Along the banks of the Mississippi River, right before it spills out past New Orleans into the sea lies Cancer Alley. An 85 mile strip of shoreline where residents are contracting cancer at astronomical rates. But this isn’t a phenomenon based in genetics or some cruel twist of fate. Cancer Alley is the product of environmental pollution. And today we’re going to figure out exactly where this pollution is coming from. This is the story of plastics, the harm they cause, the industries that create them, and how that 85 mile strip of Mississippi shoreline and other areas like it are suffering because of them.
If you walk into your kitchen, pretty much everything, in some way or another, has encountered plastic. The plastic bags you stuff into a drawer, your favorite cup and even the package keeping those blueberries fresh. But despite plastic’s ubiquity, we often forget where it comes from. Indeed, when it comes to plastic our efforts seem to be much more focused on what happens after we use it than before we use it. So first, let’s understand how plastic gets made. It all starts in an oil refinery or a fracking site. That’s right, plastics are basically just fossil fuels in solid form. In fact, 99% of plastics are made from chemicals rooted in fossil fuels. The plastic creation process begins with crude oil, coal, or natural gas, which is then refined and distilled or “cracked” into usable chemical compounds such as Ethylene or Benzene. Of course, there are certain plastics that are the product of recycled goods, but I’ll get into that much more in the video above. The key thing here is that the plastic that we use so heavily is really the same as the petroleum we put in our cars or the natural gas we use to heat our homes. Which is one of the reasons why the fossil fuel industry loves plastics.