Stop Inviting Swindlers to Gut Environmental Protections and Craft Public Policy

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By FRANK CARINI

We’re methodically choking the life out of this planet because we embrace the deceit, deception, and dishonesty of swindlers, hustlers, and flimflammers.

In our bizarro world, people who don’t want to blowtorch the future are often seen as the enemy. Environmentalists are labeled radicals. Climate scientists are called greedy. Activists are treated like criminals. Liars are exalted. They’re paid handsomely. Their crimes are ignored. They’re elected president.

The shameless infect all levels of society and government. They lobby against policies and regulations that protect the environment and public health. To them and those they represent, the only thing that matters is that they profit.

Here in Rhode Island, for instance, we’ve been grappling with bans on plastic retail bags for nearly a decade. Banning them won’t solve the mounting pollution problem that is ravaging the planet, but it would make a difference, especially to marine life that mistakes them as jellyfish.

It’s an easy step in reducing the negative impact we’re having on the planet — humans after all thrived for centuries without these petroleum pouches — but tricksters are invited to spread disinformation. Their supporters provide a cover of fear, usually something about government overreach and the loss of freedom.

At a meeting in 2015, for example, when the Barrington Town Council was working to strengthen its bag ban ordinance by closing loopholes CVS and Shaw’s were exploiting, two council members tried to provide cover.

One referred to the ban as a feel-good vote that wouldn’t have an impact and was essentially a waste of time. She sarcastically argued that if the town is going to ban plastic bags then it should make Shaw’s pull all non-recyclable items from its shelves.

The other provider of cover offered this ignorant assessment: “The town doesn’t need to get involved in everyone’s daily lives.”

Neither is on the council now, and Barrington ultimately voted to strengthen its first-in-the-state bag ban.

Unfortunately, Rhode Island keeps inviting frauds to sell the virtues of bags, straws, single-use cutlery, and other plastic items that are playing a starring role in contamination that is invading every crack and crevice on the planet, including our bodies.

But there the American Chemistry Council representative stood Jan. 17, invited to give a presentation to a subcommittee of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Task Force to Tackle Plastics. He spread disinformation and propaganda with a touch of fear — i.e., he said wrapping bananas, potatoes, grapes, and cucumbers in plastic would reduce food waste and more effectively feed the world’s 7-plus billion.

He claimed alternatives to plastics come with higher costs, like greater greenhouse-gas emissions and more replacement litter. He failed to mention that this year alone the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. His presentation didn’t include pictures of turtles with straws in their noses or the stomachs of dead whales and birds filled with plastics.

His 30-minute sales pitch came across as a middle-school science fair project gone awry. He said placing grocery store grapes in plastic would “reduce the hazard of people slipping and falling on grapes.”

His PowerPoint presentation showed how a “modified atmosphere bag” can protect banana bunches. He claimed studies have shown that a cucumber not wrapped in plastic will last three days on a grocery store shelf or in a refrigerator — that actually sounds like a decent elementary-school science project — “before it looks like it’s getting all shriveled up and you don’t want to eat it anymore.”

Real science and studies, however, are beginning to unearth serious problems with the fact humans have plasticized the entire biosphere.

Despite being one of the most pervasive materials on the planet, plastic and its impact on human health remain poorly understood, even as exposure to the fossil fuel-derived material — 99 percent of plastic comes from fossil fuels — expands into new areas of the environment and food web.

A study published in February found that our narrow approach to assessing and addressing plastic impacts are inadequate and inappropriate. Its authors wrote that “making informed decisions that address plastic risks demands a full lifecycle approach to understand the full scope of its toxic impacts on human health.”

“At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses distinct risks to human health, arising from both exposure to plastic particles themselves and associated chemicals,” according to the report. “The majority of people worldwide are exposed at multiple stages of this lifecycle.”

The report noted, for example, that the 170 hydraulic fracturing (fracking) chemicals that are used to produce the main feedstocks for plastic have known human health impacts, including cancer, impairment of the immune system, and neurological, reproductive, and developmental toxicity.

Transforming fossil fuels into plastic bags and straws releases carcinogenic and other toxic substances into the air. Also, as the world’s growing collection of plastics break down, they are accumulating in food webs and water supplies.

A recent story in The Guardian exposed the deceptive tactics the American Chemistry Council uses to fight environmental and public health protections: criticize the science behind such rules; sow doubt about toxicology; wield influence with political officials through campaign donations; and claim consumers will pay more and businesses will suffer.

American Chemistry Council lobbyists and representatives roam the hallways of the Statehouse for the first six months of every year. Perhaps the next time one of them testifies at a hearing to kill or stall a bill that inevitably attempts to protect the environment and public health, an elected Rhode Island official will call them out when he or she spouts disinformation and exaggerated claims.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.