How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades.

Join us:

How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades.

Every human on Earth is ingesting nearly 2,000 particles of plastic a week. These tiny pieces enter our unwitting bodies from tap water, food, and even the air, according to an alarming academic study sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, dosing us with five grams of plastics, many cut with chemicals linked to cancers, hormone disruption, and developmental delays. Since the paper’s publication last year, Sen. Tom Udall, a plain-spoken New Mexico Democrat with a fondness for white cowboy hats and turquoise bolo ties, has been trumpeting the risk: “We are consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic each week,” Udall says. At events with constituents, he will brandish a Visa from his wallet and declare, “You’re eating this, folks!”

With new legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, Udall is attempting to marshal Washington into a confrontation with the plastics industry, and to force companies that profit from plastics to take accountability for the waste they create. Unveiled in February, the bill would ban many single-use plastics and force corporations to finance “end of life” programs to keep plastic out of the environment. “We’re going back to that principle,” the senator tells Rolling Stone. “The polluter pays.”

The battle pits Udall and his allies in Congress against some of the most powerful corporate interests on the planet, including the oil majors and chemical giants that produce the building blocks for our modern plastic world — think Exxon, Dow, and Shell — and consumer giants like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Unilever that package their products in the stuff. Big Plastic isn’t a single entity. It’s more like a corporate supergroup: Big Oil meets Big Soda — with a puff of Big Tobacco, responsible for trillions of plastic cigarette butts in the environment every year. And it combines the lobbying and public-relations might of all three.

Americans have occasionally crusaded against “problem plastics” — scapegoating packing peanuts, grocery bags, or drinking straws for the sins of our unsustainable consumer economy. We’ve been slow to recognize that we’re actually in the midst of a plastic pandemic. Over the past 70 years, we’ve gotten hooked on disposable goods and packaging — as plastics became the lifeblood of an American culture of speed, convenience, and disposability that’s conquered the globe. Plastic contains our hot coffee and frozen dinners. It is the material of childhood, from Pampers to Playmobil to PlayStation 4. It cloaks our e-commerce purchases and is woven into our sneakers, fast fashion, and business fleece. Humans are now using a million plastic bottles a minute, and 500 billion plastic bags a year — including those we use to bag up our plastic-laden trash.

But the world’s plastic waste is not so easily contained. Massive quantities of this forever material are spilling into the oceans — the equivalent of a dump-truck load every minute. Plastic is also fouling our mountains, our farmland, and spiraling into an unmitigatable environmental disaster. John Hocevar is a marine biologist who leads the Oceans Campaign for Greenpeace, and spearheaded the group’s response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Increasingly, his work has centered on plastics. “This is a much bigger problem than ‘just’ an ocean issue, or even a pollution issue,” he says. “We’ve found plastic everywhere we’ve ever looked. It’s in the Arctic and the Antarctic and in the middle of the Pacific. It’s in the Pyrenees and in the Rockies. It’s settling out of the air. It’s raining down on us.”

More than half the plastic now on Earth has been created since 2002, and plastic pollution is on pace to double by 2030. At its root, the global plastics crisis is a product of our addiction to fossil fuels. The private profit and public harm of the oil industry is well understood: Oil is refined and distributed to consumers, who benefit from gasoline’s short, useful lifespan in a combustion engine, leaving behind atmospheric pollution for generations. But this same pattern — and this same tragedy of the commons — is playing out with another gift of the oil-and-gas giants, whose drilling draws up the petroleum precursors for plastics. These are refined in industrial complexes and manufactured into bottles, bags, containers, textiles, and toys for consumers who benefit from their transient use — before throwing them away.

“Plastics are just a way of making things out of fossil fuels,” says Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network. BAN is devoted to enforcement of the Basel Convention, an international treaty that blocks the developed world from dumping hazardous wastes on the developing world, and was recently expanded, effective next year, to include plastics. For Americans who religiously sort their recycling, it’s upsetting to hear about plastic being lumped in with toxic waste. But the poisonous parallel is apt. When it comes to plastic, recycling is a misnomer. “They really sold people on the idea that plastics can be recycled because there’s a fraction of them that are,” says Puckett. “It’s fraudulent. When you drill down into plastics recycling, you realize it’s a myth.”

Since 1950, the world has created 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste — and 91 percent has never been recycled even once, according to a landmark 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances. Unlike aluminum, which can be recycled again and again, plastic degrades in reprocessing, and is almost never recycled more than once. A plastic soda bottle, for example, might get downcycled into a carpet. Modern technology has hardly improved things: Of the 78 billion kilograms of plastic packaging materials produced in 2013, only 14 percent were even collected for recycling, and just two percent were effectively recycled to compete with virgin plastic. “Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal,” the Science authors write. And most plastics persist for centuries.
As the globalized economy boomed, the toxic reality was hidden overseas. Plastics tossed out here were picked over at domestic recycling facilities, which targeted easier-to-sort-and-reprocess clear plastic bottles, milk jugs, and detergent containers. The leftovers were tied up in dirty bales and shipped to Asia. “China took them because there was some high value of material in there,” a former Waste Management executive tells Rolling Stone. Oftentimes, he says, Chinese recyclers “would dump those bales into the river to separate the materials and pick the better stuff out. And then they simply let the rest just go downstream.” The target plastics weren’t recycled in state-of-the-art facilities, rather shredded and melted down in rudimentary factories — often staffed by whole families, children included — eking out a toxic living amid mountains of imported trash.

Seeing political danger in its growing pollution crisis, China blocked most plastic imports in 2018, and this “National Sword” policy roiled international recycling markets. Attempts to re-create the China model in less authoritarian economies of Southeast Asia have backfired in pollution and protest — pulling back the curtain on what one waste executive describes to Rolling Stone as “our dirty little secret”: Americans who believed they were diverting plastic from the trash were, ironically, fueling a waste crisis half a world away. “It is easy to find American and European packaging polluting the countryside of Southeast Asia,” states a 2019 report from the Break Free From Plastics coalition, which coordinates an annual global audit of plastic waste. “When people in the global north throw something ‘away,’ much of it ends up in the global south because there is no such thing as ‘away.’”

The worst of our global plastics crisis is borne by the oceans. Roughly 8 billion kilograms of plastics enter the world’s waters every year, and the problem is most acute in emerging coastal economies. The volume entering oceans can be hard to comprehend, admits Jenna Jambeck, an engineering professor at the University of Georgia who has published pathbreaking science that quantifies plastic “leakage” to the oceans. “It’s equal to five grocery-size bags full of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” she says. “If you imagine us all standing, hand-to-hand, covering the coastline of the entire world, this is what’s in front of each one of us.”

Marine plastics picked up by the currents collect in massive ocean “gyres” — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now twice the size of Texas. These are swirling petrochemical spills, but unlike crude oil, the long molecular chains in plastics don’t exist in nature and don’t meaningfully biodegrade. “The same properties that make plastics so versatile,” the Science Advances authors, including Jambeck, write, “make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate.” Instead, bulk plastics wear down into microplastics — a category for particles smaller than 5 millimeters, or roughly the width of your pinkie fingernail — deteriorating further into nanoplastic particles.

