The life stories of enslaved people are crucial to a legal battle over a Louisiana petrochemical facility that could triple residents’ exposure to carcinogensby
On the Western bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt, men, and women are busy cleaning the river. They are part of the veryNile initiative. A project launched in 2018 to gather plastic garbage and raise awareness of the importance of protecting the environment.
The team also develops means to recycle and upcycle solid waste through partnerships with local stakeholders. The huge structure weighing more than 7,500 kg was erected by volunteers using plastic garbage.
“We chose to build a pyramid as a huge Egyptian symbol, Farah Abd Elbakey explains. We built a pyramid made of plastic collected from the Nile to show people the scale of the problem. In order to build a pyramid, we started collecting plastic a while ago.”
The volunteer reveals that no collection of plastic was made for a “long time”; the more than “100,000 kg” of plastic collected since the beginning of VeryNile are testimony to the work accomplished.
“We spent 3 years cleaning the Nile, buying plastic from the fishermen who collect it, the plastic more than the fish, says volunteer Hanaa Farouk. Plastic can stay in the Nile for hundreds of years without breaking down.”
Disrupting fishing businessThe 250,000 bottles that made up the pyramid represent “45 days work, done by 6 fishermen”. They will be recycled into yarns for the textile industry. According to a study mentioned by the World Economic forum, around 88-95% of all river-borne plastic comes from just 10 rivers, among which are Niger and the Nile. One of the consequences of pollution is the of fishermen:
“The amount of fish is not as big as it used to be, volunteer Zeid Ehad says. Fishermen are involved in cleaning the Nile to get extra income, and recently we have extracted tons of plastic from the Nile which affects our lives, the environment, and everything else.”
Plastic collected by fishermen is also turned into products such as bags. An up-cycling workshop led by women from the Qursayah Island on the Nile enables them to secure funds.
VeryNile is supported by: Drosos Foundation, One Earth One Ocean organization, and the Egyptian Ministry of Environment. The country will host the next UN World Climate Conference (COP 27) in November.
The company, an affiliate of Formosa Plastics, said it intended to move forward with the $9.4 billion complex in St. James Parish despite the ruling.Louisiana activists battling to block an enormous plastics plant in a corridor so dense with industrial refineries it is known as Cancer Alley won a legal victory this week when a judge canceled the company’s air permits.In a sharply worded opinion released Wednesday, Judge Trudy White of Louisiana’s 19th Judicial District in Baton Rouge noted that the residents in the tiny town of Welcome, where the $9.4 billion petrochemical plant would have been built, are descendants of enslaved Africans.“The blood, sweat and tears of their ancestors is tied to the land,” Judge White wrote. “Their ancestors worked the land with the hope and dream of passing down productive agricultural untainted land along the Mississippi to their families.”She said that when Louisiana state regulators granted 14 permits to FG LA L.L.C., an affiliate of the Taiwan-based giant Formosa Plastics, they had used “selective” and “inconsistent” data and had failed to consider the pollution effects on the predominantly Black community.Understand the Latest News on Climate ChangeCard 1 of 4Relinquishing a fortune.
A proposed $9.4 billion plastics plant received another body blow Wednesday, after a Louisiana state judge vacated 14 state permits and lambasted regulators for failing to live up to their “constitutional public trust duty.”The ruling is a clear environmental justice win for residents of Welcome, La., a small community with a 99 percent minority population, 87 percent of whom identify as Black.That town, and the plant’s impact on the land and the families living off it, was foremost in Judge Trudy White’s 34 page ruling. “The blood, sweat and tears of their ancestors is tied to the land,” White wrote, noting that Welcome’s demographics reflect its roots as a place once dominated by plantations and now populated by descendents of slaves who worked those plantations.In the ruling, White cited Sharon Lavigne, director of RISE St. James, a local advocacy group, and winner of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize: “These are sacred lands. They were passed down to Black residents from their great-great-great grandparents who worked hard to buy these lands along the Mississippi to make them productive and pass them on to their families.”
The giant facility would have used ethane and propane as feedstock to ultimately make a variety of products used in plastics manufacturing. The project has been on hold since November 2020, when the federal government suspended a permit amid protests from local environmental groups.
White agreed with those groups in her 34-page ruling, saying the state did not do enough to protect the health and well-being of its residents. Regulators technically followed the rules in issuing permits, White wrote, but “the constitutional public trust duty imposes an additional legal standard.”
“It demands [The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] go beyond its regulations if necessary to avoid potential environmental harm to the maximum extent possible” (emphasis in the original).
A 2019 analysis by the nonprofit news site ProPublica estimated that the air around Formosa’s site is more toxic with cancer-causing chemicals than 99.6% of industrialized areas of the country. The plant’s proposed emissions, the publication concluded, could triple levels of cancer-causing chemicals in one of the most toxic areas of the U.S.
Formosa credit bounce?
