This story was published in partnership with PRI’s The World.
MUSTANG ISLAND, Texas — Jace Tunnell shuffled forward near the water’s edge, head bent. He was hunting for something that shouldn’t be on this beach near Corpus Christi, and he kept finding it. Hidden in the sand — white, tan, nearly translucent — were tiny plastic pellets.
These are the products of plastics producers, intended to be turned into bottles, bags and countless other items. As much as anything one-tenth of an inch across could sum up the modern world, they do. A marvel of chemical engineering. A convenient material that will long outlast us. A global waste predicament of daunting scope.
Plastic waste is piling up, increasing amounts of it going to landfills as U.S. recycling programs — dependent on Asian countries that no longer want our scrap — struggle to adjust. In March the United Nations, “alarmed” by the environmental and public health consequences of plastic items intended to be used once and thrown away, urged countries to “take comprehensive action.”
Against this backdrop, the United States is about to make a whole lot more of the stuff.
Production of the most common plastic, polyethylene, is on track to jump more than 40 percent by 2028 in the U.S., according to research firm S&P Global Platts. That’s 8 million metric tons per year more than in 2018 — roughly the amount, coincidentally, that scientists estimate is annually flowing into the oceans now.
In the last two years alone, companies such as ExxonMobil and Dow have built or started construction on at least 17 new U.S. polyethylene plants and lines, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of corporate plans. It’s a surge largely centered along the coasts of Texas and Louisiana.
More plants are likely on the way as firms capitalize on the country’s deluge of cheap natural gas, a key feedstock for plastic. That’s a major ripple effect of the U.S. fossil fuel boom, which has also led to soaring exports of crude oil and liquefied natural gas at a perilous moment in the global fight to contain a climate crisis.
The extra polyethylene is far beyond what the plastic-heavy U.S. market can use. Analysts expect it will mostly be exported to Asia — where countries are already so overwhelmed with plastic waste that they can’t handle the levels they have now.
The International Energy Agency warned last fall that the world is on pace to double the amount of this waste in the oceans by 2030 and more than quadruple it by 2050.
“Without ambitious action being taken globally, particularly in regions in which plastic demand is growing rapidly, current trends of plastic leakage are unlikely even to slow, let alone reverse,” the organization wrote in an October report.
Amid mounting opposition to single-use plastic, companies that make it or sell goods wrapped in it say they are working on waste management and recycling in developing countries where a flood of new product is headed. The American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents manufacturers in sectors including plastics, said the new U.S. production is needed to serve a rapidly increasing population worldwide.
“Most of this growth will occur in less affluent parts of the globe. This means there will be a critical need to get more food and goods safely to more people in more places,” the group wrote in a statement. “Second, more people will move out of poverty, creating increased demand for more medicines, personal care products, clean water, fuel-efficient automobiles, and energy-efficient homes — and all of these things rely on plastics.”
But solving the waste problem will be no simple matter. Even quantifying it is hard. Tunnell, with the University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute, wanted to understand one piece of it — only the pellets, and just those on the Gulf Coast. No one was tracking it. In November, he launched a project to get counts from people visiting bays and beaches, representing everything they can find in 10 minutes.
What he’s learning as the numbers flood in: “Once you get down on your knees and start looking for them, they’re everywhere.”
The plastic creek
Ronnie Hamrick, 65, splashed into a stream in his black waders, dipping a sieve into the water. Out it came with pellets — not a shock. Three-and-a-half years into sampling here, he’d have been more surprised if he didn’t get any plastic.
Up the hill and across the road loomed his former employer, a 2,500-acre petrochemical complex owned by Formosa Plastics.
The Taiwan-based company is a significant player in the U.S. plastics rush. It’s expanding a plant in Baton Rouge. It wants to build a large new complex elsewhere in Louisiana. And it expects to finish construction later this year on additional plastics lines at its Texas compound between the creek Hamrick was sampling and a bay, in a semi-rural area called Point Comfort.
The Texas site, which opened in 1983, is a major local employer with a history of pollution and worker-safety problems. Among them are an explosion in 2005 that injured 16 workers, leaks of harmful chemicals that prompted a federal consent decree in 2009 and more unplanned releases of volatile organic compounds — a category that includes carcinogens — than all but four industrial sites in the state in 2017.