In the open water, plastics are consumed by fish, seabirds, and mammals — which are washing up dead in harrowing numbers. Last year, whales in Italy and the Philippines died just weeks apart, their stomachs packed with indigestible plastic bags. In December, a sperm whale washed ashore in Scotland with more than 200 pounds of plastic in its gut. The pollution visible on the ocean surface represents just one percent of what humans have dumped into the oceans. The rest lies beneath, including seven miles deep in the Mariana Trench, where researchers have spotted plastic bags and measured microplastics at concentrations of 2,000 parts per liter. Without dramatic change, the amount of plastics entering the oceans every year, already intolerable, is projected to more than double by 2025.

The story on dry land is hardly more comforting. Plastics are widely used in agriculture and “microplastic pollution is somewhere between four and 23 times higher in the soil than in the sea,” says Lili Fuhr, editor of Plastic Atlas, which documents the reach of global plastic pollution. Microplastics, thought to be carried by the winds, have been found in pristine terrestrial environments, including the polar ice caps. In Colorado, plastic fibers have been discovered in precipitation. “It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow,” lamented United States Geological Survey researcher Greg Wetherbee. “It’s a part of our environment now.” Even landfills may be creating long-term hazards. A 2019 study in Water Research found microplastic contamination as high as 24 parts per liter in landfill runoff, offering “preliminary evidence…that landfill isn’t the final sink of plastics,” the researchers wrote, “but a potential source of microplastics.”

This pollution is planetwide, impossible to fully remediate, and threatens to disrupt natural systems — including those that allow the oceans to remove carbon from the atmosphere. “Humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale,” write the researchers in Science Advances, “in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”

We are all guinea pigs in this experiment, as plastics accumulate in the food web, appearing in seafood, table salt, and ironically even in bottled water. Many plastics are mixed with a toxic brew of colorants, flame retardants, and plasticizers. Joe Vaillancourt is the CEO of a company that refines waste plastic into fuel — a process that requires removing such contaminants from curbside recycling. “In one little 10-pound batch,” he says, “we found a thousand different chemicals.” Some of these additives are linked to cancer and severe health problems. As plastics break down over time, they can also absorb toxins from the environment, including PCBs.

The threat to human health is complex and poorly understood. “There are a lot more questions than answers at this point,” says Mark Hahn, a toxicologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies microplastics. Some plastic likely passes through the human gut like so much sand, he says. But scientists have found that tiny plastic particles can insinuate themselves into the bloodstream of mussels and the organs of fish. Airborne nanoplastics can also be inhaled into the lungs. “Are they lodging somewhere and physically blocking something, or causing an inflammatory reaction,” Hahn asks, “or are they carrying their additives and contaminants and delivering them somewhere — you know, to the brain?” Hahn, a sober and skeptical scientist, is concerned about the rising tide of plastic in the environment. “If there is a problem now,” he says, “it’s only going to get worse.”

The story of how we got into this fix is short, modern — and American as hell. In the late 1860s, a bush-bearded inventor in New York sought to claim a $10,000 prize by developing an alternative to ivory. With a primitive polymer, John Wesley Hyatt created — and later peddled to the consuming public — plastic billiard balls, piano keys, and false teeth.

Plastics were industrialized in the early 1900s by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian immigrant whose Bakelite polymer withstood high temperatures and insulated against electricity. Touted as “the material of a thousand uses” — its logo a “B” floating above the mathematical symbol for infinity — Bakelite became integral to the automotive and electric industries, as well as to consumer goods like dominoes, telephone receivers, and 78 rpm records.

Plastics wove themselves deeper into American life with the invention of nylon in the 1930s. And their versatility made them indispensable to the military in World War II, featuring in parachutes, tires, and Plexiglas windows. Plastics boomed as a hallmark of America’s postwar consumer culture, yet this material of abundance also became a marker of soulless excess that horrified Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate when buttonholed about his future career prospects at a party — and pitched on “Plastics…There’s a great future in plastics.”

The virtues of plastic are as real now as they were then. “Plastic allows us to do more with less,” insists Steve Russell, vice president of the Plastics Division at the American Chemistry Council, which represents petrochemical companies. (Russell announced his retirement in early 2020.) “Whether it’s to make cars lighter so they use less energy or buildings more efficient. They allow us to deliver a safe and sanitary drinking water through plastic pipes that don’t corrode.” Pointing to the pervasive use of plastics in medicine, he highlights their peerless “benefits of hygiene and health and safety.”

Yet beyond this slate of essential, durable, or technically demanding cases, plastic has also twinned itself to modern throwaway culture. As much as 40 percent of plastics produced today go into packaging. The Graduate debuted in 1967, and that era marks a pivot point for the industry. At the First National Conference of Packaging Wastes in 1969, Dow Chemical’s chief environmental manager presented a paper on the explosive growth of single-use plastics in “cafeterias…universities, hospitals, airlines, restaurants, etc.” While praising the performance of these “durable materials that might conceivably last forever,” he sounded an alarm about “disposal problems.” He foresaw a coming deluge of plastic waste and called out the industry for turning a blind eye — “and there are those who have elected to do just that.” He insisted that incineration was the “ultimate solution,” but confessed, “It’s going to cost somebody a lot of money.”
Far from financing a solution for plastic waste, the broader corporate response was to fund public relations blaming consumers for the pollution instead. Keep America Beautiful — a nonprofit quietly funded by industry — began airing famous public-service announcements in 1971 of a crying “Indian” (actually a spaghetti-Western star) paddling through waters strewn with refuse like styrofoam cups, with the tag line “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

In fact, KAB had been founded to head off state bans on single-use packaging, according to notes reviewed by Rolling Stone. And industry boosters from the era were proclaiming the end of refillable beer and soda bottles as a “growth frontier” because every reusable bottle taken out of circulation “means the sale of 20 one-way containers.” By 1978, Coca-Cola adopted its first plastic soda bottle — sparking a shift that has conquered the planet. Four decades later, the world is using half a trillion plastic bottles a year.

To help keep pollution out of sight, the top companies of Big Plastic have continued to fund KAB, which organizes volunteer labor to pick up trash on land, as well as the Ocean Conservancy, which sponsors volunteer international coastal cleanups. Since 2017, the top 10 categories of trash collected in the beach cleanups has been made of one material: plastic.

Ocean Conservancy says it is dedicated to “ending the flow of trash at the source,” but critics accuse the group of a sin of omission. The cleanups tally waste down to the last plastic bottle (1,754,908 in the most recent effort), but don’t link the waste to the corporations that produced it. Only in recent years has Break Free From Plastics launched a competing network of cleanups, recording the branding they discover. In 2019, its audit called out a trio of the world’s richest consumer brands as the top plastic polluters: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé. “I was personally saddened by it,” says Bea Perez, Coca-Cola’s chief sustainability officer, of the company’s number-one ranking. “We don’t want to be that number.”

Both KAB and Ocean Conservancy insist their work is not compromised by corporate funding. A representative for KAB — whose directors include executives from Keurig, Dr. Pepper, Mars Wrigley, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé Waters, Dow, Philip Morris, and the American Chemistry Council — rejects the “narrative” that KAB is a corporate front group: “We’re not. We’re an independent organization.” A vice president at Ocean Conservancy — which placed executives from Coca-Cola, Dow, and the American Chemistry Council on the steering committee of a recent report on ocean plastics — tells Rolling Stone that the problems of plastic waste are so systemic and complex that “we need everyone — including corporations — at the table.”

I’m peering down from a crane operator’s chair on the third floor of a waste-to-energy facility — into what looks like a real-life version of the trash compactor in the Death Star.

