What happens when you’re done with plastic?
As of now, it likely goes to sit on a barge somewhere, according to Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, an organization promoting clean air across southwestern Pennsylvania. But, he said, that won’t last.
“The ability to throw things away and have it be zero cost … that’s not going to continue,” he told a crowd of more than 150 people at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Nov. 30.
The crowd was gathered for the Real Health, Economic and Climate Crisis Costs of Fossil Fuels in Southwestern PA — and Next Steps event, hosted by the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness. The event offered presentations about how our climate and environment is changing, what is driving that change and what can be done to stop it.
“This East End community is, I think, a very fertile group for climate action,” said Peggy Fried Whelan, an organizer of the event and longtime environmental activist. “They have to see this as one of the top important issues because it is, and that hasn’t been on people’s wavelength.
“The world’s not going to give us a second chance on this,” the Temple Sinai member said.
Concerns about the environment in southwestern Pennsylvania have amplified since Shell Chemical Appalachia LLC, which is owned by Royal Dutch Shell, the larger company behind the Shell gas stations, announced a plan to construct a chemical plant in Potter Township, Beaver County in June 2016.
The plant, which is also called an ethane cracker, is under construction now and is set to operate by 2020. It is designed to create plastic products by breaking up oil and gas into smaller and smaller molecules. It is estimated to produce 1.6 million tons of plastic product each year.
For some residents, the amount of plastic being produced already is too much. Mehalik said there is about a ton of plastic per human being already on the planet, and it is left to pile up on remote islands once it has been used.
Edward Ketyer, a Pittsburgh pediatrician and another presenter at the event, said estimate show there will be more plastic products in the ocean than fish by 2050.
But, there is an international market for plastic products, and the cracker would offer 6,000 construction jobs and 600 temporary jobs in southwestern Pennsylvania as well as the possibility of further economic growth, according to Shell.
Lisa Graves Marcucci, Pennsylvania coordinator for community outreach for the Environmental Integrity Project, said that job creation was not enough to offset the health and environmental harm from the plant.
“Thank you we’ll take the jobs but no community should have to choose between jobs or health,” she said. “It’s jobs and health.”
In terms of environmental impact, James Fabisiak, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, warned the plant would be the equivalent of adding 36,000 automobiles that each drove 12,000 miles a year to Beaver County.
These issues are fundamentally Jewish, said Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the JCC. It goes back to Genesis Chapter One, which says we have a responsibility to conquer the Earth, he said. Then, Genesis Chapter Two says we have a responsibility to care for the garden.
“We live in constant tension between conquering the world around us and caring for it,” Symons told the crowd. “How do we live in this world and make sure it’s still here for generations to come, just like it’s here for us?
For activist Terri Supowitz, a Wilkinsburg resident who attended the event, the only way to do so is to convince people that these chemical plants and industrial companies can be stopped.
Right now, she said, most people don’t think so.
“I think it’s so important that this has come to the Jewish community,” Supowitz said. “This is a community that’s educated, they’ve got a voice…They have to use it. Don’t put your head in the sand.”
Shell recently announced it plans to cut the net carbon footprint of its energy products by 20 percent by 2035 and 50 percent by 2050 in order to play their part in combatting climate change, according to a news release from the company.
A March report from Gov. Tom Wolf outlined Pennsylvania’s ability to support up to four additional crackers. PJC
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at