Protecting the Ocean Means Protecting Communities

How the Protecting Communities from Plastics Act supports fenceline communities, our climate and our ocean

Post updated on November 1, 2023.

On October 25, 2023, Senator Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Huffman (D-CA-02), reintroduced an updated Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act that incorporates the Protecting Communities from Plastic Act!

The Break Free Plastic Pollution Act has always been the most comprehensive plan to address the plastic pollution crisis ever introduced in Congress, and incorporating the Protecting Communities Act highlights the importance of taking action to protect marginalized coastal communities as we transition to a circular economy.

We cannot tackle the dual crises of plastic pollution and climate without confronting the root cause: fossil fuels. Thanks to ocean advocates across this country, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will now go further to crack down on harmful plastic production processes and address environmental justice impacts from across the plastics sector. Join us in calling for Congress to immediately pass the updated Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act to protect our communities and our ocean from plastic pollution and the climate crisis.

When we think about plastic pollution, we often think about where plastic products—from water bottles to microplastics—end up. But plastics present a much broader threat to our ocean, climate and marginalized coastal communities.

Why? It’s a problem of how plastics are made—nearly all plastics are made from oil, and they take a lot of energy to produce. And while we’ve begun to transition away from oil and gas for our cars and electricity, the oil and gas industry has responded by investing its vast financial resources in a new source of demand for their products: new production for plastic materials and packaging. 

More plastic means more pollution—for the climate, coastal communities and our ocean. By 2030, plastic production will contribute 1.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions into our atmosphere—the equivalent of 300 coal-fired power plants—and these facilities are sited in predominantly low-income communities and communities of color. Producing plastics is a dirty business. The petrochemicals infrastructure used to produce plastics is often coastal energy infrastructure—oil and gas production, refining and export facilities. This production process emits significant air and water pollution with severe health consequences for neighboring communities already bearing the brunt of climate change impacts like sea level rise, severe storms and flooding. 

The concentration of polluting industries in low-income and minority communities is no accident—it is the result of decades of discriminatory housing and zoning policies (i.e. redlining.) Just last year, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights called out the expansion of plastic-producing petrochemicals plants in Southern Louisiana as environmental racism—a threat to the basic human rights of the predominantly Black residents of the region.

Fenceline leader Shamyra Lavigne describes the impact of plastic facilities in her community. Learn more about Rise St. James here.

This injustice must be addressed. On December 1, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA-02), Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA-47) introduced new legislation, the Protecting Communities from Plastic Act (S. 5163/H.R. 9388), to tackle the plastic pollution crisis head-on, crack down on the plastic production process and address the harmful environmental justice impacts of this growing fossil fuel sector. This bill builds on the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 to:

  • Help reduce our reliance on virgin plastic by requiring the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create new nationwide targets for single-use plastic reduction in the packaging and food service, while incentivizing the expansion of new refill and reuse systems. Reducing new plastic production is critical to solving the interlinked plastics, climate and community impacts. 
  • Protect fenceline [1] communities around plastic production and disposal facilities by expanding the definition of covered facilities to be monitored by the EPA and requiring that the agency consider the cumulative impacts of plastic production and disposal, temporarily pausing the permitting of new and expanded facilities.
  • Strengthen environmental regulations like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Toxic Substances Control Act protections to reduce pollution and climate impacts in fenceline communities.
  • Block new petrochemical and plastic production facilities from being built within a five-mile radius of schools, residences and other community buildings.
  • Direct the EPA to not include harmful chemical recycling technologies in the national recycling strategy.
  • Create new financial requirements for companies so that communities are not left with the bill to clean up environmental contamination when facilities close.

Fenceline communities are the closest to the problem and the closest to the solution; they led this resistance movement to protect their communities. This current legislation provides an opportunity for government leaders, and all of us, to have their backs in advancing their fights. Ocean Conservancy is proud to support this legislation because it centers fenceline communities’ solutions and marries that with what the science tells us we need to do to protect our ocean and climate. It’s long past time to reach across sectors and systems to address the generational harm faced by Black, Indigenous and people of color and other disadvantaged fenceline communities to ultimately find multidimensional solutions to advance justice and equity across the board. Plastic pollution is a social justice issue, a climate issue and an ocean issue. They can’t be separated. The more we center communities in our policies and our conversations, the better outcomes we will achieve.  

Grassroot movements have long presented the model of societal change in the United States. Ocean Conservancy recognizes that supporting this movement in targeting single-use plastics will have a chain effect on many other social injustices that tie together the health of the ocean and the marine ecosystems within. We are dedicated to our journey in advancing ocean justice, which we define as the fair and equitable distribution of both the benefits of the ocean’s bounty and the burdens of its complex care. Want to learn more about Ocean Justice? Check out how we are fulfilling our commitment at

[1] Fenceline communities live immediately adjacent to highly polluting facilities—fossil fuel infrastructure, industrial parks or large manufacturing facilities—and are directly affected by the traffic, noise, operations and most-concerningly, chemical and fossil fuel emissions of the operation.

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