Plastic Smoke: Petrochemicals

From the 1967 film The Graduate: “I just want to say one word to you… plastics.” This would have been sage advice for a college graduate looking to make money within a burgeoning industry, or for an environmentalist preparing to protest an influx of chemicals that would erupt over the next half century. Between 1971 and 2015, annual plastics production increased by more than a factor of ten. This is a faster increase than cement (factor of 6.7 increase over the same time period), aluminum (4.9 times), ammonia (3.5 times) and steel (2.9 times). Production has doubled since 1997, and half of all plastics in existence has been made since 2002.

Plastics are made almost exclusively from fossil fuels. Oil and fossil gas are the traditional feedstocks for plastics, meaning these fuels become the matter within the plastics. Coal is additionally used as a feedstock for plastics, primarily in China. Plastic recycling is rare. Of the over 6 trillion tons of plastic waste that has been generated in history, more was incinerated than recycled, and the vast majority, 4.9 trillion tons, went straight into landfills. In the United States in 2018, less than 9% of plastics were recycled, 16% were burned, and the rest went to landfills.

Mass-produced plastics don’t biodegrade in any significant way, but they do become brittle under light, eventually turning into microplastics. Substances that persist for a very long time cause so many of the world’s environmental problems: carbon dioxide, radioactive waste, and forever chemicals are a few of these. Microplastics are accumulating in the ocean, and although less discussed, plastics in waterways and landfills have the potential to cause serious harm as well. The long term impact of plastics on ecology are still somewhat unknown since the amount of waste has increased so much in recent decades.

The oil industry is attempting to pivot towards more plastics production, including into newer markets like Kenya, as they recognize increasing attention to heat-trapping gas regulation. Currently about 15% of oil and 9% of fossil gas goes into petrochemicals, which include many of the most common products that you likely have around you. Plastics, fertilizers, textiles, and detergents are often made with fossil fuel feedstocks.

Some of the most polluted areas around the world are associated with petrochemical operations. “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has over 100 petrochemical plants. The plastics plants give off a variety of pollutants into the air, water and soil. Some of these are likely carcinogens, like chloroprene, which harms the body on a short term basis as well, causing everything from headaches to nervous and immune system problems. This chemical is released from plants that create the synthetic rubber Neoprene, used in wetsuits, mousepads, and clothes, among other materials.

Locations like St. John the Baptist in Cancer Alley have 800 times the cancer risk of the rest of the country. Recent reporting has uncovered that DuPont knew of the dangers of the chemicals released in the making of Neoprene even in 1941, identifying harm to both lab animals and their workers.

Other chemicals released in petrochemical facilities include benzene and formaldehyde, also cancer-causing and in the category of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Volatile means they can evaporate easily. In addition to their toxicity, these compounds are precursors to ozone pollution, itself a severe air pollutant and greenhouse gas. Carcinogenic air pollutants are released from petrochemical facilities on days the plants are working fine. These facilities also suffer from frequent accidents that harm their workers and lead to even greater air pollution emissions.

Because of these and other environmental impacts of petrochemicals, many environmental activists have built strong resistance campaigns against plastic production and use. While many are rooted in justice, some of these movements have amplified systems of oppression and left people behind. This was particularly evident in the recent plastic straw ban controversy and its effect on people with disabilities. Plastic straws make up an estimated 0.02% of pollution that makes its way into the ocean. People with disabilities need plastic straws, and many activists expressed great displeasure with straw bans. If more people with disabilities are included in the creation of environmental justice policy, more inclusive strategies will be developed. People with disabilities are affected first and foremost with many climate impacts, and including disabled people in planning for disasters saves lives. Disability rights is a critical cornerstone to an intersectional approach to climate and environmental justice, and there is much exciting work happening on these topics.


Vineyards near Santa Maria, California by Virginia Wright-Frierson


One of the most common petrochemicals helps grow much of the food around the world. Most nitrogen fertilizer is made by converting methane gas into hydrogen, and then into ammonia. This second half of this process is often called the Haber process, named after the scientist who developed it, who is also the father of chemical weapons. The creation of ammonia from fossil fuels is highly energy intensive, requiring high temperatures and extremely high pressure. It uses around 1% of the world’s energy and results in direct carbon dioxide of several hundred megatons per year as well. Around 80% of the world’s ammonia goes to fertilizer production, and the rest goes to explosives, pesticides, cleaning products, and other chemicals. Over half of ammonia is turned into urea, which is then added to crops as the world’s main nitrogen fertilizer. For ammonia production with fossil gas, creation of one ton of ammonia results in 2.4 tons of emissions of carbon dioxide, about half from energy emissions and half from the chemical process.

Fossil fuels are not needed for the production of ammonia. Hydrogen produced from electrolysis powered by clean energy can also be made into ammonia, in a more direct chemical pathway. This process could even be performed at the farm level. Another action that would reduce emissions from ammonia is to curtail over-fertilization. When nitrogen and other nutrients from fertilizers run off into waterways, they create algal blooms which decay into dead zones of low oxygen within the oceans. The fertilizers cause the release of the heat-trapping gas nitrous oxide. Shifting away from single-crop agriculture with intensive inputs of fertilizers and pesticides, and towards more traditional methods of planting is an effective method of lowering pollution. The Three Sisters planting is an example of a method where beans fix nitrogen within the soil, helping the corn and squash to grow.


Environmental justice communities in Louisiana have created a robust resistance to the polluting industries that have been built on the fencelines of their neighborhoods.