Judith Enck Delivers Lecture, “Moving Beyond Plastics: The Environmental Justice Issue of Our Time”

By Anna Bruce ‘21

On Thursday April 22, the Center for Environmental Studies welcomed Judith Enck for an Earth Day address entitled “Moving Beyond Plastics: The Environmental Justice Issue of Our Time.” Enck is a former EPA Regional Administrator, a visiting professor at Bennington College, and the President of Beyond Plastics, a nationwide anti-plastics project launched in Bennington, Vermont.

Enck began her lecture by highlighting the statistics that portray the prolific use of plastics in the United States. The United States is home to 4 percent of the global population, yet uses 17 percent of global energy, 24 percent of global natural resources, and generates 12 percent of global solid waste. Enck highlighted how the United States is the world’s largest generator of plastic waste, and that global plastic production has surged from 15 million tons in 1964 to 311 million tons in 2014. Enck emphasized how this number is expected to double in the next 20 years unless the status quo is changed.

Enck recognized the strain that plastic pollution is having on marine life, noting that our oceans are turning into landfills. She talked about how all plastic ever produced is still with us today and by 2025 for every 3 pounds of fish in the ocean there will be one pound of plastic. Plastic bottles reach the ocean and break down into small pieces becoming microplastics, plastics that are about the size of a grain of salt. These small pieces of plastic are extremely hard to remove from the ocean. Birds and other species mistake plastic for food, they eat microplastics and they feel like they are full, but they are not getting the nutrients that they need.

She continued to say that we cannot combat climate change unless we fix the plastic problem as plastic is made from chemicals and fossil fuels. Ethane gas, a waste product from hydraulic fracturing, is captured and sent to ethane cracking plants which use high temperatures to produce ethylene that is then made into single use plastic packaging. Enck noted that ethane cracker plants are super emitters of greenhouse gas and if ethane plant infrastructure continues to grow as it is projected, by 2030 carbon dioxide emissions from plastic manufacturing will be equivalent to 295 new coal power plants. Plastic production is the fossil fuel industry’s plan B. Transportation and electricity sectors are moving towards renewable energy sources, but fossil fuels are still being used to produce plastic packaging.

Enck stressed the importance of recognizing plastic pollution as an environmental justice issue. Oil, gas, and chemical facilities are almost always located in low-income communities and communities of color. Enck argued that if these projects were proposed in affluent or white communities they would be stopped. In Houston four out of six of the most toxic air pollutants are related to producing plastic, and 42 percent of plastics produced are for single use packaging. The production of single use plastic packaging is concerning because plastic chemical additives can migrate from plastic to food. For example, PFOA, a forever chemical, is used in food packaging as a grease barrier, including in microwave popcorn, which should be avoided. Additionally, there are twice as many microplastics in bottled water than in tap water.

For Enck, it is important to recognize that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem, though people still should recycle cardboard, paper, metal and glass. Unfortunately, in the U.S. only plastics marked as #1 and #2 can be recycled, all other plastics do not have a reliable market and do not get recycled. We need new laws and regulations for plastic use and need to use less plastic. Alternatives to plastic that are reusable and refillable like, paper, glass, cardboard, and metal should be utilized. She talked about how something as simple as switching from plastic to canned drinks is beneficial, and how we must become informed and take political action to reduce the use of plastics and fossil fuels.

More information about ways to move beyond plastic are available at beyondplastic.org.