Here, around Point Comfort, is where people participating in Tunnell’s project are finding the most pellets, also called “nurdles.” The bay system beside Houston, two hours northeast and home to numerous plastics plants, comes in second. Pellets pose threats in the environment because dangerous bacteria can grow on them, toxic chemicals can stick to them and marine animals mistake them as food, to their detriment. (What escaped pellets and other plastic detritus means for human health is an unsettled, and unsettling, question.)
So many pellets are in the water and embedded in the shore around Formosa that Diane Wilson, 70, a persistent critic of the company who grew up shrimping in the area, rounded up more than 3,000 when she did a 10-minute collection for Tunnell in May. Before Tunnell decided that volunteers should stick to what they could scoop up with their hands, Wilson snagged even higher numbers with a net.
“In one minute,” she said, “I found over 8,000 pellets.”
The EPA documented a pellet problem there in 2010 but did not levy a fine, according to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. Wilson thought residents should start gathering their own evidence. In January 2016, well before Tunnell launched his project, Wilson asked Hamrick and a few others to help her look around the plant, bag examples of plastic they found and record the date.
In 2017, more than 1,600 samples later, she sued Formosa in federal court.
The federal Clean Water Act permits this type of complaint, a chance for citizens to persuade the courts to enforce regulations when state and federal agencies fall down on the job. With help from lawyers who aren’t charging her for their services, Wilson and the tiny San Antonio Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, an advocacy group, alleged that Formosa was illegally discharging pellets and plastic powder into the creek and bay surrounding it.
Environmentalists across the country are watching. If the plaintiffs win, activists in other communities might sue, too.
Formosa declined to comment for this story, citing the lawsuit. Its lawyers, defending its efforts on pellet containment, said in court that the company is “dedicated to being a good steward of the environment.” The pellets around its complex, they argued, could simply represent 23 years of small discharges allowed under its permit.
The state’s environmental regulatory agency ultimately took enforcement action against the company. In 2016 — after repeated complaints by Wilson, her attorneys say — investigators concluded that the pellet discharges violated the company’s permit. But the agency didn’t levy a fine against Formosa until January of this year, after finding that the discharges had not stopped.
The company saw in the state’s $121,875 penalty an opportunity to avoid a much bigger hit. Though the state’s fine covered just six violations of its permit, it meant the $200 million lawsuit about hundreds of alleged permit violations must be dismissed, the company’s lawyers told the federal judge in the case.
“Plaintiffs’ claims are now moot,” Formosa argued in its motion, filed two days after the state approved the fine.
Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt didn’t buy it. He scheduled the trial.
‘A major concern’
Much of the plastic fouling the oceans comes from packaging or other items that weren’t recycled, landfilled or burned after people used them. But pellets — the plastic that never got turned into products — are an enduring part of the equation.
A 1972 study published in the journal Science said they were “abundant in the coastal waters of southern New England.” In 1990, the EPA told Congress “the high concentrations of the pellets found in the world’s oceans are a major concern.” Two years later, the agency said it found pellets in harbors across the country, including more than 700,000 in the Houston Ship Channel. More recent efforts to quantify the problem suggest it persists worldwide: Eunomia Research & Consulting, a U.K. firm focused on waste in marine environments, estimated in 2016 that 230,000 metric tons of plastic pellets slip into the oceans every year. (That’s so many of them, it’s in the trillions.)
Regulators, though, have often let companies handle — or not handle — the problem themselves. That was what trade groups hoped for in 1990, when it became clear the EPA was starting to investigate.
“It may still be possible to institute voluntary programs to address the plastic pellets issue,” an official with the Society of the Plastics Industry, now called the Plastics Industry Association, wrote in an internal memo that year, “but unless this occurs, it is likely that EPA will act independently.”
The industry started a voluntary program the very next year. Called Operation Clean Sweep, it asks firms to pledge to contain their pellets, flakes and powder. The program suggests steps companies can take, but all they need do to become a partner is submit their name, address, phone number and email. Among the partners: Formosa.
The Plastics Industry Association said in a statement that the program “became the gold standard for companies.” The trade group, pointing to a 2015 study that found a sharp drop in pellets in the North Atlantic Ocean since the 1980s, credited Operation Clean Sweep. (A 2017 study by one of the same researchers said manufacturers’ efforts could be the reason, but she could not rule out the possibility that the decrease followed changes in where pellets are produced and processed.)
