When a 150-car frieght train derailed on Febuary 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, crew workers for the Norfolk Southern Railroad had to release and burn hundreds of thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride to avoid risking the uncontrolled release of killer gasses into the atmosphere.
Before the controlled release of at least five tanker-cars-worth of vinyl chloride, the derailment caused days-long fires in East Palestine. At least 700 families in small 5000-resident town had to evacuate because of the accident and resulting chemical spill.
Toxic chemicals like vinyl chloride are routinely moved around the U.S. putting towns and cities at risk, because industry relies on these chemicals to make PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, a widely used plastic, that spells trouble for the environment and human health.
PVC can be found everywhere and has been used commerically for the last century in coating plastics in shoes, medical devices, drainage pipes, fabrics, windows, floor tiles, tents, car interiors, blood bags, and so much more.
It's also a health hazard. This report by NPR dives deep into health concerns around the chemical (and others present at the crash).
Basically, vinyl chloride is a classified human carcinogen and as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, is linked to central nervous system effects, liver damage, and cancer in liver, brain, lungs, and blood. On a less long-term level, it can also cause sleepiness and dizziness.
The train held a slew of hazardous chemicals, and as Grist puts it, together the health and environmental risks underscore the dangers of our modern plastics boom.
While the derailment happened over a week ago, news is still developing. As of Feburary 10, the EPA says hazardous materials have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters in the area surrounding the derailment. However, the agency is continuing to monitor air and confirms that so far levels are not of concern.
Still, residents of the town report feeling burning sensations and finding ill and dead animals including deceased fish. Four lawsuits have already been filed against Norfolk for the economic lost, emotional distress, and exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Authorities in Ohio and surrounding states are monitoring water and enacting precautions amid concern that the deadly chemical has entered the Ohio River Basin, the source of water for 25 million people.
Train derailments are not uncommon. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, a branch of the federal Department of Transportation, more than 250 trains have derailed in the last decade with more than half of them carrying hazardous chemicals. In recent years, railroad unions report that the industry has gotten even riskier.
Plastics are “so pervasive in our economy,” Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and current president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics said via Grist. “Wherever a range of plastic products are being made, you will often have to transport vinyl chloride to the facility, and it’s not without its risks, as we’ve seen this past week.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
What are the alternatives?
“What if companies could address these environmental issues now without changing how they operate?” a video by Colorado and Wisconsin-based startup Renegade Plastics asks. Renegade creates an alternative to PVC-coated fabrics, one of the many items PVC is currently integral to. The company seeks to totally eliminate them, and build a foundation for the circular fabric economy.
“As a major user of plastic fabrics, I was always looking for a more environmentally-friendlty material to use in our tents,” Tony Ehrbar, CEO and co-founder of Renegade said. Previously, his first company, American Tent, relied on PVC-coated fabrics for their durability and quality, but because of the PVC’s carbon intensity and the harm to human health and the environment it can cause, Ehrbar wanted to pioneer a change.
Renegade scales by working with existing fabric techniques and equipment while being easier to work with than PVC. Unlike PVC which is not recyclable, Renegade Fabrics are accepted by over 60% of U.S. recyclers, and as their Head of Sustainability and Grants, Katie Kolesar, confirms, no special recycling program is required.
Currently, the startup's fabrics are in ski lift seats and agricultural hoop houses, but the startup hopes to expand, swapping more industrial fabrics, one yard at a time.
Another startup hoping to change the toxicity of plastics is Great Wrap, a company based out of Australia that makes an alternative to shrink wrap, using potato waste instead of the conventional PVC.
According to the startup, they have the only compostable stretch wrap made from food waste. Because of how toxic PVC is, its usage in food packaging is restricted. Countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand, have even banned its usage around food.
In addition to being better for health, Great Wrap is completely compostable, which is a win in the fight against climate change.
“If all of the world’s single-use plastic were replaced with compostable bioplastic made from food waste, forestry waste, wastewater, seaweed, algae, or other bio-waste materials — we could have an immediate and profound impact on climate change and plastic pollution,” the company says on its website.
Bucha Bio also hopes to put plastic (and animal leather) in the past. Their “Hikari” is a “completely new material,” that the company claims is “unlike anything else.” What makes it so special? According to Bouch Bio’s founder and CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw, it's kombucha. But instead of tea, the company is brewing up plastic.
“Our core technology and one of our key ingredients come from kombucha,” Hinshaw said in a video. “It contains a bacteria which converts sugar into cellulose. This bacteria even weaves the cellulose into beautiful patterns, which we then combine with plant-based biopolymers and additives to create our holistic, sustainable materials.”
According to Kinshaw, this material is infinitely renewable: “as long as there’s sun in the sky to make sugar, our bacteria can convert that to cellulose.”
Bucha Bio hopes to apply this system of circularity to the plastic industry. Hikari is a translucent plant-based material that has the potential to replace plastic in footwear, apparel, and automotive, which all traditionally include PVC. Hikari is currently in development, and Bucha Bio says it will be market ready in the summer of 2024 to select brand partners.
The Houston-based startup is also planning to move into plastic extrusion, the process by which materials like PVC are molded into various design shapes in order to make products.
“Plastics extrusion exists in every single country in the world, and what’s amazing about it is that we have designed a material that can slot directly into the same systems that produce petrochemicals today, to instead produce plant-based or bio-based materials tomorrow,” Kinshaw said.
Others making alternatives to PVC plastics include global petrochemicals manufacturer, INEOS, which is working to clean up its act with the world’s first bio-PVC, BIOVYN; Loliware which is creating plastic-free products like straws and packaging made with carbon-capturing ocean-farmed seaweed; and Barcelona’s Nai Factory Lab which is turning the thousands of olive pits Spain produces into a 100% biodegradable material, Reolivar, and using it for wood, glass, and of course, plastic replacements.
Over in California, New Light Technologies is creating regenerative, plastic-free footwear and fashion by replacing PVC with the letters PHB: a biomaterial byproduct of oceanic microorganisms eating methane and carbon dioxide.
According to New Light, because it is meltable, PHB can be used as an alternative to plastic, fiber, and leather. By mimicking this natural process on land, New Light is able to produce PHB from air and greenhouse gases, a process that the startup says has never been done before.
Since piloting the tech from 2007 to 2017, New Light created the Eagle 3 in 2019, the world's first fully-integrated commercial-scale production system using air and greenhouse gas to make the biomaterial, AirCarbon. Most recently, the startup established partnerships with big brands like Nike and Target last year to make paper bowls, paper plates, and shoes all without PVC coatings.
A post-plastic future is possible. As the situation in Ohio unfolds further, residents and authorities are increasingly worried about the long-term effects of the PCV release and the fires caused by other chemicals.
While the responsible railroad company, Norfolk Southern is giving $1 million in reimbursement for East Palestine families, along with providing air purifiers and other vital supplies, the best thing that can be done for residents’ health in the long term is to transition away from plastic. The technologies being developed by these startups could bring that future closer.