If built, the plant would add 2.4 million tons per year of ethylene to a U.S. market that annually supports some 50 million tons, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, or IEEFA. The facility would also provide a new source of polyethylene, polypropylene and ethyl glycol to the U.S. market.Delays in Formosa Plastics’ proposed petrochemical complex in Louisiana have, curiously, helped the company’s credit rating, Tom Sanzillo, IEEFA’s director of financial analysis, noted in a post. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Formosa in October 2020 in part due to the cash drain on the company from its Louisiana project. An upgrade “implies that canceling the project would be better for the company than laying out large sums of cash for a high-risk investment,” Sanzillo wrote.Editor’s note, Sept. 14, 2022: This is a developing story. Check back for updates.From Your Site ArticlesRelated Articles Around the Web
Sri Lanka has received $2.5 million in the third interim payment for the sinking of the X-Press Pearl cargo ship in June 2021, giving it a total of just $7.85 million for the worst maritime disaster in the country’s history.These payments from the Singapore-flagged vessel’s insurer are mainly to reimburse the government for the cost of the emergency response operations and for direct damages and cleanup.Environmental lawyers say the government can and should pursue a much larger compensation claim for the environmental damage wrought.The X-Press Pearl sank off Sri Lanka’s western coast after catching fire, in the process spilling its cargo of hazardous chemicals and billions of plastic pellets that continue to dot the country’s beaches. COLOMBO — Sri Lanka has received $2.5 million in the third interim payment for the impacts caused by the sinking of the X-Press Pearl cargo vessel off the country’s western coast 14 months ago. This is the third tranche of compensation, but Sri Lankan authorities say a much larger claim for the environmental damage is still to be filed.
The latest payment brings the total paid by the ship’s insurer to $7.85 million. Sri Lanka received $3.6 million in July 2021, shortly after the June 2 sinking that was caused by a fire on board the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl, and another $1.75 million in January this year. These payments are mainly to reimburse the government for the cost of the emergency response operations and for direct damages and cleanup, said Darshani Lahandapura, chair of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Agency (MEPA).
“The latest receipt will be distributed among 15,032 fishermen belonging to the fishing communities in the three districts of Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara,” said Susantha Kahawatta, director-general of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DFAR).
A cleanup operation in a coastal area in Sri Lanka, where a thriving fishing industry was affected by the X-Press Pearl’s sinking. Image courtesy of the Marine Environment Protection Authority ( MEPA).
International legal battle pending
The sinking of the ship, which was carrying various chemicals and plastic pellets, led to large-scale pollution was reported in the immediate coastal area and was blamed for killing several marine animals. The leak of the more than 50 billion plastic pellets, known as nurdles, made this the worst plastic marine pollution event in the world, prompting the government to impose a fishing ban along a 50-kilometer (31-mile) stretch of the island’s western coast for more than a month. This particularly affected the artisanal fishers in the region, who lost their only source of livelihood during this period.
The X-Press Pearl was carrying 1,486 containers when it caught fire off Colombo on May 20, 2021, and began sinking. Eighty-one of the containers were labeled hazardous, and the cargo included 25 metric tons of nitric acid — a key ingredient in the production of explosives, and touted as a possible factor for the fire. There were several explosions, and it took more than a week to bring the fire under control. Attempts to tow the vessel to deeper waters failed, and the freighter finally sank on June 2, 2021, a few kilometers off Sri Lanka’s western coast, becoming the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lankan waters.
Sri Lanka imposed a fishing ban across a 50-kilometer (31-mile) span of the island’s western coast following the X-Press Pearl’s sinking. Image courtesy of the Ministry of Fisheries.
The sheer scale of the disaster should be reason enough to “fight to get proper compensation for the country,” said Dan Malika Gunasekera, an expert in maritime law. He cited compensation claims filed by other countries over similar incidents to estimate that Sri Lanka should be able to secure between $5 billion and $7 billion. The inevitable legal battles could be strenuous, as Sri Lanka needs to secure these claims according to international maritime law, which means filing these claims early, Gunasekera told Mongabay.
But more than 14 months since the incident, Sri Lanka has still not filed a claim for the environmental damage suffered, which is being assessed by a panel of experts convened by the MEPA.
“This environmental damage assessment report is now ready and it was submitted to the Attorney General’s Department for instituting necessary actions,” Lahandapura said.
Researchers study contamination of fish due to the marine pollution caused by the X-Press Pearl’s sinking disaster. Image courtesy of the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).
Environmentalists push for compensation
The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a local advocacy group, plans to file three lawsuits in the X-Press Pearl case.
“Sri Lanka has not ratified certain conventions which would have helped the island to mount compensation claims for maritime disasters of this kind and of this magnitude,” said CEJ chair Ravindranath Dabare, a prominent environmental lawyer. “CEJ together with other concerned organizations is hence pushing the authorities to take action and filed a case in June 2021 to demand compensation for the affected parties.”
The group is set to file two more cases to ensure the authorities act in a timely manner to secure compensation and completion of the beach cleanup process.
Lahandapura said the MEPA is currently fine-tuning the environmental damage report in consultation with Australian legal experts to ensure the claim stands a strong chance of succeeding in international litigation.