Conrad MacKerron, a senior vice president with the corporate-responsibility advocacy group As You Sow, said he was struck by how little the program disclosed. Have participants had spills? What are they doing to prevent them? How has spillage changed over time? His group asked three major plastics producers to report such information. Two, ExxonMobil and Chevron Phillips Chemical, agreed this spring to do it. (The third, Dow, told the Center it will report pellet loss starting next year.)
“Companies control this,” MacKerron said. “If they’re careful, they should be able to stop the flow.”
The American Chemistry Council, which co-manages Operation Clean Sweep, said in a statement that it will require all its members’ U.S. plastics facilities to participate in a new, more stringent level of the program by 2020 — one with performance reporting, annual training and other requirements. The trade group said it will release occasional data on pellet loss “as the program builds critical mass.”
California appears to be the lone state that sets minimum standards for containing pellets and mandates that companies develop management plans, requirements that the American Chemistry Council said it supported. The EPA’s industrial stormwater permits, by contrast, merely instruct companies to “minimize” their discharges of pellets. Only in California has the EPA taken enforcement action against companies with pellet spills in recent years.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, is asking other states to update their rules. Pellet pollution “really just comes down to the lack of requirements” in companies’ permits, said Miyoko Sakashita, the group’s oceans program director.
To Judith Enck, who served as an EPA regional administrator during the Obama administration, the Clean Water Act and other laws already on the books are potent weapons. But regulators rarely choose to wield them against pellets, she said.
“It’s not hard to figure out where these releases are happening,” said Enck, now a senior fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College in Vermont. “It’s obvious. It’s in plain sight. And the vast majority of regulators are turning a blind eye.”
‘Indispensable to modern life’
The morning before the Formosa trial in March, Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey, who heads the all-volunteer waterkeeper group that’s the chief plaintiff, borrowed a goat trailer and hooked it up to her 1996 Chevy truck. In Wilson’s barn were 2,428 samples of plastic collected over the previous three years — pellets in bags and powder in water bottles, most stowed in large plastic containers. She had to get them to the federal courthouse in Victoria, a 40-mile drive from her home in Seadrift.
With nowhere else to put it, she parked the truck and nearly overflowing trailer in a hotel lot close to the court. One of her lawyers, David Bright, looked it over and said he’d never had a case with so much physical evidence.
“The takeaway for me is this: If people are fed up about what’s going on with the environment, it’s good to take notice of it, it’s good to complain — but if you really want to get serious about it, this is what you do,” said Bright, recruited by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid to help with the case.
The next day, people packed into the plaintiffs’ side of the courtroom. Interested locals. Louisiana residents opposing Formosa’s plans for a new plastics complex in that state. Vietnamese immigrants trying to help people harmed by a toxic spill from a Formosa plant in that country.
Behind the table of Formosa attorneys, the defendants’ side of the room was empty.
Amy Johnson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the judge in her opening statement that documents show Formosa was aware at least as far back as 2000 that its pellets and powder were getting into the creek and bay. The contractor Formosa has paid the last few years to clean pellets out of the waterways, she said, filled bags with somewhere between 7 billion and 75 billion of them — a rough estimate because no one tried to count — and yet Wilson and the other volunteers keep finding more. A stormwater engineer who analyzed Formosa’s complex for the plaintiffs concluded that the company’s systems aren’t up to the job, Johnson said.
Stephen Ravel, one of Formosa’s lawyers, put on a defense not only of Formosa but plastic writ large.
The company is “an important and positive force in Calhoun County,” he said. It employs 2,500 people, supports 4,000 contractors, accounts for a large share of local property tax revenue and produces a product, Ravel said, that is “literally indispensable to modern life.” Plastic cuts down on food waste that would otherwise emit climate-changing gases in landfills, he said. (It also emits those same gases as it molders in waterways, which he didn’t discuss.) Formosa’s plastics are “benign, useful, nontoxic,” he said. (An expert for the plaintiffs said some of the pellets and powder found near Formosa had mercury sticking to them, which Ravel disputed.)
Should the judge think billions of pellets is a big number, he noted, “Formosa makes one trillion pellets every day.”
