Less than 6% of plastic is recycled in the US. Much of the rest – millions of tons of it – is dumped in the oceans each year, killing marine mammals and polluting the world. Plastic does not fully decompose; instead, it eventually breaks down into tiny bits, some of which wind up inside our bodies. The idea of creating fuel from plastic offers the comforting sense that plastics are sustainable. But the release of cancer-causing pollution is just one of several significant problems that have plagued attempts to convert discarded plastic into new things. One recent study by scientists from the Department of Energy found that the economic and environmental costs of turning old plastic into new using a process called pyrolysis were 10 to 100 times higher than those of making new plastics from fossil fuels. Chevron buys oil that another company extracts from discarded plastics through pyrolysis.
In January 2022, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced the initiative to streamline the approval of petroleum alternatives in what a press release called “part of the Biden-Harris administration’s actions to confront the climate crisis.” While the program cleared new fuels made from plants, it also signed off on fuels made from plastics even though they themselves are petroleum-based and contribute to the release of planet-warming greenhouse gases. The EPA recently gave a Chevron refinery the green light to create fuel from discarded plastics as part of a climate-friendly initiative to boost alternatives to petroleum. But, according to agency records obtained by ProPublica and the Guardian, the production of one of the fuels could emit air pollution that is so toxic, one out of four people exposed to it over a lifetime could get cancer. The one-in-four lifetime cancer risk from breathing the emissions from the Chevron jet fuel is higher even than the lifetime risk of lung cancer for current smokers.
“That kind of risk is obscene,” said Linda Birnbaum, former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
That risk is 250,000 times greater than the level usually considered acceptable by the EPA division that approves new chemicals. The cancer burden will disproportionately fall on people who have low incomes and are Black because of the population that lives within three miles of the refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Maria Doa, a scientist who worked at the EPA for 30 years, reviewed the document laying out the risk. Doa, who once ran the division that managed the risks posed by chemicals, was so alarmed by the cancer threat that she initially assumed it was a typographical error. “EPA should not allow these risks in Pascagoula or anywhere,” said Doa, who now is the senior director of chemical policy at Environmental Defense Fund. In her three decades at the EPA, Doa had never seen a chemical with that high a cancer risk that the agency allowed to be released into a community without restrictions.
The fuels that Chevron plans to make at its Pascagoula refinery present serious health risks, including developmental problems in children and cancer and harm to the nervous system, reproductive system, liver, kidney, blood and spleen. Aside from the chemical that carries a 25% lifetime risk of cancer from smoke-stack emissions, another of the Chevron fuels ushered in through the program is expected to cause 1.2 cancers in 10,000 people – also far higher than the agency allows for the general population. The EPA division that screens new chemicals typically limits cancer risk from a single air pollutant to one case of cancer in a million people. The agency also calculated that air pollution from one of the fuels is expected to cause 7.1 cancers in every 1,000 workers – more than 70 times the level EPA’s new chemicals division usually considers acceptable for workers.
In addition to the chemicals released through the creation of fuels from plastics, the people living near the Chevron refinery are exposed to an array of other cancer-causing pollutants.
Scott Throwe, an air pollution specialist who worked at the EPA for 30 years,was asked how existing regulations could protect people in this instance. Now an independent environmental consultant, Throwe said the existing testing and monitoring requirements for refineries couldn’t capture the pollution from these new plastic-based fuels because the rules were written before these chemicals existed. There is a chance that equipment designed to limit the release of other pollutants may incidentally capture some of the emissions from the new fuels, he said. But there’s no way to know whether that is happening.
Chevron said that “plastics are an essential part of modern life and plastic waste should not end up in unintended places in the environment. We are taking steps to address plastic waste and support a circular economy in which post-use plastic is recycled, reused or repurposed.”
But environmentalists say such claims are just greenwashing. The creation of fuel from plastic is in some ways worse for the climate than simply making it directly from fossil fuels. Over 99% of all plastic is derived from fossil fuels, including coal, oil and gas. To produce fuel from plastics, additional fossil fuels are used to generate the heat that converts them into petrochemicals that can be used as fuel.
“It adds an extra step,” said Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They have to burn a lot of stuff to power the process that transforms the plastic.”