“We cannot unduly expedite the process, as it is an international legal process,” he told Mongabay.
Plastic pellets, or nurdles, from the X-Press Pearl reached Batticoloa on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, a stark reminder of the extent of coastal pollution caused by the disaster. Image courtesy of Pearl Protectors.
Another compensation case
The case of another ship could indicate how Sri Lanka’s claims over the X-Press Pearl sinking play. The Attorney General’s Department filed a compensation claim for up to $44 million against the Greek owners of the crude oil tanker the New Diamond on Sept. 3 — the deadline for filing such a claim.
The Panama-flagged ship caught fire off the western coast of Sri Lanka on Sept. 3, 2020, while carrying 270,000 metric tons of crude oil and 1,700 metric tonnes of bunker oil. A crew member was killed in the incident, but intensive efforts by the Sri Lankan and Indian navies, as well as two Russian naval vessels that were in the area for joint exercises at the time, managed to prevent the oil spilling and the ship sinking. The New Diamond was eventually towed away to a shipbreaking yard in Pakistan.
The Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) noted that Sri Lanka has since received only $6 million in reimbursement and compensation, out of a potential $44 million that it could claim under the Civil Liability Act. But the claim to this full amount must be filed within two years of the New Diamond catching fire, which was Sept. 3 this year.
Lahandapura said that with the MEPA’s support, the Attorney General’s Department filed the case at the last minute.
As for the wreck of the X-Press Pearl, salvage operations have been handed over to the Shanghai Salvage Company. The ship’s owners, Singapore-based X-Press Feeders, said the salvation operation may take at least another year, and is currently on hold due to rough seas along Sri Lanka’s western coast during the monsoon season.
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At 49 Black Sand Beach, in Honoka‘ope Bay, Hawai‘i, a strange, moat-ringed mound sits in the middle of the beach. This tiny island, made of sand piled about half a meter or so high, was built by a beach shower. Every time a beachgoer steps under the shower to rinse off, water cascades from its base, carving gullies into the sand.
But while the shower’s obvious effect on the beach is mostly benign, it belies a more subtle, and potentially more destructive, consequence.
As new research shows, the water that flows from the shower into the nearby surf is laden with a toxic mix of contaminants—including UV filters, microplastics, and parabens. Scientists who’ve tested the water say that this beach shower, like the thousands of others dotted along coastlines around the world, is a source of pollution that sends chemicals flowing into the ocean at concentrations high enough to cause serious damage to marine life.
The problem, says Craig Downs, an ecotoxicologist at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia who coauthored the new paper, is that most beach showers are not plumbed into the local wastewater system. Instead, the runoff spills out onto the land and into the ocean.
Swimmers shed copious amounts of sunscreen and other contaminants into the ocean, and scientists have gathered plenty of evidence that these contaminants can harm marine life. But the concentrations of contaminants flowing from beach showers, Downs explains, are startlingly high. Beach showers, says Downs, are point sources of pollution that can cause concentrations of pollution that seriously threaten local corals, crustaceans, and fish. King tides and monsoons can push these concentrations even higher when all of the contaminants built up in the sand are released in one giant pulse.
Because the showers are point sources of pollution, Downs and his colleagues argue that their owners and operators—which are mainly municipalities—could be sued for violating the US Clean Water Act.
Downs, however, would like to see the situation solved more proactively. “We don’t really want to get rid of the showers,” he says. Instead, “what we can do is apply technologies, or legislation, to end [the showers] being a source of pollution.”
Fixing the showers, however, won’t be easy. Plumbing beach showers into municipal sewer systems won’t work: beach sand can clog traditional wastewater treatment systems. Municipal systems also aren’t built to remove such high levels of these contaminants.
There are technologies that will work, though.
One possibility for addressing the high levels of contaminants in beach showers, says Ranil Wickramasinghe, a chemical engineer at the University of Arkansas who wasn’t involved in the research, is to use a membrane bioreactor. This all-in-one wastewater treatment system uses a thermoplastic or ceramic membrane to catch contaminants and allows clean water to flow through. Microbes ingest the contaminants, rendering them harmless. But there’s a couple of catches: setup costs are high and the microbes must be matched to each contaminant.
Another option, says Carlos Martinez-Huitle, an environmental electrochemist at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, who also wasn’t involved in the research, is using advanced oxidation processes (AOP). There are two modes which could be put to use at the showers, he says: direct AOP, where electricity is applied to the AOP cell, enabling its inner surface material to break pollutants down; or indirect AOP, where the current pulls pollutants to one end, while oxidizers form at the other. The oxidizers then transform the pollutants into benign compounds. Municipalities could collect shower wastewater, filter out the sand, and then apply an AOP device to clear pollutants before discharging the water into the ocean, suggests Martinez-Huitle.
AOP is a power-hungry technology, though, so the key is to pair it with a source of renewable energy. In their lab, Martinez-Huitle and his team have developed a system that uses AOP to clean industrial wastewater with electricity supplied by solar panels or wind turbines.