Far below lies a rectangular pit, 35 feet deep, where municipal garbage trucks dump their loads. The trash there awaits “the claw” — a 7,500-pound grapple with six retractable steel talons that scoops up to two-and-a-half tons of garbage on every lift. The operator next to me hoists trash out of the pit, releasing it onto a mountainous mixing pile, “fluffing” the waste to create a blend that will burn evenly. With each pass, the grapple pops Glad bags like pustules of trash, leaving behind ragged streamers of plastic.

The top alternative to burying plastic in a landfill is not recycling. It’s fire. Over the past six decades, far more plastic has been incinerated than collected for reuse. This incinerator, outside of Oregon’s capital, Salem, is operated by Covanta, which runs similar waste-to-energy plants on the East Coast that burn trash for New York and Philadelphia. For months after China roiled recycling markets in 2018, Philadelphia tasked Covanta with burning half the city’s “recycling” that had nowhere else to go.

Roughly a third of the trash is plastic. Households served by this plant have recently been instructed to toss out hard-to-recycle plastics (yogurt containers, beer cups — anything with a recycling number higher than 2), and those items now come here to burn. When the operator is satisfied with the mix, he hoists a grapple load to a height of 90 feet and dumps it into the hopper — fueling the incinerator that generates electricity for the local grid. The extreme temperature of the burner, 2,000 degrees, creates a near-complete combustion that neutralizes most toxic compounds in plastic. But incineration returns plastic to its origins as a fossil fuel, creating carbon pollution that escapes through a candy-striped smokestack, in a white wisp that’s visible for miles.

The greenhouse-gas profile of plastics is simply unsustainable. As the world begins to wean itself off of fossil fuel for transportation, Big Oil giants from Texas to Saudi Arabia are turning to plastic to support future growth. The International Energy Agency predicts that “oil demand related to plastic consumption overtakes that for road-passenger transport by 2050,” and its top executive warns plastics are “one of the key blind spots in the global energy debate.”

The industry is counting on a tidal wave of new demand from emerging economies. A 2018 IEA report underscores that advanced economies use up to 20 times more plastic per capita than consumers do in India or Indonesia. And it warns that increased recycling and single-use bans in places like Europe and Japan “will be far outweighed by developing economies sharply increasing their shares of plastic consumption (as well as its disposal).”

Global plastics production and incineration currently creates the CO2 pollution of 189 coal plants. By 2050, that’s expected to more than triple, to the equivalent of 615 coal plants. At that rate, plastics would hog about 15 percent of the world’s remaining “carbon budget,” or what can be emitted without crossing the 2-degrees Celsius threshold in global temperature rise that scientists warn can trigger calamity.

The plastic industry’s damage to the planet is vast, but not immeasurable. In fact, the industry has published a detailed accounting that reveals its pollution is on pace to cause trillions in environmental harm by midcentury.

The American Chemistry Council is a trade group that represents the large oil and petrochemical companies that produce plastic resins — the back end of Big Plastic. In 2016, the ACC commissioned a study by the consultancy Trucost — “the world’s leading experts in quantifying and valuing the environmental impacts” from industry. The ACC paid for the study to demonstrate that plastics are not easily replaceable, and that many common substitutes — particularly glass — carry higher environmental costs when factoring in weight for transportation.

The Trucost finding that the ACC does not trumpet? “The environmental cost to society of consumer plastic products and packaging was over $139 billion in 2015,” the report reveals. Without a dramatic change in course, Trucost predicts, that annual figure will soar to “$209 billion by 2025.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Steve Russell, the ACC’s vice president for plastics, acknowledged that $139 billion “is a big number.” An attorney, Russell has an affect more folksy than slick. But that’s far from straightforward. The giant sum, he says, is “not a literal debt on the balance sheet.” But that is precisely the point. Trucost measured externalities — or the costs that companies don’t have to pay for, but instead slough off on society — including those created by “greenhouse-gas emissions; air pollution; land and water pollution; water depletion; [and] ocean impacts.”

Trucost warns that the business model of the plastics industry would be upended if new government regulations, or consumer backlash, forced it to “internalize” and pay for these costs — a development that would pose “a serious risk to the future profitability of the plastics industry.”

Much of the world is waking up to the plastics crisis. As China has shut its doors to the global plastic-waste trade, the European Union, Canada, and India are stepping up bans on single-use plastics like cutlery, plates, straws, and ear swabs. “How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches across the world, their stomachs jam packed with plastic bags?” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked, introducing his country’s initiative. “As a dad, it is tough trying to explain this stuff to my kids.”

But under President Trump, the United States is lurching in the opposite direction, promoting the plastic industry’s aggressive expansion. “It’s war,” says Puckett of BAN, “between policies that are totally at odds with each other — of making more plastics and banning plastic.”

American fracking is literally fueling the global surge in plastics. The glut of cheap natural gas here has sparked an explosion in new plastics infrastructure. Since 2010, according to the ACC, U.S. companies have ramped up “334 chemical and plastics projects cumulatively valued at $204 billion.” Europe has built new plastics plants fed by fracked U.S. exports. Environmentalists warn that these facilities will lock in demand for fossil-fuel consumption for a generation.

Trump is an unabashed booster of plastics — in keeping with his service to the fossil-fuel industry. The former CEO of Dow led Trump’s manufacturing council. And last July, the president visited a new Shell plastics complex outside Pittsburgh. “This facility will transform abundant natural gas — and we have a lot of it — fracked from Pennsylvania wells into plastic,” Trump said. That material, he boasted, would be embossed with “that very beautiful phrase: ‘Made in the USA.’”

With the president championing its interests in Washington — and even triggering the libs with Trump 2020 campaign-branded plastic straws — the plastics industry is working to undermine grassroots activism in cities and states across the country.
The Plastics Industry Association, or PLASTICS, is a top trade group headquartered on K Street in Washington, D.C. Hiding its handiwork inside a nesting doll of front groups, PLASTICS has worked to thwart state and municipal bans on single-use plastics. PLASTICS has gotten an assist from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which pushes right-wing state legislatures to pass nearly identical bills. In 2013, the plastic trade group wrote a pitch to ALEC members, arguing a ban on plastic “results in the picking of winners and losers in a ‘not-so-free’ marketplace.” By 2015, ALEC began advocating state laws best known for “banning bans” on plastic bags, but which are often far more sweeping, prohibiting limits on styrofoam and “auxiliary containers” — a catchall term for to-go packaging.

PLASTICS obscures its involvement in these state fights through a “special purpose” front group called the Progressive Bag Alliance, which rebranded in January as the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. The organization runs public relations through another front group, Bag the Ban, which touts plastic as “the most environmentally friendly option at the checkout.” (The bag alliance claims it is self-funding, but PLASTICS employs its director, per IRS filings, and the groups share offices and overhead.)

Plastic bags get caught in trees and clog gutters, and for cities they’re an obvious target for regulation. “They’re a visible reminder of consumer single-use culture, and something that people feel like they can do something about,” says Jennie Romer, an environmental lawyer who built and now directs plastic-pollution projects for Surfrider. Banning bags is often the first step in a radicalizing journey, says Romer, as consumers become vigilant about the harms of single-use plastics more broadly. “Plastic-bag laws have been a gateway to other laws on plastics,” she says. San Jose, for example, passed a 2011 ban on bags that spawned a statewide California ban, later defended by voters in a 2016 referendum the Bag Alliance spent more than $6 million to put on the ballot. Last year, California nearly passed a ban on single-use plastics. “I don’t think we get there,” Romer says, “unless we can start with the plastic bags.”
The success of blue states, from Hawaii to New York, in banning plastic bags has been countered by the industry-led push. PLASTICS says it has parted ways with ALEC, but some 15 red states now have laws pre-empting local plastic bans, with Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Tennessee joining the pack in 2019. (ALEC did not respond to questions from Rolling Stone.)

