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Press Release: First-Ever Study Reveals the Hard Truths Behind Soft Drinks’ Plastic Bottles: Beverage Industry Supply Chain Riddled with Carcinogens, Emissions and Contamination

First-Ever Study Reveals the Hard Truths Behind Soft Drinks’ Plastic Bottles: Beverage Industry Supply Chain Riddled With Carcinogens, Emissions and Contamination

New report from Defend Our Health and Beyond Petrochemicals shows how PET plastic bottles are threatening public health, environmental justice, and climate progress in the U.S.  

Portland, ME and New York, NY (May 23, 2023) – Today – ahead of the global plastics treaty negotiations in Paris –  Defend our Health and the Beyond Petrochemicals campaign released a new report, Hidden Hazards: The Chemical Footprint of a Plastic Bottle, unmasking the shocking hazards posed by a seemingly innocuous everyday item: the plastic bottle. This report reveals the health, environmental, and climate threats caused throughout the lifecycle of common plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate or PET – from the hazardous air emissions released in the petrochemical manufacturing process to the cancer-causing toxic chemicals leaked in the consumption and final waste stages. The report also unveils how chemical manufacturers and beverage companies continue to perpetuate environmental racism to produce PET plastic bottles. 

Worldwide, the beverage industry buys more than 500 billion plastic bottles annually – nearly a million per minute – and beverage companies in the United States are responsible for producing about 100 billion of these plastic bottles for their products. The Coca-Cola company is one of the largest corporate consumers of PET plastic bottles globally. Making PET requires hundreds of chemicals, including ethylene oxide (EtO), the most potent cancer-causing chemical emitted by chemical manufacturers, and antimony, which has been found to disproportionately impact Black and Latinx communities. Chemical manufacturing as a whole also consumes more energy than other industries and emits more greenhouse gasses than any other industrial sector except for steel and cement. As a result, at every major step in its lifecycle, the plastic bottle poses wide-ranging hazards to health, environmental justice, and the climate:

Making the Bottle

1. Ethylene Oxide (EtO) in the Air. Nearly 50% of all EtO production in the U.S. is connected to the PET supply chain. Emissions from chemical manufacturers that produce EtO expose an estimated three million people, largely on the Gulf Coast, to serious cancer risk, including breast cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia. Black and Latinx communities represent 64% of all U.S. residents who face serious cancer risk from living within six miles of EtO emissions from chemical manufacturing plants, while 41% of the U.S. population as a whole are people of color.

2. 1,4-Dioxane in Drinking Water. Production of PET plastic resin and polyester by petrochemical companies releases more cancer-causing 1,4-dioxane – a “forever chemical” that the US EPA designates as a likely carcinogen – to groundwater, drinking water, and air than any other industry. Wastewater discharges of 1,4-dioxane from PET plastic plants pollute drinking water sources in the Ohio River Valley and Southeast U.S.

Storing & Drinking from the Bottle

3. Antimony in Food and Beverages. Antimony is one of at least 150 chemicals that can escape from the 100 billion bottled beverages made by U.S. beverage companies each year. Antimony exposure has been linked to cancer and toxic effects on organs, such as the liver. Black and Latinx communities face greater exposure to antimony than white populations, with nearly double the exposure in some geographical areas. 

Discarding the Bottle

4. Benzene and Styrene in Recycling. Mechanical recycling of plastic bottles releases toxic cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and styrene that may later escape from bottles into beverages, which could increase even more with more recycled content in new bottles. 

5. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls from Incineration. Burning PET as a method of disposal or to generate energy releases toxic chemicals into the environment, including polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls (several of which are cancer-causing), and heavy metals. Further, plastic waste in the environment concentrates harmful pollutants and breaks down into microplastics that enter the food chain.  

“Hidden beneath the rising tide of plastic bottles live numerous hazards endangering our well-being, the planet, and the communities where plastic chemicals are produced,” said Mike Belliveau, Executive Director of Defend Our Health. “From production to disposal, PET plastic pollutes our air, water, food and recycling—all while worsening environmental racism and the climate crisis. The beverage industry must detoxify its supply chain and wean itself off of fossil-fueled plastics.” 

“The beverage industry continues to produce hundreds of billions of plastic bottles every year from petrochemicals, pumping pointless pollution into neighboring communities,” said Heather McTeer Toney, Executive Director of Beyond Petrochemicals. “More often than not, low-income and communities of color are at the receiving end of these non-essential toxic chemicals, elevating cancer rates, poisoning people, and limiting access to a decent quality of life. To end the world’s reliance on dirty fossil fuels and put an end to poisoning our people and planet, the beverage industry must act immediately to remove harmful chemicals from their processes and work to replace plastic bottles with safer, more reusable alternatives.”