But even the most cost-effective wastewater treatment technology will test meager municipal budgets. Agreeing which one to use, and then implementing it, will also take time.
In the meantime, the researchers are hoping that consumer education, wider use of ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) clothing, and regulations, like Maui’s incoming chemical sunscreen ban, will help stem the flow of pollutants into the environment.
For Downs, now that we know beach showers can be potent sources of pollution that can threaten marine life, the next steps are obvious. “If you can identify a point source of pollution,” Downs says, “then you have the … responsibility to mitigate that pollutant.”
ASHLEY, Indiana—The bales, bundles and bins of plastic waste are stacked 10 feet high in a shiny new warehouse that rises from a grassy field near a town known for its bright yellow smiley-face water tower.
Jay Schabel exudes the same happy optimism. He’s president of the plastics division of Brightmark Energy, a San Francisco-based company vying to be on the leading edge of a yet-to-be-proven new industry—chemical recycling of plastic.
Walking in the warehouse among 900 tons of a mix of crushed plastic waste in late July, Schabel talked about how he has worked 14 years to get to this point: Bringing experimental technology to the precipice of what he anticipates will be a global, commercial success. He hopes it will also take a bite out of the plastic waste that’s choking the planet.
“When I saw the technology, I said this is the sort of thing I can get out of bed and work on to change the world,” said Schabel, an electrical engineer.
“My job is to set it up and get it running,” he said of the $260 million, 120,000 square foot building and adjacent chemical operations. “Then perpetuate it around the world.”
But the company, which broke ground in Ashley in 2019, has struggled to get the plant operating on a commercial basis, where as many as 80 employees would process 100,000 tons of plastic waste each year in a round-the-clock operation.
Schabel said that was to change in August, with its first planned commercial shipment of fuel to its main customer, global energy giant BP. But a company spokesman said in mid-August that the date for the first commercial shipment had been pushed back to September, with “full-scale operation…extending through the end of the year and into 2023.”
Even with that new timetable, the plant, located along Interstate 69 in the northeast corner of Indiana, Brightmark faces ongoing economic, political and—environmental critics and some scientists say—technical headwinds.
Its business model must contend with plastics that were never designed to be recycled. U.S. recycling policies are dysfunctional, and most plastics end up in landfills and incinerators, or on streets and waterways as litter.
Environmental organizations with their powerful allies in Congress are fighting against chemical recycling and the technology found in this plant, known as pyrolysis, in particular, because they see it as the perpetuation of climate-damaging fossil fuels.
“The problem with pyrolysis is we should not be producing more fossil fuels,” said Judith Enck, a former regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the founder and executive director of Beyond Plastics, an environmental group. “We need to be going in the opposite direction. Using plastic waste as a feedstock for fossil fuels is doubling the damage to the environment because there are very negative environmental impacts from the production, disposal and use of plastics.”
The global plastics crisis is well documented with annual plastic production soaring from 20 million metric tons to 400 million metric tons over the last five decades. Nearly all are made from fossil fuels and much is designed to resist biodegradation and can last in the environment for hundreds of years, increasingly as microscopic bits that are ubiquitous and have invaded the humanbody.
The amount of plastic discharged into the ocean could reach up to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030, or roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually, according to a December report by a committee of scientists with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The U.S. produces the most plastic waste in the world, nearly 300 pounds per person in a year, the report found. But only a small percentage, less than 6 percent, of plastics used by consumers in the U.S. actually get recycled, a recent analysis of EPA data by Beyond Plastics and the Last Beach Cleanup found.
What does get recycled, such as soda bottles, typically goes through a mechanical process involving sorting, grinding, cleaning, melting and remolding, often into other products. But there are limits to the kinds of plastics that are acceptable for mechanical recycling and how many times these plastics can be re-used in this way.
Chemical recycling, called advanced recycling by the chemical industry— which touts it as almost a Holy Grail of solutions—seeks to turn the harder-to-recycle kinds of plastic waste back into plastics’ basic chemical building blocks. Pyrolysis is among the chemical recycling technologies getting the most attention, with industry representatives saying pyrolysis can turn mixtures of plastic waste into new plastic, fuel or chemicals for making everything from detergents to cars to clothing.
With these plastic wastes, such as grocery bags, cups, lids, containers and films, the industry claims, pyrolysis heats them at high temperatures in a vessel, with little or no oxygen and sometimes with a chemical catalyst, to create synthetic gases, a synthetic fuel called pyrolysis oil, and a carbon char waste product.
It’s a process that’s been around for centuries, used for making tar from timber for wooden ships in the 1600s, for example, or coke from coal for steelmaking in the last century.
Brightmark describes its plant as the “largest-scale pyrolysis facility in the world.” It is designed to take plastic waste hauled in from municipal and industrial sources. The waste is cleaned, chopped up and pressed into small pellets, then fed into pyrolysis tanks and heated by burning natural gas. The synthetic gas created by the pyrolysis process is then mixed with the natural gas to generate temperatures between 800 degrees and 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, Schabel said.
