Biofuels from discarded plastics pose health risks

In an effort to combat the climate crisis, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has introduced a biofuels program under the Toxic Substances Control Act that facilitates the approval of petroleum alternatives.

Apparently, the meaning of “biofuel” is as flexible as a plastic bag because the EPA only allowed Chevron to use discarded plastics as a fuel source, claiming that reusing this waste is environmentally friendly. The reality is far from that.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that the plastics industry will account for 20% of global oil consumption by 2050. While most plastic is made from natural gas, oil, also called crude oil, remains being an extremely common raw material to produce it.

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

a deadly by-product

More immediately alarming is that production of Chevron’s plastic-based fuel will generate toxic fumes, which will cause cancer in about 25% of people exposed to them. This number is so impressive that it seems less of a risk and more of a certainty.

For context, these fumes pose a higher cancer risk than lifetime smoking, even though cigarette smoke contains 7,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic. An EPA spokesman conceded that 25% was a conservative estimate; the risk is likely to be greater.

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

People don’t even have to use the plastic-based fuel to be exposed to its fumes, because simply living near a factory can pose a significant risk. A refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, is slated to produce the fuel.

Most people who live less than five kilometers from the industrial plant are black and low-income. This coincides with a long history of rising preventable health problems among minorities and poor people, who often live near factories, refineries and landfills.

legitimate biofuels

Looking for alternatives to petroleum is a good idea. While biofuels are not as clean as electric batteries, which are poised to become the main power source for cars of the future, some types produce only 14% of the greenhouse gases emitted by a typical vehicle. This isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The United States can produce biofuels at home. This would potentially mean lower imports of fossil fuels and less reliance on foreign oil. Additionally, some biofuels can be produced from discarded cooking oil and vegetable waste, further reducing their environmental impact.

A disadvantage of using biofuels is increased land use. In the United States, most used cooking oil is turned into animal feed, so using it as biofuel would mean growing more corn or soybeans for livestock. This translates into more deforestation and impacts on local wildlife.

Rebound effect of biofuels

Another problem is that the production of biofuels increases the world’s supply of fuel. While this sounds like a good thing, it actually means that gas and diesel prices will go down, which generally leads people to use more fossil fuels. This unfortunate phenomenon is called the rebound effect. When it costs less to drive, people take longer and more frequent trips.

A third, more complex problem is that producing biofuel from soybean or canola oil increases the value of these oils. As their prices rise, soap and food manufacturers begin to use more palm oil, leading to higher rates of tropical deforestation. Deforestation of rainforests to harvest palm oil contributes to very high emissions from harvesting machinery and overall tree thinning. It also devastates wildlife.

The EPA’s 2022 program under the Toxic Substances Control Act is excellent in theory. However, it falls short of its own guidelines in giving the green light to Chevron’s plastic-based fuel, which will generate toxic fumes and contribute greatly to climate change. Genuine biofuels made from plant or animal matter are better, but still not the greenest solution.

Electric vehicles are the second greenest option when it comes to transportation. The first, while not the answer people want to hear, is to use less fuel in the first place. In the end there is always the bike and the good old walk.


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