For now, the state bans on bans are holding up in court. The city of Coral Gables, adjacent to Miami, has seen a pair of ordinances struck down under Florida’s plastics pre-emption law, and Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli is furious. “We have 200 miles of coastline,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We banned plastic bags. We also banned styrofoam. We’re going onto plastic straws. It’s vital for us to prevail on these in order to preserve our environment.” Coral Gables is taking the fight to the state Supreme Court.

Florida’s powerful Retail Federation insists it shouldn’t have to contend with a patchwork of local regulations. But Romer sees a darker motivation at play. “It’s hard to change a statewide law,” she says, “if you don’t have the ability to work locally.” By striking in statehouses, she adds, “the industry is able to kill the grassroots movements.”

As the global plastics crisis grows — and photos of albatross chicks decomposing around the indigestible plastic waste that killed them go viral — the industry is quietly agonizing over backlash from the metal-straw and Hydroflask-toting members of Generation Z. “The [plastic] water bottle has, in some way, become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes,” a senior sustainability manager for Nestlé Waters confessed at a conference last year. “It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.”

In contrast to climate change, the plastics crisis has not been met with corporate denial. The companies of Big Plastic are instead seeking to convince consumers and regulators that — despite having unleashed this torrent of pollution on the planet — they can be trusted to pioneer solutions that will make plastic use sustainable. They’re touting a “circular economy,” in which used plastic doesn’t become waste but, instead, a feedstock for new products. A cynic might translate the concept into: Recycling, but for real this time. “There are a lot of different corporate commitments,” says Shilpi Chhotray, a leader of the Break Free From Plastics movement. While some show promise, others “are just greenwashing,” she insists, with the intent of giving the industry cover for its true aim: “growth.”

There’s a marked split in the seriousness of the industry response between the back-end producers of plastics and the consumer brands closest to the backlash. On the producer side, the American Chemistry Council has taken on a global role in crisis management. It has adopted voluntary commitments that give its members decades to change habits. ACC members have pledged to make all plastic packaging “recyclable or recoverable” by 2030, aiming for this material to be “reused, recycled, or recovered” in practice by 2040. “They’re very ambitious,” the ACC’s Russell insisted of the goals. “There was a lot of heartburn in articulating them, because we didn’t know that we could go that quickly.”

Yet even as it promotes “the drive toward a circular economy,” the ACC is also championing technology that turns waste-plastic back into fossil fuels, including diesel. The ACC calls this “advanced recycling.” Puckett, the BAN chief, calls that malarkey: “They’re going to try and market burning plastic as some kind of green coal,” he warns.

The ACC also helped launch the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Its members are primarily producers — ExxonMobil, Shell, Dow, Total, BASF — but also include Procter & Gamble. Like many consumer brands, P&G is targeting emerging economies by selling single-serve plastic packets of soaps and detergents. These “sachets” are unrecyclable and a top form of trash in plastic waste in Asia. Alliance members are vowing to spend $1.5 billion over five years to “minimize and manage plastic waste…to keep it out of the environment.” Large on its face, this $1.5 billion commitment represents a fraction of the damage the industry is causing to the oceans in a single year — $13 billion, per the United Nations. And a pilot project to keep plastics out of the Ganges relies in part on distributing equipment to turn waste into fuel. No one from the Alliance would speak to Rolling Stone. But the ACC’s Russell admitted that “$1.5 billion is not enough,” emphasizing, “It’s a start. It’s not the end.”

A more ambitious initiative comes from the consumer-facing brands of Big Plastic. The New Plastic Economy is run through the London-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation and supported by corporate giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Unilever, as well as the U.N. Environmental Program. Remarkably, the project has gotten plastic-dependent companies to reveal for the first time just how much they use each year. The tallies are staggering, led by Coca-Cola at 3 billion kilograms, PepsiCo at 2.3 billion, Nestlé at 1.7 billion, and Unilever at 700 million.
The New Plastic Economy’s goals include eliminating some problem plastics, committing to a 2025 “ambition level” of 100 percent “reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging.” Sander Defruyt, the project’s leader, is quick to call bullshit on plastics-to-fuel initiatives — “that’s not recycling,” he says, “and it is not part of a circular economy” — and admits that project members have shown “an enormous lack of progress” on pioneering essential models for reuse. He insists the world cannot recycle its way out of this problem. The circular economy is “not about keeping today’s system and increasing the recycling rate,” he says. “It’s about fundamentally changing the system.”

No company stands astride the currents of the global plastic crisis quite like Coca-Cola. The company’s plastic dependence is stark. It produced 117 billion plastic bottles in 2018, according to its sustainability report. The company boasts a 52 percent recycling rate for these bottles — far above average. But the same math indicates that more than 56 billion of its bottles became waste. That’s roughly seven containers for every human on the planet.

Coca-Cola recently ended its membership in the Plastics Industry Association — “our values did not align,” Perez, the company’s chief sustainability officer, tells Rolling Stone. It has also committed to its own World Without Waste initiative, vowing to “collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally” by 2030.

Perez’s brief is expansive: She also serves as the company’s chief of communications, public affairs, and marketing assets. Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives likewise seem nested within a marketing context. In a recent investor presentation, the company was pressed on whether young people adopting refillable flasks was a threat to the bottom line: “What’s interesting,” Perez replied, “is the more educated they become around the circular economy and turning it into something else, the more receptive they become” to plastic.

Coca-Cola deflected questions about switching to a material like aluminum that has more intrinsic value and is less hazardous as waste. Perez highlights, instead, the company’s efforts to make its plastic bottles lighter and easier to recycle. Leaving open that the “bottle of the future” might be made of a “more responsible” material, Perez insists that plastic is “a viable package as long as we get to the circular economy.” But getting there, she adds, will take coordinated global action. “We’re going to act, and we’re going to ask others to join us. We need everyone to play the part,” she insists, “because time is running out.”

Across the plastics industry, executives buzz about the potential of “chemical recycling” — a process that breaks down plastic to its molecular components, which can then be reprocessed to make like-new plastic. “We could truly keep all of these materials in circularity without any degradation,” Kim Holmes, the vice president of sustainability for PLASTICS, tells me. “I like to think of it as getting us to that infinite polymer state.”

To assess the viability of the technology, I visit an Oregon company called Agilyx, which sells itself as providing “the world’s only circular-economy solution for plastics.” As I pull into the parking lot, in an industrial zone outside Portland city limits, I encounter a middle-aged man unloading long styrofoam blocks, nearly as tall as he is, from his van into a grubby dumpster marked “Public Polystyrene Drop Off.”

Agilyx recycles that notorious eco-villain, styrofoam. The feedstocks here include coolers from transporting frozen fish, foam packaging for TVs, and styrofoam bricks used by the timber industry to grow seedlings for replanting. On the day of my visit, these weathered bricks are piled some 20 feet high inside the company’s warehouse. “We don’t need to preprocess it,” says CEO Joe Vaillancourt. “We don’t need it cleaned. We’re going right back to the molecule.”