“We flush the molecules out and condense them,” Schabel said, describing what the high heat does to the plastic waste. “We are hitting them with a thermal hammer to break them into pieces. They want to come back together but we control how they come back together.”
The char is sent to a landfill as non-hazardous waste, he said, and the pyrolysis oil goes to a small-scale refinery behind the warehouse, where it’s separated into low-sulfur diesel fuel, flammable liquid naphtha, and wax for industrial uses or candles.
“We call this a hyper-local oil well,” Schabel said on the tour.
But a lot of what comes into the plant gets lost in the process.
In a document Brightmark filed in December with the EPA, the company acknowledged that just 20 percent of the plant’s output is its primary product—what it described as fuels. Most of the rest, 70 percent, is the synthetic gas that the company said is combusted with natural gas to generate heat, with 20 percent of that syngas burned away in a flare. The rest is the char, according to the filing.
The company now disputes its own numbers, with a spokeswoman saying company officials are working to get them corrected to reflect a larger percentage of output as diesel fuel or naphtha.
But the EPA filing plays into one of the sharpest criticisms of pyrolysis—that it’s not really plastics recycling at all.
The Brightmark plant in Ashley, Indiana. The San Francisco company plans to turn waste plastic into diesel fuel, naphtha, and wax. Credit: James Bruggers
With pyrolysis, “what you make is what I would call, and I grew up in New Jersey, so forgive me, a dog’s breakfast of compounds,” said University of Pittsburgh Professor Eric Beckman, a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. in polymer science. “It’s like everything you can think of, gases, liquids, solids,” he said.
If plastic waste could be turned only into naphtha, a bonafide building block for plastics, a company could operate what Beckman called a closed loop, and circular system for plastics that could be considered recycling, he said. But that is not what pyrolysis does.
“And this is where it gets controversial,” Beckman said, adding: “because you have people doing this who are saying, ‘We’re recycling it.’ No, you’re not. You’re burning it.” And any time that fossil fuels are being burned, he said, they are emitting greenhouse gas and air pollutants.
Jan Dell, a chemical engineer who has worked as a consultant to the oil and gas industry and now runs The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit that fights plastic waste, agreed.
“The fact that pyrolysis operations have to burn so much of the material to get to the high temperatures is a fundamental flaw,” she said.
EPA Rules Under Review
Brightmark and its expansion plans come as the Environmental Protection Agency weighs how to regulate pyrolysis, with air quality and economics on the line.
EPA regulations now consider pyrolysis to be incineration, which brings tighter clean-air controls. But in the waning months of the Trump administration, EPA proposed an industry-friendly rule change that stated that pyrolysis is not combustion and thus should not be regulated as incineration.
“The appropriate regulation of this is really critical if you want to scale advance recycling, and you want to use more recycled material in your products,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, a leading lobby for the plastics industry.
Facilities that turn plastic waste into gas and then burn the gas to help generate heat for the pyrolysis process are in effect still burning the plastic, with at least some oxygen involved in both steps in the process, said attorney James Pew, director of the environmental group Earthjustice’s clean air practice.
“The absolute crux of this issue is whether these new incinerators have to put on controls, like with conventional incinerators, or whether they can skip that and not control or monitor their pollution,” said Pew.
Pressure is mounting on EPA, which, according to a spokeswoman, is gathering public input and still deciding its next steps for pyrolysis and a related technology known as gasification. In mid July, 35 lawmakers including Rep. Jamie Raskin, and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Corey Booker, wrote to the EPA, urging the agency to fully regulate plastic chemical recycling’s emissions and to stop working to promote the technology as a solution to the plastics crisis.
“Chemical recycling contributes to our growing climate crisis and leads to toxic air emissions that disproportionately impact vulnerable communities,” the lawmakers wrote.
Struggling to Meet Its Timetable
At the end of July, Brightmark Chief Executive Officer Bob Powell, in a Zoom interview from his San Francisco office, said the company was still working to iron the last kinks out of its system.
“We have operated it at startup levels,” Powell said. “We’re just now at the point where we’re mechanically complete, and we’re starting to … create those finished products.”
Groundbreaking was in 2019, after the company secured a $260 million financing package that included $185 million bonds through the Indiana Finance Authority, underwritten by Goldman Sachs. Authority officials said the financing is not a state debt and Brightmark will be entirely on the hook to repay them.
The company has struggled to meet its timetable, Schabel acknowledged on the tour of the plant. He said it has taken time to secure an optimal stream of plastic waste for which there was no market, deal with delays caused by the Covid pandemic and navigate the challenges of developing new technology.
Dell said she’s not surprised, adding that she believes that despite the overall abundance of plastic waste on the planet, securing a steady stream of the kind of plastic waste the company has targeted will be an insurmountable challenge. The company has said it will largely recycle mixed, post-consumer plastics, the kind that millions of Americans toss in their recycling bins every week.
