stop, it just comes and comes,” she says.
Enormous resources have been devoted to obscuring plastic’s failings, says sociologist Lynette Shaw, who has studied how we decide what’s valuable. The stuff we like about plastic — convenient! easy on the wallet! any color you like! — is kept in the foreground at all times. “The other stuff is very strategically deemphasized and kept out of our view,” she says. And when anything becomes part of the background of our lives, a feature sociologists call “taken-for-grantedness,” it becomes extremely difficult to question it.
Being able to take things for granted is, on some level, what makes society function. As long as we know that spring follows winter, we can forget about it. As long as we know that plastic is cheap, we can forget about it. But what about the moment when things start to fall apart?
Not long ago, I was on the banks of a lake near the Mississippi River. Behind me was a hamlet of houses perched on pillars to let flood waters flow through. It was a long ride from New Orleans on a bus chartered by a nongovernmental organization called Beyond Plastics. In 1980, this placid blue-green lake, called Lac des Allemands, was declared the Catfish Capital of the Universe by the Louisiana State Legislature. A live oak tree spangled with Spanish moss made a curtain against the blue sky, and water lapped gently at a seawall. Herons hunted in the shallows, and a fishing boat broke the silence with its putt-putt motor. In the distance, far off on the horizon, a white flame leapt — a chemical plant burning off gas.
Along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, what was once plantation land worked by the enslaved has ended up in the hands of petrochemical companies, including some that make ingredients for plastic. As chemical plants have come to dominate the landscape, the historic, primarily Black communities of the area have seen cancer and other diseases of pollution go up. Gases and other substances released by the plants are thought to have contributed. Just across the river from Lac des Allemands, in Laplace, La., the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment found the nation’s highest rates of cancer risk and attributed it to the chloroprene released into the air by a neoprene plant, operated for many years by chemical behemoth DuPont. (The plant’s current operator, Denka, is now suing the EPA.) Gail LeBoeuf, a local activist from a group called Inclusive Louisiana, revealed on the bus that like so many she’s known, she was starting chemotherapy.
As these plants expand, it is not just the health of today’s residents at stake, it’s their history. Graveyards where their enslaved ancestors are buried have been threatened by new industrial plants. A planned grain processing facility in Wallace, La., would break the quiet of the nearby Whitney Plantation Museum, the only plantation museum in the state dedicated to the experience of enslaved people. Though the site in Wallace is not owned by a plastics manufacturer, a previous owner was a plastics company, and locals, including Dr. Joy Banner and her sister Jo Banner, founders of the environmental justice group the Descendants Project, suspect that once the site becomes industrial, plastics companies won’t be far behind.
Already these communities have lost so much. LeBoeuf and other activists reminisce about childhoods spent catching and cooking crawfish from ditches — today the water seems too suspect — and playing on the grassy levees (on the bus, someone recounted how locals have been chased away from levees near industrial docks). The Banners have started a cafe in Wallace named for a Creole folk story told in their family. Just a few dozen feet away from the cafe’s brightly painted front, steel beams have been driven into the ground, marking the site of the industrial facility.
For Lac des Allemands, the threat is upstream, where there are potential sites for two plants that make methanol, an ingredient for some plastics, and another that makes plastics directly. If these plants are built, storm runoff will carry pollution into this lake where, today, brown pelicans wheel and fishermen drop their lines. Activists have stalled the plans for now. Standing there, looking out at the shimmering line where the sky meets the water, I start to feel a kind of vertigo. We would give all this up — the history, the natural beauty, the lives of people whose ancestors made a vibrant life here despite the horror of slavery — for what? For cellophane and lawn chairs?
Plastics’ phenomenal expansion rests on the idea that they are indispensable. And not all uses of plastics are as bad as others. In neonatal intensive care units, tiny, soft plastic tubes go into babies’ veins to bring them medicine and nutrition, writes Susan Freinkel in her 2011 book “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.” Anja Krieger, a German journalist and host of the podcast “Plastisphere,” notes that plastics have been used to replace metal parts in cars and airplanes, to make them lighter and more fuel efficient.
But as Freinkel learns, the same tubes that are helping the babies today are also leaking substances — specifically, the softeners known as phthalates — that might hurt them down the road. And in the future, Krieger suggests, there might need to be fewer cars and planes, not just lighter ones.
“Maybe plastic enabled consumption patterns that without it would never have emerged. Like the amount of food we ship from far away, or the amount of car rides and flights we take each year,” Krieger muses on “Plastisphere.” “Maybe we wouldn’t be consuming so much, if plastic hadn’t made it possible?”
There must be some plastic objects we can’t live without — right? I was surprised to find that people I spoke to who were well-versed in plastics — including activists, reporters, academics — don’t agree. “There are alternatives, and there were alternatives before plastics got ramped up for mass consumption,” says Cirino, who was a reporter focused on the environmental impact of plastic before what she saw became so disturbing she took a job at an activist group. “I’ve met people who were alive when plastic was just being ramped up,” she continues. Before there were plastic bags, people wrapped bread in cloth to carry it home from the bakery; if you really needed something to stay clean and sterile, it went in glass jars.
We haven’t lost this technology. It’s still here. Glass, paper, and aluminum don’t have many of the downsides of plastics. If the system we’ve built for handling food, clothes, and other essentials of life can use nothing except plastic, then the system has to change.
To that end, there is a movement for legislation that holds plastics manufacturers accountable for the pollution they cause. Current bills in state legislatures and Congress aim to do this, including the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act. If plastic is too cheap, the people behind these acts reason, make it expensive.
Here is a first step, though: Move plastic out of the zone of the taken-for-granted. See it in front of you. Allow yourself to feel the cost of this material — the crawfish, the graveyards, the homes of East Palestine.
“The cognitive dissonance of having an individual valuation framework different from the sociocultural one you’ve been given is extremely hard,” says Shaw, the sociologist. “It’s a lot of tension. It’s a lot of work.” But it’s necessary work, if we want a change, she says. In the case of plastics, start by finding the ways that you can use something else, like shampoo that comes in bars instead of bottles, or soap from refill stations like those that have popped up in the Boston area.
For all of us — not just those on Christmas Island, or in East Palestine, or under the oaks in Louisiana — the nightmare began long ago. The only thing left to find out is how it ends.
Veronique Greenwood is a science writer who contributes frequently to Ideas.