Plastic’s Influence On Our Air

When we hear about plastic pollution, many of us might picture wildlife suffocating on our single-use plastic straws and the six-pack rings we “dispose” of. For others, they might picture the single-use water bottles that collect on our neighborhood sidewalks. These images depict the immense destruction and pollution of our environment. It is important to become aware of the many different ways plastic pollution takes form. From the construction of new pipelines to the toxic air released by incinerators, human consumption of plastic directly and indirectly affects pollution levels throughout its lifecycle. With an amassed 9.2 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950’s, the reach of plastic pollution can be found on the doorsteps of under-served communities to depths of the ocean floor.  The plastic industry relies on oil refineries and petrochemical plants which are some of the biggest contributors of pollution in communities of color and must be challenged through community involvement in legislature.

High levels of air pollution stem from many plastic-related activities such as extraction of fossil fuels, transportation, oil refining, manufacturing, and incineration. Oil refining is the most greenhouse gas intensive industry in the United States, reporting the release of as much as 22,000 tons of hazardous air into the atmosphere in 20103. Emissions from oil refineries can have detrimental effects to the environment, and human health. Air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) are some of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Many of these gases are  known carcinogens and cancer causing agents. PM 2.5 is a known carcinogen with particles measuring smaller than a fraction of the width of your hair. Prevalently found near oil refineries, PM 2.5’s  are known to cause heart disease, Asthma, and lung cancer. Given the mass of  pollutants emitted in the United States, about 90 million Americans who live near these refineries and plants are left to face the detrimental health effects. However a disturbing pattern has been found among those who live near petrochemical facilities.

With a long history of racism and slavery in U.S. we are left facing  the lingering effects of our discriminatory past. It has  been found that the racism of today intersects with modern issues of pollution, known as environmental racism. Today communities of color are much more likely to be located near air polluters such as oil refinery plants than more affluent,white communities. In an analysis conducted by the EPA black people are 1.5 times more likely to be exposed to PM2.5 than white people. One of the most severe examples of this is in Louisiana. An 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi river is home to about 200 petrochemical facilities. This stretch of land is known as “Cancer Alley”, and the majority of communities located near the oil refineries are black, including St. John the Baptist, where the Denka plant is located. St. John the Baptist population is 58% black and the community closest to the plant is 92% black4.

 The trend of communities of color located near polluters continues to be made evident in other cities like Richmond California. With five refineries surrounding the city and a make up of 82.9% people of color; Richmond is at a disproportionate risk of the many health issues that come with living with toxic air. The largest of those five refineries is the Chevron Richmond refinery, located in North Richmond’s 97% community of color5. The correlation between location of petrochemical facilities and communities of color is made clear. This correlation is the product of racist systems and practices such as residential segregation, housing discrimnation, and redlining. Segregated communities were considerably underserved and underrepresented in government allowing petrochemical plants to be built near these communities of color as these locations were seen as less desirable and could not contend against.

The issue of environmental racism must be fought against alongside global warming. Although environmental protections have been conceived through the last couple decades we must continue pressuring our government to make changes to better our environment as the destruction of our planet is not stopping. One very important way to accomplish this is by voting! We must make sure that the politicians in power must support the fight against pollution. The first step to do this is by voting in all elections and filling your absentee ballot. Then in order to make sure your candidate supports environmental protection, research their background to check if they are funded by the fossil fuel industry. Once your candidate is in power make sure they follow their promises by organizing and using your voice to hold them accountable. By participating in census and government elections we can use the power of democracy to more forward and protect our planet. For more opportunities to take action please check out our youth intern Alishba’s petition to get Berkeley Bowl to provide compostable produce bags at


To learn more about the problem with plastic, check out: 

Story of Plastic,

Netflix documentary series, Broken: Recycling Sham,

Plastics 101 | National Geographic,

CLIMATE OF CHANGE: How to Vote Against Environmental Racism,

One reason why coronavirus hits black people the hardest,

Atl Benavides

Youth Program Assistant

Graduating from our Youth Environmental Academy (YEA) in the summer of 2018, Atl has since joined the Ecology Center team as a youth intern. During his time at YEA, Atl joined our Thirst Water First campaign; he engaged with the public at our Farmers’ Markets and events about the negative health impacts of sugary drinks and assisted in the start up of our Farm stand in downtown Berkeley. As a youth program assistant, Atl can be found helping out at our Farmers’ Markets, tabling events, or working on projects in our offices. Atl is a 2020 Graduate of Berkeley High School and plans to attend BCC in the near future.

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