But these wastes are made of many different kinds of plastics, with a range of chemical compositions, and they vary by city and season, she said. Some of the plastics harm the pyrolysis process by introducing oxygenated molecules which reduce yield and lower the quality of the pyrolysis oil output, she said.
Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, holds plastic pellets in his hand the company’s new chemical recycling plant in northeast Indiana at the end of July. Credit: James Bruggers
Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, common in consumer product labels, films and packaging, adds chlorine atoms that can cause equipment corrosion and contaminate the pyrolysis oil, she said. Household plastic waste from municipal waste-handling facilities is also contaminated with other garbage that upsets the pyrolysis process, including liquids, food, dirt, paper, glass, metal and polystyrene foam, Dell added.
“There’s this perception that there’s so much plastic waste in the world and in the country, which there is,” Dell said. “And then they hold up this magic plant that they say is going to recycle everything from households all mixed together, and people believe it. But it can’t. It can’t handle the changing variety of household plastic waste and the unavoidable contamination.”
Beckman, the University of Pittsburgh professor, said he was particularly surprised to see the company plans to accept PVC.
“I do not know how they’re taking in PVC, and not getting something you really don’t want,” he said. That could include dioxins or other possible unwanted chlorinated products and more char, he added.
The EPA considers dioxins to be persistent organic pollutants, highly toxic and potentially cancer-causing.
“There have been people who have looked at this in different ways over the years, asking, ‘What can we do?’ And honestly, what you can do is make sure (PVC) never goes into a pyrolysis unit,” Beckman said.
For his part, Schabel acknowledged taking in mixed plastic wastes can be a challenge but said they can all be handled by the company’s technology, which he described as proprietary. He declined to go into specifics about the proprietary nature of the company’s technology, which was developed by RES Polyflow, the Ohio company he served as chief executive officer before joining Brightmark.
He said the plant can process PVC, but added: “If we pull out more of it, we get a better yield.”
‘Greenwashing Up the Wazoo’
The company, which is also developing manure-to-gas projects across the United States, markets its Ashley plant as a “plastics renewable facility” in an effort to try to position itself as a green solution to global plastics and climate crises. For the Ashley plant, it commissioned a study known in the industry as an “environmental lifecycle analysis” from consultants at Environmental Clarity, Inc.
The report found that, when compared to a typical waste stream in the United States where 17 percent of plastic waste is incinerated, the Brightmark pyrolysis plant produces 39 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than equivalent products made from virgin materials.
The study’s carbon footprint analysis may be true, said Terrence Collins, a professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the CMU Institute for Green Science. But he said there are too many assumptions built into the study for him to know for sure.
The study was also silent on many other potential environmental impacts that are often included or should be, in any lifecycle analyses of an industrial process, Collins said.
Its biggest flaw, Collins said, was to give short shrift to the plant’s potential environmental impacts from toxic chemical emissions, including dioxins and common additives to plastics that are known to be endocrine disruptors. Those are hormone-mimicking chemicals that, once inhaled or consumed, can cause reproductive and developmental problems in fetuses.
“I did not see a single measurement for dioxin, or even talking about it,” in the report, he said. “You don’t find endocrine disruption as a term. You don’t find health” mentioned, he added.
“It’s greenwashing up the wazoo,” Collins said of the incomplete lifecycle analysis, combined with how Brightmark markets itself on its website using the children of one of its engineers using plastic toys and talking about the need to stop ocean-dumping of plastics.
“They are proposing to go into a regime of more sustainability technology, and they should be held to task,” Collins said. They are “creating a case for no toxics without the science,” and “having it done by a little kid whose generation will be impacted. If you market through children, you raise the stakes; you really need to prove it,” Collins said.
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Air Date: Week of September 9, 2022
The AES Corporation power plant, shown above, was Hawaii’s last operating coal-fired power plant before it shut down on September 1, 2022. (Photo: Tony Webster, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
This week, Environmental Health News Editor Peter Dykstra and Host Steve Curwood mark the end of coal-fired power in the 50th state (Hawaii) and discuss how 3D printed homes made from recycled bottles could ease both the affordable housing and the plastics recycling crises. In the history calendar, they look back to 1916 when the world’s first self-service grocery store opened and dramatically changed the way we shop.
The St. James Parish Council on Wednesday effectively rejected a bid to allow for industrial development in a neighborhood currently zoned residential, leaving the land’s owner — the South Louisiana Methanol (SLM) company — on its own to resolve a stalled $2.2 billion project on the site.
The proposed ordinance would have rezoned a residential neighborhood in the parish’s 5th Council District — a low-income, majority-Black district on the parish’s west bank that is already home to a large number of industrial sites — to a “residential/future industrial” designation.
The council’s rejection of the change effectively precludes SLM – a joint venture between the New Zealand-based Todd Corporation and a Houston-based subsidiary of the Saudi Arabian company SABIC – from selling the property to any entity with designs for industrial development.
The ordinance, introduced by Councilmember Donald Nash, never went to a vote, as no council member seconded a motion to consider it.
