‘Biofuels’ from discarded plastics pose health risks

16 Maret 2023

Photo: Pixabay/Regenwolke0

In an effort to combat the climate crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States had unveiled a biofuels program under the Toxic Substances Control Act that makes it easier to approve petroleum alternatives.

Apparently, the meaning of “biofuel” is as flexible as a plastic bag because the EPA has just permitted Chevron to use discarded plastics as a fuel source, alleging that reusing this waste is eco-friendly. The reality is far from that.

The U.N. Environment Programme estimates the plastics industry will account for 20% of global oil consumption by 2050. Although most plastic is made from natural gas, petroleum — also called crude oil — is still an extremely common raw material for producing it.

Burning plastic in any form releases harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Many studies suggest it is even worse for the environment than burning fossil fuels. The new plastic fuel production will contribute to atmospheric warming, directly contradicting the EPA’s decision to use alternative fuels to slow climate change.

A deadly byproduct

More immediately alarming is producing the plastic-based Chevron fuel will create toxic fumes, causing cancer in an estimated 25% of people exposed to them. That number is so staggering that it feels less like a risk and more like a certainty.

For context, these fumes pose a higher cancer risk than a lifelong smoking habit, even though cigarette smoke contains 7,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic. An EPA spokesperson admitted 25% was a conservative estimate — the risk is likely higher.

The fuel Chevron plans to produce could also cause developmental problems in children as well as damage to the liver, kidney, spleen, blood, reproductive system and nervous system.

People do not even have to use the plastic-based fuel to be exposed to its fumes, because simply living near a factory could pose a significant danger. A refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, is slated to produce the fuel.

Most people living within three miles of the industrial plant are Black and have low incomes. This falls in line with a long history of increased preventable health problems in minorities and poor people, who often live near factories, refineries and dump sites.

Legitimate biofuels

Looking for petroleum alternatives is a good idea. Although biofuels are not as clean as electric batteries — which are poised to become the main energy source for future cars — certain types produce only 14% of the greenhouse gas a typical vehicle emits. That is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction.

The U.S. can produce biofuels right at home. That would potentially mean lower fossil fuel imports and less reliance on foreign oil. Additionally, it is possible to make some biofuels out of discarded cooking oil and plant waste, lowering their environmental impact even further.

One downside of using biofuels is increased land use. In the United States, most spent cooking oil becomes livestock feed, so using it for biofuel would mean growing more corn or soybeans for livestock. That translates to more deforestation and impacts on local wildlife.

Another issue is producing biofuels increases the global fuel supply. Although this sounds like a good thing, it actually means gasoline and diesel prices will fall, which typically prompts people to use more fossil fuels. This unfortunate phenomenon is called the rebound effect. When it costs less to drive, people will go on farther and more frequent trips.

A third, more complex problem is making biofuel from soy or canola oil increases the value of these oils. As their price increases, food and soap manufacturers start using more palm oil instead, leading to higher rates of tropical deforestation. Cutting down rainforests to harvest palm oil contributes to very high emissions from the machinery used for harvesting and the fewer trees overall. It also devastates wildlife.

The EPA’s 2022 program under the Toxic Substances Control Act is great in theory. However, it falls short of its own guidelines by greenlighting Chevron’s plastic-based fuel, which will create toxic fumes and contribute heavily to climate change. Genuine biofuels made from plant or animal matter are better but still not the most environmentally friendly solution.

Electric vehicles are the second greenest option when it comes to transportation. The first — although it is not the answer people want to hear — is to use less fuel in the first place. In the end, there is always cycling and good, old-fashioned walking.

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