Above photo: PVC pipes © koonsiri boonnak / Shutterstock.
As with so many other things in 2020, the full-out war against plastic has abated.
For many years, even decades, before the current global pandemic, environmental advocates have waged a war against single-use plastic. We’ve been winning that war. More and more consumers are carrying reusable bags for groceries and other shopping items, asking restaurants to use more sustainable materials for take-out containers, and using fewer plastic straws. Homeowners are even rethinking and replacing plastic PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in everything from home siding to piping.
As with so many other things in 2020, the full-out war against plastic has abated. To be sure, some plastic personal protective equipment is utilized by medical professionals and others to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Some recent scholarly research used by the plastics industry to bolster its claim that reusable grocery bags somehow spread the coronavirus is “of questionable applicability.” Nevertheless, states, cities and various municipalities have either suspended or put on hold implementation of bans on single-use plastics. Accordingly, there have been several articles about how the plastics industry is one of the few winners from the ravages of COVID-19.
Our Environment, Our Livelihoods, Our Health
More than 120 environmental leaders are asking food delivery companies to help restart our efforts to reduce single-use plastic by giving consumers the option in mobile apps and online ordering systems to make utensils, straws, condiments and napkins opt-in only. This is a great first step, and the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), on whose board I sit, is proud to have signed that letter.
I am concerned about the environment and what we will leave for our future generations. There are tens of millions of people who think more like I do than like the plastics industry. The days of ignoring piles of debris littering beaches worldwide and pretending there aren’t islands of trash floating in the oceans have long passed. The plastics industry is scrambling because it knows how bad it looks having conducted what amounts to tobacco and asbestos-like schemes from the late 1970s to purposely manipulate consumers to use more plastic with campaigns based on lies. The plan to make plastics seemingly indispensable to our lives sadly has traction, yet it comes at the great adverse expense against our environment, our livelihoods and our health.
Peer scientists and environmentalists have worked tirelessly to bring to light the lasting damage that single-use plastic does, and our efforts have resulted in hard-won bans and other actions as consumers realize the real price they are paying. Yet the ecological, economic and public health costs of plastics are not limited to just bags.
Many municipalities still consider plastic PVC pipes to be an acceptable option to use in the infrastructure systems that deliver drinking water to our homes. Consider that right now, the water that comes from your faucet may have traveled through miles of plastic pipes to get there. Who knows what it’s brought along with it.
I have studied and read the research into the effects of plastics on human health and the environment. Specifically, peer-reviewed research has found over the years polyvinyl chloride to be among the most harmful of plastics. PVC pipes are made from volatile chemicals such as hydrogen, carbon and chlorine, which is a common disinfectant for water supplies, and are known to cause harm to humans and the environment. The federal government and state of California have long warned of the potential human health risks from exposure to one of the core ingredients in PVC pipes, ethylene dichloride, which has been described as a cancer-causing carcinogen since 1980.
The report, “Our Health, PVC and Critical Infrastructure,” the production of which I supervised, examines in detail the consequences of plastic PVC pipes. Specifically, it considers four critical topics: harmful chemicals associated with the production of PVC pipes; long and short-term costs associated with PVC pipes; health and safety hazards of PVC exposure; as well as moving beyond PVC and passing legislation to reduce PVC and educate consumers about its presence in their lives.
Across the United States, melted PVC piping destroyed by intense fires has long threatened communities by exposing groundwater supplies to a litany of carcinogens and poisons, from benzene to toluene and much more. Analysis by municipal authorities following the catastrophic 2017 Tubbs fire that destroyed over 3,000 residential and commercial buildings across California found that “Benzene was detected at levels above the allowable regulatory limit (Maximum Contaminant Level, MCL)” in local drinking water.
Beyond benzene, investigators also identified “a suite of contaminants that include (but are not limited to) aromatic hydrocarbons (including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and the xylenes), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated compounds (not related to water chlorination), ketones, furans, and thiophenes.” Similar groundwater contamination has been found following intense fire in 2018 and 2019 — and the contamination lingered long after the fires.
The heat from the August 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains melted a 7.5-mile-long plastic water pipe. The pipe was part of a water system, and an official for the San Lorenzo Valley Water District said that “They found that there was a lot of water quality contamination from that melting plastic. The polyethylene put out volatile organic chemicals, benzene. So those are concerns that we are monitoring and we will be sampling for.”
It could take months to determine the full scope of the damage, but one thing is certain: People returning home after evacuating may very well find themselves without certified clean, fresh water to drink. The 2018 Camp fire, which similarly melted plastic pipes in Paradise, California, forced residents there to rebuild their entire water distribution system due to widespread contamination by toxic chemicals like benzene.
We’ve been fighting the war on plastic for decades, and at times, it can feel like we’re losing. Big Plastic is a global behemoth — consistently misleading consumers and communities with industry-backed “studies” and corporate-funded “research.” Its latest ploy, led by major oil companies, is to “flood Africa with plastic” since it can no longer send plastic waste to China. The keystone country in this plan is Kenya, which currently has the strictest plastic bag ban in the world. What a masterstroke for the industry if it’s successful in overriding this ban. What a shame for the world if we allow that to happen.
As numerous viable alternatives to single-use bags, PVC pipes and the litany of other plastic products abound, we can and must draw a line in the sand against this harmful concoction before more communities, ecosystems and livelihoods are compromised.