The toxic Norfolk Southern train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this year was on fire when it barreled along railroad tracks 100 yards from Jess Conard’s home, 2 miles from the crash site. At the time, Conard was unaware of the chemicals inside the train’s tanker cars and their connections to everyday items such as toothbrushes. That has changed.
Conard now is very aware of vinyl chloride, the cancer-causing chemical that was intentionally drained from several damaged tanker cars and then set on fire, producing a cloud of thick, black smoke that billowed over the town. What she’s learned has changed her life. Once a speech therapist, she’s now an activist, speaking out against the threats associated with plastic and plastic production.
“This was not on my list of 2023 career goals,” Conard said.
Vinyl chloride is used in the production of PVC plastic — a very common material. The U.S. produces about 7 million metric tons of the stuff each year. It’s in pipes, flooring, electrical cable insulation, plastic bottles, packaging, bank cards, flooring, phonograph records, toothbrushes. The list seems endless. And it will be growing.
The World Economic Forum has issued a report projecting plastic use will double in the next two decades. That means there will be “significantly more chemicals moving through the nation’s rail system to make plastics,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator under President Barack Obama and founder of Beyond Plastics, a national organization that advocates for an end to plastics pollution.
The problem with PVC is that the production, transportation, use and disposal of vinyl chloride is dangerous. It can affect workers in facilities that handle vinyl chloride and those who live in communities where PVC manufacturing plants are located, which are primarily low-income or communities of color. And, of course, it has the potential to devastate towns such as East Palestine, which are set along rail routes used to transport vinyl chloride.
“We would not have had chemicals on that train had we not had a plastics industry that is out of control,” said Conard, whose activism has led to her appointment as Appalachian director of Beyond Plastics.
Beyond Plastics last week announced the release of a short documentary film discussing the risks of vinyl chloride and calling for a ban on the chemical. The film uses the East Palestine derailment and the subsequent burn-off of vinyl chloride as an example of the cost borne by some communities for the production and use of plastic.
“It’s just a matter of who pays,” Enck says in the film, produced by the YEARS Project, a multimedia storytelling organization that focuses on climate change. “The people of East Palestine and Pennsylvania are paying dearly.”
The film emphasizes that the people who most suffer are those who live in communities closest to rail lines and the facilities that produce vinyl chloride or PVC plastic. East Palestine is an example.
Like many others in her town, Conard is frustrated by the lack of attention and corrective action in the months since the derailment. She thinks this inaction has something to do with the residents’ income levels and the town’s location.
“If this would have happened in Beverly Hills, people would be irate,” Conard said. “There would be policy change and funds for promoting the hazardous movement of materials in a more regulated fashion. What rich person wants this to happen in their backyard? We’re a rural community …. We are not a sacrifice zone.”
What’s driving the plastics industry? Beyond Plastics points to fossil fuel companies.
As motorists transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to those powered by batteries, oil and gas companies will continue to lean into the plastics industry because it’s a way for them to maintain profitability, Conard said.
She described plastics as the fossil fuel industry’s “Plan B.” The Center for International Environmental Law states that 99% of plastic is derived from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels. “So fossil fuels and plastics are the same thing,” Conard said.
The toxic chemicals used in PVC plastic production are only part of the problem. Another: PVC plastic can take hundreds of years to break down. Consider your toothbrush, for example. Every plastic toothbrush you’ve ever stuck in your mouth still exists, probably in a landfill somewhere, looking pretty much the same as it did when you tossed it in the trash. Some toothbrushes are bobbing in the Pacific Ocean. They’re regularly picked up during beach cleanups in Hawaii, according to a National Geographic report.
That report estimates that 1 billion toothbrushes — most of them plastic — are thrown away in the U.S. each year. They’ll be with us for a long time.
What’s the solution? Recycling? No, says Conard.
“Hundreds of chemicals go into making these plastics,” she said. “That makes them hard to recycle.”
The plastics industry is using a relatively new technology called “chemical recycling” that converts plastic waste to fuel or raw materials for newer plastic. Critics such as Conard say this sort of recycling creates toxic emissions and hazardous waste, and requires massive amounts of energy.
“When you recycle these chemically, it’s not recycling,” she said. “It’s melting them down to a dirty fuel that’s burned off — it’s syngas. They sell it to fracking companies, they use it in bitcoin mining.”
Conard sees only one solution: Banning the use of plastic products made with vinyl chloride. There are alternatives to plastic — for example, she said, using stainless steel and copper pipes instead of PVC pipe.
“We’ve known [vinyl chloride] is a carcinogen for 49 years,” Conard said. “If we’re not going to regulate rail traffic, we have no other choice than to ban this stuff. It’s the best option.”