The process begins by crushing styrofoam and breaking it into pebbles that resemble quartz. This material is mixed with shredded pieces of unfoamed polystyrene — material used to make red Solo cups. The mix travels up a conveyor belt and gets dumped into a reactor that turns the plastic into a gas, unzipping the plastic polymer to produce a styrene oil that’s cooled and pumped into black barrels for shipment back to a styrofoam manufacturer.

The factory handles 10 tons of material a day. But it’s not waste-free. The reactor spits out a heavy, black-carbon residue from the contaminants in the plastic, and produces a propane-like waste gas that’s flared into the atmosphere. The gasification process — known as pyrolysis — is also energy-intensive, relying on heat and high pressure. But Agilyx insists its product creates 70 percent less greenhouse pollution than starting with fossil fuels.
Vaillancourt pitches chemical recycling as environmental-harm reduction. Those who dream of a plastic-free world are doing just that, dreaming: “There are 7 billion people in the world whose daily lives increasingly depend on it,” he says. “It won’t go away.” The world is using nearly 400 billion kilograms of plastics a year — and demand is growing. “You can ban single-use all you want,” he says. “It’s really not going to get rid of the amount of plastics appreciably.”

Chemical recycling is in its infancy. And many environmentalists dismiss it as a “distraction” that has yet to prove itself as anything other than an expensive niche technology — joining bioplastics and compostable alternatives that have long been hyped as offering a path to sustainability, but failed to claim any real market share. Coca-Cola recently touted a batch of soda bottles made with chemically recycled waste from the sea. But it made just 300 of the containers, underscoring questions of cost and scalability.

Villaincourt admits that “the existing waste and recycling industries have never been set up” to supply companies like his, and that many companies can make more money landfilling waste plastic. “For this to really scale very large,” he says, will require disruption — including from the government. “Some companies are just gonna wait till it’s legislated,” he says. “Because of the profit motive, there’s no reason to change.”

The industry’s voluntary actions to curb plastic pollution are driven by two clear motives: One is protecting the environment, the other is protecting profits from regulation. “None of us want to live in a world where waste is unmanaged,” says Steve Russell of the ACC. “None of us want to have either the environmental or the legislative consequences of an unmanaged system.”

In Washington, the plastics industry is asking government, and American taxpayers, to foot the bill to revitalize the moribund recycling industry. The RECOVER Act — backed by both PLASTICS and the ACC — would offer $500 million in federal-matching funds for investment in new infrastructure. This summer, PLASTICS showed off a demonstration project with high-tech, near-infrared scanning machines that can segregate plastics by their polymer type, improving on human sorters who can’t distinguish between two identical-seeming yogurt cups, each made from different plastics.

For Sen. Tom Udall, our involuntary ingestion of plastic waste is proof that the country can’t wait decades for plastic polluters to reform their own practices, or rely on half-measures to bolster the current recycling system. “We are beyond the crisis point on plastic waste,” he says, “and people are starting to wake up.” Udall wants consequences for an industry that has sloughed its environmental harms onto the rest of us for long enough.

Washington is late to the game when it comes to plastics regulation, and Udall’s strategy is to adopt best practices from across the globe. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would mimic Europe in banning commonly polluted single-use plastics, including plastic bags, styrofoam cups and carry-out containers, and plastic utensils. Plastic straws would be allowed only by request.

The bill would expand the market for recycled plastics by creating a minimum recycled content for beverage containers, while also imposing a 10-cent deposit on each container sold — roughly nationalizing the models of Michigan and Oregon, where residents return nearly nine in 10 containers for recycling.

The bill would create “extended producer responsibility” — making the industry responsible for the waste it creates by requiring that producers “design, manage, and finance programs to collect and process waste that would normally burden state and local governments.” Udall emphasizes that today’s industry is hardly trying, often slapping an unrecyclable label on an otherwise recyclable bottle. He insists regulation will drive innovation, so that recyclability becomes a top goal of product design. “We’re trying to turn the industry around,” he says, “to do this in a more environmentally sustainable way.”

The legislation would formally ban the U.S. from exporting plastic waste to developing countries, in alignment with the Basel Convention. Perhaps most controversially, the bill would halt construction of new plastics facilities, giving the EPA time to craft new regulations. Udall insists his bill can return value to the economy, and save consumers a lot of money, noting that every year plastic worth up to $120 billion “is lost after one short use.”

The senator is not naive. He knows he’s going up against some of the deepest pockets in the corporate world. “This is not going to be easy,” he says. “Major industry players are going to oppose some of our efforts.” Indeed, PLASTICS is already blasting the single-use ban in his bill, insisting that “bans of otherwise completely recyclable materials will not solve our country’s waste-management issues.” But Udall believes the issue of remediating plastic pollution has the potential to transcend the bitter divides of our current politics. The notion that we’re all consuming a credit card a week turns the stomachs of Republicans just as much as it does Democrats. “We don’t know the human health impacts,” he says. “But we can only imagine they aren’t good.”

The bill’s lead sponsor in the House, Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, insists his motivation isn’t punitive. He points to regulations he helped pass as a state legislator to clean up air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles, which improved public health while modernizing a port that now makes more money than ever: “We’re not interested in destroying the people who provide products to bring our goods to market,” he says. But Lowenthal insists change is coming: “We have to start this process. There’s no quick fix, but we also know that time is not on our side.”

The companies of the plastics industry, Lowenthal says, are ultimately “going to have to deal with the sticker shock that they are now responsible and they’re going to have to pay” to keep plastics out of the environment. The alternative, he insists, has become untenable: “What we have in plastic is something that has made our lives more convenient and easier. But unless we figure out how to keep this out of the waste stream, it’s just going to kill us.”


“Corporations Are People” Is Built on an Incredible 19th-Century Lie.

Join us:

“Corporations Are People” Is Built on an Incredible 19th-Century Lie.

Somewhat unintuitively, American corporations today enjoy many of the same rights as American citizens. Both, for instance, are entitled to the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. How exactly did corporations come to be understood as “people” bestowed with the most fundamental constitutional rights? The answer can be found in a bizarre—even farcical—series of lawsuits over 130 years ago involving a lawyer who lied to the Supreme Court, an ethically challenged justice, and one of the most powerful corporations of the day.

That corporation was the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, owned by the robber baron Leland Stanford. In 1881, after California lawmakers imposed a special tax on railroad property, Southern Pacific pushed back, making the bold argument that the law was an act of unconstitutional discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment. Adopted after the Civil War to protect the rights of the freed slaves, that amendment guarantees to every “person” the “equal protection of the laws.” Stanford’s railroad argued that it was a person too, reasoning that just as the Constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of racial identity, so did it bar discrimination against Southern Pacific on the basis of its corporate identity.

The head lawyer representing Southern Pacific was a man named Roscoe Conkling. A leader of the Republican Party for more than a decade, Conkling had even been nominated to the Supreme Court twice. He begged off both times, the second time after the Senate had confirmed him. (He remains the last person to turn down a Supreme Court seat after winning confirmation). More than most lawyers, Conkling was seen by the justices as a peer.