Hidden Hazards also reveals how the demand for plastic bottles perpetuates environmental racism and income inequality, largely in the Gulf Coast and Southeast U.S. 57% of PET supply-chain chemical plants in the U.S. are in communities where the proportion of residents of color exceeds the national average and 83% of those plants are located in low-income communities where the proportion of residents who are low-income exceeds the national average. For example, the five worst chemical manufacturers of EtO pollution are located in Texas and Louisiana, including Indorama in Port Neches, Texas, Formosa Plastics in Point Comfort, Texas and Lotte Chemical in Westlake, Louisiana. These disparities are seen throughout the lifecycle of a bottle: 79% of the 73 municipal solid waste incinerators in the U.S. where PET bottles that are not properly recycled end up are located in Black, Brown, and low-income communities. 

The beverage industry’s addiction to plastic bottles is not only poisoning people but also worsening the climate crisis. The report shows that with 99% of PET plastics made from oil and gas, PET production is fueling the demand for fossil fuels despite the growth of renewable energy. The PET plastic supply chain emits nearly nine million metric tons of greenhouse gasses in North America every year, roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of two million cars. With PET production projected to double in the next decade, so will its devastating climate impacts.

Hidden Hazards uses The Coca-Cola Company as a case study throughout the report to illustrate the chemical footprint of plastic bottles. Coca-Cola sold more carbonated soft drinks in the U.S. than any other company in 2021 and has been named the number one global plastic polluter for five years running by BreakFreeFromPlastic for its name-brand litter. The Coca-Cola Company buys and sells more than 125 billion plastic bottles every year, consuming about 6% of all PET plastic produced worldwide. 

Finally, the report outlines recommendations for market leaders and the federal government – those in the best position to reduce the chemical footprint of a plastic bottle at scale – to implement safer solutions that will better protect the health of people and the planet. The report urges:

Beverage brand owners to:

1. Immediately require PET resin suppliers to end all use of cancer-causing antimony and cobalt compounds as processing aids or additives in the production of PET plastic resin used for bottles and other food contact materials;

2. Require PET resin suppliers to achieve zero discharge of cancer-causing 1,4-dioxane to all drinking water sources as soon as practicable;

3. Require upstream chemical suppliers for PET plastic to virtually eliminate all air emissions of cancer-causing ethylene oxide as soon as practicable;

4. Offset environmental injustice by investing in community-based programs that benefit residents who live near plants along PET chemical supply chain;

5. By 2025, assess the hazards of all chemical substances used or produced to make PET

6. By 2030, replace at least 50% of plastic bottles with reusable and refillable containers that are GreenScreen Certified™ for reusable food service; and

7. By 2040, phase out all use of virgin fossil PET plastic in favor of safer solutions, including more just and sustainable materials.

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to: 

8. Strengthen its proposed Hazardous Organic NESHAP rule to further reduce air emissions of ethylene oxide to achieve a greater than 90% reduction in population cancer risk for the more than 3.9 million predominantly Black and Brown residents that will still face serious excess cancer risk if the rule is adopted as proposed;

9. Determine that 1,4-dioxane in drinking water poses an unreasonable risk to human health in the risk evaluation soon to be issued under the Toxic Substances Control Act. This action should trigger risk management proposals to achieve zero discharge of 1,4-dioxane from PET plastics production plants.

US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to:

10. Declare that antimony in food and beverages is an unauthorized adulterant that requires immediate action by the PET plastics, beverage, and packaging industries to replace its use with safer alternatives by a date certain.

The full report Hidden Hazards: The Chemical Footprint of a Plastic Bottle can be found here.

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About Defend Our Health 

For more than 20 years, Defend Our Health has been fighting for the right of all people to thrive with equal access to safe food and drinking water, healthy homes, and products that are toxic-free and climate-friendly. As a nonprofit public health and social justice organization, Defend applies the best available science and engages impacted communities to persuade decision-makers in government and industry to support effective solutions. Find out more about our national and state-based work here.

About Beyond Petrochemicals 

Launched by Bloomberg Philanthropies in September 2022, Beyond Petrochemicals: People Over Pollution aims to halt the rapid expansion of petrochemical and plastic pollution in the United States. The campaign draws on the success of the Beyond Coal campaign, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, and Bloomberg’s Beyond Carbon campaign, to turbocharge existing efforts led by frontline communities to block the rapid expansion of 120+ petrochemical projects concentrated in three target geographies – Louisiana, Texas, and the Ohio River Valley. The campaign also works to establish stricter rules for existing petrochemical plants to safeguard the health of American communities. To date, Beyond Petrochemicals has helped raise awareness and lead timely collaboration efforts using its four pillars of community leadership, data and research, legislation and litigation, and stakeholder engagement to accelerate its goals. For more information, please visit us online and follow us on LinkedIn.

Media Contacts: 

Taylor Moore
tmoore@defendourhealth.org
(207) 699-5798

Marshall Cohen
mcohen@bloomberg.org
(646) 819-2611