Toxic Ties: Fossil Fuels, Plastic Pollution, and Inequality
Lawyer and activist Heather McTeer Toney on plastics, pollution, inequality, and nature
I'm delighted to introduce my first guest editor of 2024, Heather McTeer Toney. Heather, the daughter of a civil rights attorney and public school teacher, has been fighting for environmental justice for decades.
When she was only 27, she was elected mayor of her hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. She became the youngest person to hold that position, as well as the first African American and woman. In her two terms as mayor, she helped the city emerge from debt and focused on repairing the city’s infrastructure, including cleaning up the city’s water supply. In 2014, Heather became the Regional Administrator for Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Southeast Region. Then, I met her when she was serving as the senior director for Moms Clean Air Force, an organization that helps moms (and dads) lobby against pollution and climate change.
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Last year, Heather released her first book, Before the Street Lights Come On: Black America’s Call for Climate Solutions. In it, she calls for immediate climate action in and for marginalized communities. Black Americans are twice as likely to be hospitalized or even die from climate-related causes. Because of that, they're best suited to spearhead the campaign for climate justice, she argues.
In April, Heather became the Executive Director of Beyond Petrochemicals, "tackling the oil and gas industry at their gut by recognizing the next move is into petrochemicals—the product they need to make more plastics,” she says. “To add insult to injury, their plan is to place or expand petrochemical facilities in the geographic footprint of communities that have been overburdened by climate pollution for generations. It’s morally wrong and if left unchecked, has the ability to erase years of climate progress.”
Take it away, Heather!
Plastics are ubiquitous to our life but most of them can't biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller and smaller pieces, known as microplastics, which can remain in the environment for centuries. Today, we’re finding microplastics everywhere, from raindrops to sea salt to human breast milk. There is no place on earth untouched by petrochemical pollution, and scientists are increasingly concerned about its impacts on our health and that of nature.
That’s why I’m encouraged by the momentum I see across the globe towards moving away from plastics. Beyond Petrochemicals was founded by former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg to block the construction of new petrochemical plants that churn out plastics, chemical fertilizers, and packaging at the expense of the communities around them and our natural world. At Beyond Petrochemicals, we give out small grants to local grassroots groups who are concerned about these new facilities coming online in their backyards.
Climate and environmental advocacy can often feel isolating. It’s discouraging to think you’re the only one fighting a huge battle against an enemy you can’t see; but you're not. Many different people are in fighting back against climate injustice and that there are wins all around us. As someone who works with communities to help them engage with climate advocacy, normalizing climate change as part of our everyday conversation is key to finding solutions that fit everyday people.
Burning fossil fuels, along with gas leaks from wells and pipelines, produces the carbon dioxide and methane that are the main drivers of climate change. But some fossil fuels aren't burned; instead, they are used to create the petrochemicals. These petrochemicals aren’t an important source of heat-trapping gases that cause climate change, but they are the building block for plastic production. As plastics are produced -- and again when they break down -- they can release harmful chemicals into the ground and water that can cause a range of serious health problems, from hormonal disruptions to cancers.
As with climate change, negotiations addressing the plastics crisis need to prioritize the voices of frontline community members who are most affected by this crisis; and yet more than 140 fossil fuel and chemical industry lobbyists were admitted to participate in the Plastics Treaty talks meeting in Nairobi. That’s more than the participants of 70 countries combined.
That's why, during the talks, we worked with Nigerian singer-songwriter and activist Burna Boy to craft a statement calling for the halt of petrochemical pollution. “Today, I earnestly beseech the leaders of governments worldwide to recognize the gravity of the situation and commit to curbing plastic production, thereby ending the needless poisoning of communities across the globe,” he said.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
I really love to be outside and I think that any time is a good time to immerse yourself in nature, whether it’s a city park, a forest, or a coastline! Sometimes just taking a moment to recognize the beauty of our natural environment and what it means to exist alongside it can be a powerful weapon of advocacy for climate and environmental issues.
Breaking stereotypes about Black people enjoying outdoor activities is work as well. Just seeing ourselves touring a national park or camping helps change the narrative about “who” is an environmentalist and helps us see the environment through a different lens. That is why I love the work the national non-profit Outdoor Afro is doing in this space, working to “reconnect Black people and Black communities to nature year-round.”
Climate change and environmental pollution impact everyone, but they don’t do so equally. Heather's work highlights the importance of empowering those most affected to advocate for solutions for their communities.
By supporting these efforts, we demonstrate our commitment to love and justice, values that many of us connect with our faith. As Heather eloquently puts it, "As a Christian believer, I feel it's my duty to cherish and protect the Earth, a precious gift from God." I couldn’t agree more!