It was a trust Conkling would betray. As he spoke before the Court on Southern Pacific’s behalf, Conkling recounted an astonishing tale. In the 1860s, when he was a young congressman, Conkling had served on the drafting committee that was responsible for writing the Fourteenth Amendment. Then the last member of the committee still living, Conkling told the justices that the drafters had changed the wording of the amendment, replacing “citizens” with “persons” in order to cover corporations too. Laws referring to “persons,” he said, have “by long and constant acceptance … been held to embrace artificial persons as well as natural persons.” Conkling buttressed his account with a surprising piece of evidence: a musty old journal he claimed was a previously unpublished record of the deliberations of the drafting committee.

Years later, historians would discover that Conkling’s journal was real but his story was a fraud. The journal was in fact a record of the congressional committee’s deliberations but, upon close examination, it offered no evidence that the drafters intended to protect corporations. It showed, in fact, that the language of the equal-protection clause was never changed from “citizen” to “person.” So far as anyone can tell, the rights of corporations were not raised in the public debates over the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment or in any of the states’ ratifying conventions. And, prior to Conkling’s appearance on behalf of Southern Pacific, no member of the drafting committee had ever suggested that corporations were covered.

There’s reason to suspect Conkling’s deception was uncovered back in his time too. The justices held onto the case for three years without ever issuing a decision, until Southern Pacific unexpectedly settled the case. Then, shortly after, another case from Southern Pacific reached the Supreme Court, raising the exact same legal question. The company had the same team of lawyers, with the exception of Conkling. Tellingly, Southern Pacific’s lawyers omitted any mention of Conkling’s drafting history or his journal. Had those lawyers believed Conkling, it would have been malpractice to leave out his story.

When the Court issued its decision on this second case, the justices expressly declined to decide if corporations were people. The dispute could be, and was, resolved on other grounds, prompting an angry rebuke from one justice, Stephen J. Field, who castigated his colleagues for failing to address “the important constitutional questions involved.” “At the present day, nearly all great enterprises are conducted by corporations,” he wrote, and they deserved to know if they had equal rights too.

Rumored to carry a gun with him at all times, the colorful Field was the only sitting justice ever arrested—and the charge was murder. He was innocent, but nonetheless guilty of serious ethical violations in the Southern Pacific cases, at least by modern standards: A confidant of Leland Stanford, Field had advised the company on which lawyers to hire for this very series of cases and thus should have recused himself from them. He refused to—and, even worse, while the first case was pending, covertly shared internal memoranda of the justices with Southern Pacific’s legal team.

The rules of judicial ethics were not well developed in the Gilded Age, however, and the self-assured Field, who feared the forces of socialism, did not hesitate to weigh in. Taxing the property of railroads differently, he said, was like allowing deductions for property “owned by white men or by old men, and not deducted if owned by black men or young men.”

So, with Field on the Court, still more twists were yet to come. The Supreme Court’s opinions are officially published in volumes edited by an administrator called the reporter of decisions. By tradition, the reporter writes up a summary of the Court’s opinion and includes it at the beginning of the opinion. The reporter in the 1880s was J.C. Bancroft Davis, whose wildly inaccurate summary of the Southern Pacific case said that the Court had ruled that “corporations are persons within … the Fourteenth Amendment.” Whether his summary was an error or something more nefarious—Davis had once been the president of the Newburgh and New York Railway Company—will likely never be known.

Field nonetheless saw Davis’s erroneous summary as an opportunity. A few years later, in an opinion in an unrelated case, Field wrote that “corporations are persons within the meaning” of the Fourteenth Amendment. “It was so held in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad,” explained Field, who knew very well that the Court had done no such thing.

His gambit worked. In the following years, the case would be cited over and over by courts across the nation, including the Supreme Court, for deciding that corporations had rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Indeed, the faux precedent in the Southern Pacific case would go on to be used by a Supreme Court that in the early 20th century became famous for striking down numerous economic regulations, including federal child-labor laws, zoning laws, and wage-and-hour laws. Meanwhile, in cases like the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), those same justices refused to read the Constitution as protecting the rights of African Americans, the real intended beneficiaries of the Fourteenth Amendment. Between 1868, when the amendment was ratified, and 1912, the Supreme Court would rule on 28 cases involving the rights of African Americans and an astonishing 312 cases on the rights of corporations.

The day back in 1882 when the Supreme Court first heard Roscoe Conkling’s argument, the New-York Daily Tribune featured a story on the case with a headline that would turn out to be prophetic: “Civil Rights of Corporations.” Indeed, in a feat of deceitful legal alchemy, Southern Pacific and its wily legal team had, with the help of an audacious Supreme Court justice, set up the Fourteenth Amendment to be more of a bulwark for the rights of businesses than the rights of minorities.


Los Angeles Moves To Dismiss 66,000 Marijuana-Related Convictions.

Join us:

Los Angeles Moves To Dismiss 66,000 Marijuana-Related Convictions.

Los Angeles County courts may soon throw out nearly 66,000 marijuana-related convictions of residents dating back more than 50 years.

Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has asked a judge to dismiss and seal the records of 62,000 felony cannabis convictions for cases as early as 1961, as well as, 3,700 misdemeanor cannabis possession cases.

Lacey, who is caught in a tight race for the district attorney seat against two progressive candidates, called it a marker of the sweeping change that can occur when government partners with technology leaders.

“We believe it is the largest effort in California to wipe out old criminal convictions in a single court motion,” she said in a news conference on Thursday.

The move comes about a year and a half after Lacey agreed to partner with Code for America in a pilot program that uses an algorithm to identify convictions that qualify for resentencing or dismissal under the state’s Proposition 64.

The voter-approved measure legalized recreational marijuana and mandated resentencing for those with felony conviction for the cultivation of marijuana, possession for sale of marijuana and sales and/or transport of marijuana. It also included dismissing misdemeanor possession charges.

As a result, prosecutors throughout the state have been under pressure to meet a July 1, 2020, deadline to expunge or reduce all eligible convictions.

“I also took the will of the voters one step further,” Lacey explained. “I expanded the criteria to go above and beyond the parameters of the law to ensure that many more people will benefit from this historic moment in time.”

Those who were eligible under the pilot program, included persons 50 years of age or older, anyone who was convicted under the age of 21, anyone who has not been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years, anyone with a conviction who successfully completed probation and for cannabis convictions.

“We’re making a motion to seal it because we realize that’s the issue,” Lacey said. “When you go to apply for a job, you go to apply for housing and your record comes up, even though we’ve expunged it, that may not give you help.”

Approximately 53,000 people will have their convictions wiped out, according to Code for America. Of those, the district attorney’s office reports approximately 32% are black or African American, 20% are white, 45% are Latinx, and 3% are other or unknown.

Other counties, including San Fernando, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Contra Costa, also participated in the Code for America pilot program, called Clear My Record.

In all, the nonprofit group says it has helped clear and seal more than 85,000 cannabis-related convictions in California.

Prior to the test program, only those who petitioned the court could have their records expunged or sealed. A process long criticized for being time-consuming, expensive and confusing. As a result, “only 3% of those eligible for relief under Proposition 64 have received” relief, according to Code for America.


The medications that change who we are.

Join us:

The medications that change who we are.

They’ve been linked to road rage, pathological gambling, and complicated acts of fraud. Some make us less neurotic, and others may even shape our social relationships. It turns out many ordinary medications don’t just affect our bodies – they affect our brains. Why? And should there be warnings on packets?

“Patient Five” was in his late 50s when a trip to the doctors changed his life.