Originally announced in 2013, then again in 2019 under reshuffled ownership, the proposed SLM plant would have encompassed 1,500 acres on the parish’s west bank. It was projected to produce approximately 2 million tons of methanol annually, which would have made it one of the largest such facilities in the world. The project would be directly adjacent to Welcome Park, the 5th District’s only public park, which is one of the concerns residents have raised publicly.
The plant was designed to utilize natural gas in its production of methanol, which is used in a variety of products and applications – ranging from plastics to fuels. The domestic price of natural gas has recently spiked due to the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting increase in U.S. gas exports to Europe.
Greg Johnson, an attorney with Liskow & Lewis who addressed the council on SLM’s behalf on Wednesday, said the company has invested $70 million toward the $2.2 billion project, while previous reporting has put the figure at $300 million.
Because the project was approved before current zoning was adopted, SLM has the right, under parish land use regulations, to build the plant in spite of the residential zoning. But the project has been stalled for years with little work occurring on the site, and the company has allowed some required permits to lapse.
One of the criticisms raised by the council and by members of the public is that SLM did not articulate a clearly defined vision for what it plans to do with its property now that the original plan appears to be off the table.
“I’m not seeing a strong effort on the part of South Louisiana Methanol to work with the community or to do things that will make the community safe,” Councilmember Clyde Cooper, who represents the 5th District, said before the motion was considered. “With this situation having run its natural course, I think we need to allow it to run its natural course.”
Johnson told The Lens after the meeting that the company is reviewing its options, which could include either selling its property or redesigning the project somehow. Johnson did not offer specific details about the future of the property, saying only that the zoning change was necessary so that SLM could explore different opportunities.
“This land use redesignation is required in order for SLM to pursue new investment partners so that they can position the property for potential projects supporting growth for the parish,” Johnson told council members. “There is not any particular one at this time, but by changing the designation will allow them to explore other opportunities for the property “
One of those opportunities could be to sell the land to another industrial developer. Had the council adopted the zoning ordinance on Wednesday, it would have opened the door for SLM to sell its property as an industrial site, pending the approval of the parish’s officials. But by rejecting it, the current zoning designation for the property stands: treating it as “residential growth” for anyone other than SLM and its $2.2 billion methanol plant.
That zoning decision was made in 2018, according to the council’s agenda. The parish’s original land use plan from 2014 treated the area as “residential/future industrial,” which residents had publicly opposed.
For Barbara Washington, a resident of St. James Parish and a founding member of Inclusive Louisiana, a nonprofit focused on environmental justice, the council’s decision was a welcome surprise.
“We saw humanity there tonight,” she said. “It seemed like all the time that we’ve been talking, they haven’t been listening – but tonight, it seemed like they were actually listening, and that’s hopeful for us,” she told The Lens.
‘The clandestine conditions of these meetings’
Meanwhile, the council’s process for considering the ordinance came under scrutiny after two attorneys from the nonprofit environmental legal organization Earthjustice, Corinne Van Dalen and Zora Djenohan, spoke before the parish council two weeks ago.
They claimed to be in possession of documents showing communications between St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne and SLM CEO Paul Moore about the proposed zoning change. Then on Wednesday, Djenohan said that she was in possession of documents showing that several councilmembers met with SLM leadership in private, which raised questions about whether the councilmembers had violated the state’s open meeting law, and to what extent SLM had the capacity to influence the council’s decision making.
Earthjustice provided those documents, along with others, to The Lens on Thursday.
The documents show that in July, Dufresne invited Councilmembers Vondra Etienne-Steib, Clyde Cooper and Alvin St. Pierre to a Microsoft Teams meeting with Moore and other employees of SLM, under the subject line “Land Use Discussion.” In a separate email, Dufresne invited Councilmembers Ryan Louque and Jason Amato to meet with Moore and SLM employee Price Howard under the same subject heading.
In total, a majority of the seven-member council — a voting quorum — was invited to participate in a meeting. Under the law, members of a public body can’t privately meet in a quorum to conduct or discuss public business.
“The exact attendance and subject matters discussed at each of these meetings remains unclear due to the clandestine conditions of these meetings,” Van Dalen and Djenohan said in a letter to the council.
“This raises the issue as to whether the Parish violated Louisiana’s open meetings law by privately convening the majority of its Council members over a series of meetings to discuss land use at SLM’s site,” they said.
Even if separate meetings were held — each with less than a majority of the council — to get around the public meeting requirement, it is also illegal to attempt to circumvent the open meetings law. Environmental groups have previously sued the parish over allegations officials conducted secret meetings with parish council members and members of the parish Planning Commission. Though each meeting was attended by less than a quorum of either body, the attendance of members in those meetings, when combined, constituted a quorum, according to the suit.
The records compiled by Earthjustice also show that Dufresne sent Moore a draft of the parish’s land use ordinance amendment. Moore responded by stating that he would like for the rezoning ordinance to include more of SLM’s land than originally proposed, and that some of the land SLM committed to using as a buffer should instead be zoned as industrial.