Another Formosa lawyer, Diana Nichols, outlined what the company has done to keep its product on site, including fine mesh screens on stormwater drains and 11 employees spread across three polyethylene units whose full-time job is to find pellets and clean them up.
Hoyt, the judge, heard from a stream of witnesses for the plaintiffs. “I was fairly shocked by what I saw,” said Michael Mang, a surveyor and former commercial shrimper from Point Comfort, describing the first time he observed white powder around a Formosa discharge point on the bay. Hamrick, who retired from Formosa in 2005 and collected most of the samples, put it this way as he explained why he never attempted to pick up everything he saw: “You’re just surrounded by pellets.”
The new wave of plastic
As both sides in the case await Hoyt’s decision, U.S. plastic production keeps growing.
More than 20 new plants and expansions — including the 17 for polyethylene — are under construction in the U.S. to make plastic or process the petrochemicals used in their manufacture, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis. That’s on top of a similar number built in the last two-and-a-half years, and companies have proposed at least 16 more to come. Then there are the plants, pipelines and other infrastructure added farther upstream to handle the natural gas.
“We have not had a wave of investment in petrochemicals like this in quite some time, if ever,” said Jennifer Van Dinter, head of natural gas liquids and petrochemical analytics at S&P Global Platts.
The plastics industry employs nearly 1 million people in the U.S. Last year, according to S&P Global Platts data, the country made nearly as much polyethylene as all Middle Eastern countries combined.
Plastics’ supporters call it an environmentally friendly material that requires less water to make, uses less energy to transport and puts less pressure on the climate than substitutes like paper. But as the world keeps making more, it’s packing a bigger global-warming punch.
A new study by two researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, said greenhouse gas emissions over the plastic life cycle are on track to nearly quadruple in 2050 compared to 2015. Already that equates to the climate impact of 189 coal power plants, according to estimates from a separate report by advocacy organizations such as the Center for International Environmental Law, the Environmental Integrity Project and FracTracker Alliance.
What happens to the plastic the new plants make — once consumers are done with it — is its own environmental dilemma.
“We’re already overflowing the sink because our waste collections systems can’t collect it,” said Jan Dell, a chemical engineer working on plastic-pollution problems.
In January, a group largely made up of plastics companies formed the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, committing more than $1 billion to help improve waste management. (Among the partners: Formosa.) Its first priority has been Asian countries.
Froilan Grate, who works on zero-waste efforts in the Philippines, said he appreciates the attention. But he fears any waste-management assistance will fall far short of the full cost as more and more plastic-wrapped items hit store shelves in his country.
“It’s very hard for municipalities to manage this low-value plastic,” said Grate, Asia Pacific regional coordinator with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “For us, it’s really critical that we reduce the amount of plastic that is being introduced in the first place.”
More than 8,000 miles away in Texas, Tunnell headed out of his university office in Port Aransas and rumbled south in a noisy utility terrain vehicle to the Mustang Island beach. He doesn’t just manage his pellet data collection project, called Nurdle Patrol. He goes out to look several times a week himself.
No companies make pellets near Mustang Island, which is two hours south of Point Comfort. But they’re coming. Twenty miles west, across two interconnected bays, workers are building a plant in Corpus Christi to produce 1.1 million metric tons of polyethylene terephthalate per year. A few miles closer, ExxonMobil wants to build its own massive production facility with the Saudi-based SABIC.
Tunnell’s surveys on the beach are a baseline, a snapshot of escaped pellets before new development hits. Hundreds of thousands washed ashore here last September from parts unknown — that’s what inspired him to start Nurdle Patrol two months later — but normally he sees far fewer than what people on the hunt in Point Comfort or Houston report. Still, over several hours one morning in late March, in every spot he stopped his vehicle, all he had to do was walk to the high-tide line and look around. They were always there.
They’re about the size of a lentil, most of them, so insubstantial that several blew out of his hand as soon as he picked them up. Some were tan from baking in the sun. It wasn’t hard to see why a bird looking for seeds would snap these imposters up.
When Tunnell sends monthly pellet-count information to participants, he loops in regulators. Maybe, he thinks, they will use the information to cut off the spigot. Otherwise, as plastics plants multiply along the coast, it could get worse.
The gulf wind swirled around him. Eyes down, he reached for another pellet.
Reporter Tik Root contributed to this article.