He had diabetes, and he had signed up for a study to see if taking a “statin” – a kind of cholesterol-lowering drug – might help. So far, so normal.

But soon after he began the treatment, his wife began to notice a sinister transformation. A previously reasonable man, he became explosively angry and – out of nowhere – developed a tendency for road rage. During one memorable episode, he warned his family to keep away, lest he put them in hospital.

Out of fear of what might happen, Patient Five stopped driving. Even as a passenger, his outbursts often forced his wife to abandon their journeys and turn back. Afterwards, she’d leave him alone to watch TV and calm down. She became increasingly fearful for her own safety.

Then one day, Patient Five had an epiphany. “He was like, ‘Wow, it really seems that these problems started when I enrolled in this study’,” says Beatrice Golomb, who leads a research group at the University of California, San Diego.
Alarmed, the couple turned to the study’s organisers. “They were very hostile. They said that the two couldn’t possibly be related, that he needed to keep taking the medication, and that he should stay in the study,” says Golomb.

Ironically, by this point the patient was so cantankerous that he flatly ignored the doctors’ advice. “He swore roundly, stormed out of the office and stopped taking the drug immediately,” she says. Two weeks later, he had his personality back.

Others have not been so lucky. Over the years, Golomb has collected reports from patients across the United States – tales of broken marriages, destroyed careers, and a surprising number of men who have come unnervingly close to murdering their wives. In almost every case, the symptoms began when they started taking statins, then promptly returned to normal when they stopped; one man repeated this cycle five times before he realised what was going on.

According to Golomb, this is typical – in her experience, most patients struggle to recognise their own behavioural changes, let alone connect them to their medication. In some instances, the realisation comes too late: the researcher was contacted by the families of a number of people, including an internationally renowned scientist and a former editor of a legal publication, who took their own lives.

We’re all familiar with the mind-bending properties of psychedelic drugs – but it turns out ordinary medications can be just as potent. From paracetamol (known as acetaminophen in the US) to antihistamines, statins, asthma medications and antidepressants, there’s emerging evidence that they can make us impulsive, angry, or restless, diminish our empathy for strangers, and even manipulate fundamental aspects of our personalities, such as how neurotic we are.

In most people, these changes are extremely subtle. But in some they can also be dramatic.
Back in 2011, a French father-of-two sued the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, claiming that the drug he was taking for Parkinson’s disease had turned him into a gambler and gay sex addict, and was responsible for risky behaviours that had led to him being raped.

Then in 2015, a man who targeted young girls on the internet used the argument that the anti-obesity drug Duromine made him do it – he said that it reduced his ability to control his impulses. Every now and again, murderers try to blame sedatives or antidepressants for their offences.

If these claims are true, the implications are profound. The list of potential culprits includes some of the most widely consumed drugs on the planet, meaning that even if the effects are small at an individual level, they could be shaping the personalities of millions of people.

Research into these effects couldn’t come at a better time. The world is in the midst of a crisis of over-medication, with the US alone buying up 49,000 tonnes of paracetamol every year – equivalent to about 298 paracetamol tablets per person – and the average American consuming $1,200 worth of prescription medications over the same period. And as the global population ages, our drug-lust is set to spiral even further out of control; in the UK, one in 10 people over the age of 65 already takes eight medications every week.

How are all these medications affecting our brains? And should there be warnings on packets?

Golomb first suspected a connection between statins and personality changes nearly two decades ago, after a series of mysterious discoveries, such as that people with lower cholesterol levels are more likely to die violent deaths. Then one day, she was chatting to a cholesterol expert about the potential link in the hallway at her work, when he brushed it off as obviously nonsense. “And I said ‘how do we know that?’,” she says.

Filled with fresh determination, Golomb scoured the scientific and medical literature for clues. “There was shockingly more evidence than I had imagined,” she says. For one thing, she uncovered findings that if you put primates on a low-cholesterol diet, they become more aggressive.

There was even a potential mechanism: lowering the animals’ cholesterol seemed to affect their levels of serotonin, an important brain chemical thought to be involved in regulating mood and social behaviour in animals. Even fruit flies start fighting if you mess up their serotonin levels, but it also has some unpleasant effects in people – studies have linked it to violence, impulsivity, suicide and murder.

If statins were affecting people’s brains, this was likely to be a direct consequence of their ability to lower cholesterol.

Since then, more direct evidence has emerged. Several studies have supported a potential link between irritability and statins, including a randomised controlled trial – the gold-standard of scientific research – that Golomb led, involving more than 1,000 people. It found that the drug increased aggression in post-menopausal women though, oddly, not in men.

In 2018, a study uncovered the same effect in fish. Giving statins to Nile tilapia made them more confrontational and – crucially – altered the levels of serotonin in their brains. This suggests that the mechanism that links cholesterol and violence may have been around for millions of years.

Golomb remains convinced that lower cholesterol, and, by extension, statins, can cause behavioural changes in both men and women, though the strength of the effect varies drastically from person to person. “There are lines of evidence converging,” she says, citing a study she conducted in Sweden, which involved comparing a database of the cholesterol levels of 250,000 people with local crime records. “Even adjusting for confounding factors, it was still the case that people with lower cholesterol at baseline were significantly more likely to be arrested for violent crimes.”.

But Golomb’s most unsettling discovery isn’t so much the impact that ordinary drugs can have on who we are – it’s the lack of interest in uncovering it. “There’s much more of an emphasis on things that doctors can easily measure,” she says, explaining that, for a long time, research into the side-effects of statins was all focused on the muscles and liver, because any problems in these organs can be detected using standard blood tests.

This is something that Dominik Mischkowski, a pain researcher from Ohio University, has also noticed. “There is a remarkable gap in the research actually, when it comes to the effects of medication on personality and behaviour,” he says. “We know a lot about the physiological effects of these drugs – whether they have physical side effects or not, you know. But we don’t understand how they influence human behaviour.”

Mischkowski’s own research has uncovered a sinister side-effect of paracetamol. For a long time, scientists have known that the drug blunts physical pain by reducing activity in certain brain areas, such as the insular cortex, which plays an important role in our emotions. These areas are involved in our experience of social pain, too – and intriguingly, paracetamol can make us feel better after a rejection.

And recent research has revealed that this patch of cerebral real-estate is more crowded than anyone previously thought, because it turns out the brain’s pain centres also share their home with empathy.

For example, fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans have shown that the same areas of our brain become active when we’re experiencing “positive empathy” –pleasure on other people’s behalf – as when we’re experiencing pain.

Given these facts, Mischkowski wondered whether painkillers might be making it harder to experience empathy. Earlier this year, together with colleagues from Ohio University and Ohio State University, he recruited some students and spilt them into two groups. One received a standard 1,000mg dose of paracetamol, while the other was given a placebo. Then he asked them to read scenarios about uplifting experiences that had happened to other people, such as the good fortune of “Alex”, who finally plucked up the courage to ask a girl on a date (she said yes).

The results revealed that paracetamol significantly reduces our ability to feel positive empathy – a result with implications for how the drug is shaping the social relationships of millions of people every day. Though the experiment didn’t look at negative empathy – where we experience and relate to other people’s pain – Mischkowski suspects that this would also be more difficult to summon after taking the drug.

“I’m not entirely junior anymore as a researcher, and to be honest, this line of research is really the most worrisome that I’ve ever conducted,” he says. “Especially because I’m well aware of the numbers [of people] involved. When you give somebody a drug, you don’t just give it to a person – you give it to a social system. And we really don’t understand the effects of these medications in the broader context.”