While “it was SLM’s intent to use a portion of this land for buffer zones, SLM would like to have this land designated industrial so that site use flexibility is maintained,” Moore wrote. SLM was also willing to give up a small portion of the land directly adjacent to Welcome Park, he said.
It appears that at least some of Moore’s suggestions were incorporated in the final zoning change ordinance.
Djenohan told the council on Wednesday that such decisions should not be made in private. At the end of the day, the change could affect the lives of the council’s constituents, and therefore needs to be made in public.
“This is not a decision without consequences, and it needs to be made in the open, in public meetings,” she said.
For decades, our oceans have been filling up with trash. The North Pacific Garbage Patch, also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has accumulated approximately 80,000 tons of plastic waste—and that estimate continues to climb. Most of the litter in the ocean is delivered by rivers that carry waste and human pollution from land to sea. But the origins of floating debris in offshore patches haven’t been fully understood. A recent study published in Scientific Reports has identified one important source of the trash: the fishing industry.
Between 75 to 86 percent of the plastics floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from offshore fishing and aquaculture activities, according to an analysis of the trash collected by nonprofit project the Ocean Cleanup. Major industrialized fishing nations, including Japan, China, South Korea, the US, Taiwan, and Canada, were the main contributors of the fishing waste. “These findings highlight the contribution of industrial fishing nations to this global issue,” says Laurent Lebreton, lead study author and head of research at the Ocean Cleanup.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a region twice the size of Texas between the West Coast of North America and Japan, is one of several vortexes in the ocean where waste accumulates. Created by spinning currents, or gyres, each vortex churns and crushes plastics into tiny undegradable bits that are tricky for cleanup efforts to scoop up. Plankton nets are used to collect these microplastics, often no more than 5 millimeters in size, says Lebreton. “But it is currently impossible to retrace an accurate origin for this pollution,” he says.
[Related: The great Pacific garbage patch is even trashier than we thought]
Since 2018, the Ocean Cleanup has been working to remove less common larger debris, which can sometimes be identified. The team’s approach uses vessels that pull a long U-shaped barrier through the water, guiding the larger plastics into the catch system. “This provided us with a unique opportunity to study larger plastic objects that were not the focus of previous research efforts,” says Lebreton.
The Ocean Cleanup’s System 001/B, which was the collection iteration used to collect the data in the recent study in Scientific Reports. The Ocean Cleanup
In a 2019 mission, the system pulled up more than 6,000 plastic objects that were larger than 5 centimeters (the threshold for large debris). While a third of the haul was unidentifiable, the research team sorted fish boxes, oyster spacers, and eel traps. This fishing and aquaculture gear was the second most common type of hard plastic collected, making up 26 percent.
Like the rest of the sectors of our economy, fisheries adopted plastics for its light weight and cheap manufacturing costs. Those plastics can persist for decades.
“We found a fishing buoy dating from the 60s and a crate from the 70s, so this must have been building over time,” Lebreton says, noting that the fishing industry has only expanded since the last century. “More than half the ocean surface is now being fished, increasing the chance of fishing gear being lost, discarded, or abandoned in the ocean.”
[Related: Humans created an extra 8 million tons of plastic waste during the pandemic]
Generally, the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been increasing in concentration and in size, according to a 2020 study by the organization. “This would suggest the situation is worsening, which is expected at this stage with an exponential increase in plastic production over the last two decades,” Lebreton says. “This is why it is important to study and identify this pollution so that future inputs can be mitigated.”
The Ocean Cleanup project has an ambitious goal to remove 90 percent of marine plastic waste by 2040. Since last year, the team’s upgraded system plucked over 100,000 kilograms of floating plastics from the ocean; however, marine biologists have expressed skepticism about the efficiency of such cleanup efforts and raised serious concerns these techniques could harm wildlife. Lebreton says that the nonprofit’s efforts should not be a permanent solution: “We want to go out of business eventually.” The best way to decrease plastic waste in these waters is to stop it at the source, he says—cleanup technologies can help pin down the cause and origin of pollution to inform regulation and management. This could include regulating the gear fishing vessels use or how the ships manage their waste, Lebreton says.
“I trust making this pollution visible [through cleanup efforts] has a significant impact on awareness and also the general understanding of the issue,” he says. “Documenting floating plastic pollution should play a role in the design of mitigation strategies. General public awareness can help in pushing legislation.”
Images and captions from the Ocean Cleanup.
Crates, buoys, lines, and ropes the Ocean Cleanup crew connected back to the fishing industry. The Ocean Cleanup
These black plastic cones are eel traps used for fishing hagfish. The Ocean Cleanup
A haul of crates and boxes. The Ocean Cleanup
A researcher with the Ocean Cleanup analyzes plastic items to find clues to their origins based on language and country codes. The Ocean Cleanup
System 002 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the most recent collection systems designed by the Ocean Cleanup. The Ocean Cleanup