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Plastics Pollution Conference Held In Bennington

A discussion underway at the Beyond Plastics conference at Bennington College on Tuesday, July 23rd 2019
Lucas Willard
A discussion underway at the Beyond Plastics conference at Bennington College on Tuesday, July 23rd 2019

Plastics have become an environmental crisis. And world leaders are starting to sound the alarm. On World Environment Day on June 5th 2018, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres released a video message urging the public to take action against plastic pollution.

“Reject single-use plastic. Refuse what you can’t reuse.”

Bringing together journalists, researchers, and advocacy organizations, the Convening on Plastics Pollution conference was held at Bennington College. The event was organized by Beyond Plastics, formed at the southern Vermont liberal arts college in January. Former EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, a regular contributor to WAMC’s Roundtable panel, is Director of the non-profit organization.

“I think this is a huge issue that few people are engaged in. And people think recycling is the solution, but it’s not. I’m a big advocate for recycling but plastics have only achieved a 9 percent recycling rate worldwide. So we can’t recycle our way out of the problem,” said Enck.

A series of lectures detailed the impacts of the 8.8 million tons of plastics entering the oceans annually, issues of environmental justice related to plastics manufacturing and pollution, impacts on climate change, and more.

Among the presenters was Dr. Pete Myers, CEO and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences and co-author of the 1996 book “Our Stolen Future,”which raised the issue of endocrine disruptors and the effects on human health of chemicals found in plastic products.

Dr. Myers opened his presentation with a photo of his newborn granddaughter, born premature after her mother suffered from a condition known as preeclampsia.

Myers linked his granddaughter’s premature birth to exposure to chemicals released into the atmosphere as toxic smoke from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California in November 2018. 

Myers said though some consumers are realizing the dangers of certain chemicals used to make plastic products, such as BPA, companies don’t often change course.

“When the company asks, ‘where should we put our resources?’, if they don’t have a future-minded CEO making a strong commitment to getting out of this and into that, it’s going to be hard to happen,” said Myers.

Bennington is just over the Vermont-New York border from Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh. All three communities have struggled with the presence of PFAS chemicals in water supplies and the environment.

Myers said that human exposure to endocrine disputors is “ubiquitous.” He also argued that as regulators test for the chemicals, their methods are deeply flawed. He said regulators should examine effects seen at both low and high levels of exposure.

“High doses do different things. And those different things can be just as bad. But the point is that if you’re a regulator and you’re trying to find what are the consequences of exposure to this chemical, you always start at high doses. You pay attention to the things that change at high doses…and then you don’t look to see what happens at low doses,” said Myers.

Plastics production is expected to ramp up. And that goes hand-in-hand with the oil and gas industry, and by extension, climate change.

Carroll Muffet, President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, said it takes a lot of energy to produce plastics from petrochemicals.

“Oil and gas producers, who are also the major plastics producers, are massively expanding their infrastructure to make new plastics. And unfortunately, with this build-out of new plastics and with the emissions that occur across the plastics life-cycle, what we’re seeing is a massive and growing amount of climate emissions from plastics: from the well-head, to the pipeline, to the refinery, to the incinerator,” said Muffet.

According to a report released by Muffet’s organization in February, plastics alone could eat up more than 10 percent of the earth’s carbon budget – the amount of carbon emissions that humans can release into the atmosphere to prevent the earth from warming 1.5 degrees from pre-industrial temperatures. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some climate impacts would be irreversible.

Muffet says stopping plastics expansion is essential to saving the planet. And that means greatly reducing the extraction of fossil fuels.   

“Keep it in the ground,” said Muffet.   

As for right now, plastics remain cheap and very profitable. With production expected to increase four-fold by 2050, Enck says the plastics pollution crisis cannot be solved through consumer choices alone.

“I advocate for local and state laws that drive down plastic pollution, but we’re only going to get that if more consumers and more reporters are aware of the many facets of this issue,” said Enck.

Enck and other environmentalists have characterized some federal environmental bills as half measures, including the Save our Seas Act signed in October.

On Thursday, Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar and other House Representatives plan to introduce the Zero Waste Act. The bill would establish a federal grant program that advocates say would help communities invest in recycling infrastructure and other methods to keep waste out of landfills. 

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.