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US plastics industry under fire

New campaign battles expansion, court stymies Formosa’s plans, and chemical recycling slammed

by Cheryl Hogue
September 22, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 34


Michael Bloomberg stands before a podium with the words Bloomberg Philanthropies on the front.
Credit: Bloomberg Philanthropies
Philanthropist Michael Bloomberg launched a campaign against expansion of the US petrochemical industry.

The US plastics industry is facing unprecedented opposition to its planned expansion and to recycling methods that involve heat.

Billionaire philanthropist Michael R. Bloomberg on Sept. 21 unveiled an $85 million campaign to stop more than 120 petrochemical projects in Louisiana, Texas, and the Ohio River Valley. Bloomberg, who is the United Nations special envoy on climate ambition and solutions, says the effort—called Beyond Petrochemicals: People Over Pollution—will also seek stricter regulation of existing petrochemical plants to safeguard public health.

“Petrochemical plants poison our air and water—killing Americans and harming the health of entire communities,” Bloomberg says in a statement. “With many heavily-polluting new projects planned around the US, we’re at a critical moment for stopping them.”

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents major petrochemical manufacturers, describes the campaign as “Bloomberg’s $85 million losing bet against industry.” In a statement, ACC president Chris Jahn encouraged environmental advocates to “join us in maximizing chemistry’s potential to solve the world’s sustainability challenges while continuing to safeguard the communities where we live, work, and play.”

Bloomberg’s effort will support frontline community groups such as Rise St. James, which spearheads opposition to a petrochemical complex that Formosa Plastics plans to build in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Residents of the area, some 90 km west of New Orleans, say the plant would wipe out their historic Black community.

Earlier in September, a Louisiana judge handed Rise St. James and six other environmental and health groups a decisive legal victory in their battle against Formosa’s plans. In a sharply worded ruling, state district court judge Trudy M. White canceled the air pollution permits that the company needed to build the complex.

The permits, issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, would have allowed the plant to emit over 725 metric tons of toxic pollutants annually into an area where residents are already at high risk for health problems from hazardous air pollutants from nearby industrial facilities. The plant would also release millions of tons of greenhouse gases annually.

“The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones,” Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of Rise St. James, says in a statement.

In addition to opposing expansion of the plastics industry, advocates are pushing back against the sector’s promotion of heat-based technologies for chemical recycling of plastic.

The judge’s decision sends a message to polluters like Formosa that communities of color have a right to clean air, and we must not be sacrifice zones.
Sharon Lavigne, president, Rise St. James

For years, the ACC has lobbied in statehouses for legislation that would classify facilities that break down used plastic via pyrolysis or gasification as manufacturers, not waste handlers. Manufacturers must follow different environmental regulations than waste handlers. Twenty states have adopted such measures so far. The industry group describes the processes as “advanced recycling” that yields molecular building blocks for new plastic.


But activists say the energy-intensive facilities merely create diesel fuel or synthetic gas that releases climate-warming carbon dioxide when burned. The plants also generate hazardous waste and toxic air pollutants, including dioxins, they say.


“So-called ‘advanced recycling’ moves the plastics from the landfills to the atmosphere, and into our lungs,” more than 200 environmental and health groups from across the country told members of Congress in a Sept. 19 letter. They ask lawmakers to reject any legislation that supports chemical recycling by relaxing Clean Air Act regulation of these facilities. No such bill has been introduced in Congress—yet.


This story was updated on Sept. 26, 2022, to correct the description of the American Chemistry Council’s lobbying in statehouses. It wants to classify plastics recyclers using pyrolysis or gasification as manufacturers instead of waste handlers, and that classification affects the environmental regulations that must be followed. The ACC does not seek to relax the regulations of those facilities.


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