Plastic Pollution starting at the Source of Plastic

The flowers and horse fields at the BREC Farr RV Park and Equestrian Center

The yellow flowers greeted us as we entered the BREC RV Park/Equestrian Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and saw the horses gracefully grazing in the field. It was a serene place, right across the road from the Mississippi River levee that does it’s best to hold back the high velocity, swelling spring-time river, but it’s not entirely successful – the park manager hinted at this as she told us to “pick our spot thoughtfully as they were experiencing seepage from the river.” This campsite was also just down the road from Louisiana State University (LSU) Coast and Environment, where our collaborator, Mark Benfield works. We couldn’t take long to enjoy the scenery though, as we had to drop and set up the camper (a.k.a. cramper) in less than an hour to be able to make it on time to our meetings in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

We drove east on 1-10, then south on LA-70 and LA-3125 to meet Jane Patton from the Center for International Environmental Law in St. James Parish. Jane, a 5th generation Louisianan, was showing me the situation in St. James and introducing me to Sharon Lavigne of RISE, St. James, a faith-based grassroots organization formed to advocate for racial and environmental justice in St. James Parish. Sharon started RISE to fight the siting and permitting of a 2,400 acre Formosa Complex consisting of chemical and petrochemical plants that would be right next to her house. I observed in this area already two refineries, an aluminum production facility, a fertilizer facility and phosphogypsum “stack”, and more that I could not even discern. We drove by facility after facility… the UN most recently recognized this area as a corridor of environmental racism, callled “Cancer Alley” that must be stopped.

It was an honor to meet Sharon and I was so grateful she took the time to meet with me. She appreciated hearing from a researcher working on this as a pollution issue as well. But this was what I needed to see and hear – this is where plastic starts. Many people don’t think about this stage of plastic pollution, including me. I have concentrated on quantifying how much plastic ends up in our environment after it is produced. I’ve seen the people disproportionately impacted by mismanaged plastic around the world, in places like south and southeast Asia, in the informal waste management sector, and from countries trying to manage our exported scrap plastic for recycling. These are environmental justice issues. And not so surprising similar issues exist in our own backyard given the historic and systemic racism, and struggled path for civil rights in the USA. And while I have said that we need to reduce the plastic that we are producing to be able to manage it and reduce what is entering our environment and ocean, I did not fully comprehend how this reduction would also be a positive to these disproportionately impacted communities of people fighting for their lives in their homes, and hometowns.

Our kids were surprised by the number, size and scope of the refineries, they have never seen one before. And the smell coming from the facility in Baton Rouge as we drove by was overpowering for them. Kids don’t mince words about smells and we got an earful. But we acknowledged it was a privilege to be able to drive away. The residents nearby either can’t leave or, understandably, don’t want to leave their homes. And Sharon and her collaborators will continue to fight for her and their right to cleaner air, water and less pollution.

For more perspectives on Environmental Justice in the three pilot cities of the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative, see the webinar on training of Debris Tracker and a panel discussion on Environmental Justice from local organizations in Baton Rouge, St. Louis and St. Paul.

These blog posts are from my family’s journey along the main stem of the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Minnesota for the Mississippi River Plastic Pollution Initiative. Started by MRCTI and UN Environment Programme – North America, along with National Geographic Society and us at the University of Georgia College of Engineering, using open data, citizen science-based Debris Tracker. Find out how you can join in and help.

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