Empathy doesn’t just determine if you’re a “nice” person, or if you cry while you’re watching sad movies. The emotion comes with many practical benefits, including more stable romantic relationships, better-adjusted children, and more successful careers – some scientists have even suggested that it’s responsible for the triumph of our species. In fact, a quick glance at its many benefits reveals that casually lowering a person’s ability to empathise is no trivial matter.

Scientists have known for a while that the medications used to treat asthma are sometimes associated with behavioural changes, such as an increase in hyperactivity
Technically, paracetamol isn’t changing our personalities, because the effects only last a few hours and few of us take it continuously. But Mischkowski stresses that we do need to be informed about the ways it affects us, so that we can use our common sense. “Just like we should be aware that you shouldn’t get in front of the wheel if you’re under the influence of alcohol, you don’t want to take paracetamol and then put yourself into a situation that requires you to be emotionally responsive – like having a serious conversation with a partner or co-worker.”

One reason medications can have such psychological clout is that the body isn’t just a bag of separate organs, awash with chemicals with well-defined roles – instead, it’s a network, in which many different processes are linked.

For example, scientists have known for a while that the medications used to treat asthma are sometimes associated with behavioural changes, such as an increase in hyperactivity and the development of ADHD symptoms. Then, more recently, research uncovered a mysterious connection between the two disorders themselves; having one increases the risk of having the other by 45-53%. No one knows why, but one idea is that asthma medications bring on ADHD symptoms by altering levels or serotonin or inflammatory chemicals, which are thought to be involved in the development of both conditions.

Sometimes these links are more obvious. Back in 2009, a team of psychologists from Northwestern University, Illinois, decided to check if antidepressants might be affecting our personalities. In particular, the team were interested in neuroticism. This “Big Five” personality trait is epitomised by anxious feelings, such as fear, jealousy, envy and guilt.

For the study, the team recruited adults who had moderate to severe depression. They gave one third of the study’s participants the antidepressant paroxetine (a kind of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)), one third a placebo, and one third talking therapy. They then checked to see how their mood and personalities changed from the beginning to the end of a 16-week treatment.

“We found that massive changes in neuroticism were brought about by the medicine and not very much at all by the placebo [or the therapy],” says Robert DeRubeis, who was involved in the study. “It was quite striking.”

The big surprise was that, though the antidepressants did make the participants feel less depressed, the reduction in neuroticism was much more powerful – and their influence on neuroticism was independent of their impact on depression. The patients on antidepressants also started to score more highly for extroversion.

It’s important to note that it was a relatively small study, and no one has tried to repeat the results yet, so they may not be totally reliable. But the idea that antidepressants are affecting neuroticism directly is intriguing. One idea is that the trait is linked to level of serotonin in the brain, which is altered by the SSRIs.

While becoming less neurotic might sound like an appealing side-effect, it’s not necessarily all good news. That’s because this aspect of our personalities is something of a double-edged sword; yes, it’s been associated with all kinds of unpleasant outcomes, such as an earlier death, but it’s also thought that anxious over-thinking might be helpful. For example, neurotic individuals tend to be more risk-averse, and in certain situations worrying can improve a person’s performance.

“What [the American psychiatrist] Peter Kramer warned us about was that when some people are on antidepressants, what can happen is that they begin not to care about things that people care about,” says DeRubeis. If the results do hold up, should patients be warned about how their treatment might change them?

“If I were advising a friend, I would certainly want them to be on the lookout for those kinds of undesirable effects, just like they would naturally be looking out for other side-effects, like whether they’re gaining weight, and so on,” says DeRubeis.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that no one is arguing that people should stop taking their medication. Despite their subtle effects on the brain, antidepressants have been shown to help prevent suicides, cholesterol-lowering drugs save tens of thousands of lives every year, and paracetamol is on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential drugs because of its ability to relieve pain. But it is important that people are informed about any potential psychological side-effects.

The matter takes on a whole new urgency, when you consider that some personality changes can be dramatic. There’s solid evidence that the drug L-dopa, which is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, increases the risk of Impulse Control Disorders (ICDs) – a group of problems that make it more difficult to resist temptations and urges.

Consequently, the drug can have life-ruining consequences, as some patients suddenly start taking more risks, becoming pathological gamblers, excessive shoppers, and sex pests. In 2009, a drug with similar properties hit the headlines, after a man with Parkinson’s committed a £45,000 ($60,000) ticket scam. He blamed it on his medication, claiming that it had completely changed his personality.

The association with impulsive behaviours makes sense, because L-dopa is essentially providing the brain with a dose of extra dopamine – in Parkinson’s disease the part of the brain that produces it is progressively destroyed – and the hormone is involved in providing us with feelings of pleasure and reward.

Experts agree that L-dopa is the most effective treatment for many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and it’s prescribed to thousands of people in the US every year. This is despite a long list of possible side effects that accompanies the medication, which explicitly mentions the risk of unusually strong urges, such as for gambling or sex.

In fact, DeRubeis, Golomb and Mischkowski are all of the opinion that the drugs they’re studying will continue to be used, regardless of their potential psychological side-effects. “We are human beings, you know,” says Mischkowski. “We take a lot of stuff that is not necessarily always good in every circumstance. I always use the example of alcohol, because it’s also a painkiller, like paracetamol. We take it because we feel that it has a benefit for us, and it’s OK as long as you take it in the right circumstances and you don’t consume too much.”.

But in order to minimise any undesirable effects and get the most out of the staggering quantities of medications that we all take each day, Mischkowski reiterates that we need to know more. Because at the moment, he says, how they are affecting the behaviour of individuals – and even entire societies – is largely a mystery.



New Study: Crime Shows Are A ‘PR Machine’ For Law Enforcement.

Join us:

New Study: Crime Shows Are A ‘PR Machine’ For Law Enforcement.

Crime dramas are the cornerstone of primetime television, but according to Color of Change’s groundbreaking report, the genre is reinforcing policies and attitudes surrounding the criminal justice system that hurt people of color the most. In fact, the report suggests that the amount of negative bias and misinformation in crime procedurals makes them a “PR machine” for law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a whole.

The report, entitled Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre, revealed that out of 26 procedurals, important topics such as racial bias in policing and the judicial system went largely unchallenged or under-explored. People of color, especially Black women, were generally not cast as victims of crimes in the series, despite being victimized in real life by violence. In fact, the report cites something showrunners, network executives and producers are to have said to their writers when writing about victims: “Viewers will change the channel if we make the crime victim Black, so you’ll have to rewrite those characters and make them white instead.”

Meanwhile, people of color were usually painted as the perpetrators of crimes. Characters who represented advocate groups such as Black Lives Matter were often portrayed as naive, misinformed crusaders instead of informed fighters for justice. And more often than not, Black judge characters were used as figureheads to dispense white perspectives about law and the criminal justice system.

In the 26 series studied, all but 5 were helmed by white male showrunners. At least 78 percent of the writers on all 26 shows were white, with only nine percent of Black writers counted. To break the numbers down even further, 20 out of the 26 series had either just one Black writer or none at all. The series also found that law enforcement was routinely shown to commit more wrongful actions than the characters designated as the perpetrators. Across 18 of the 26 series studied, the “Good Guy” to “Bad Guy” ratio of wrongful actions was 8 to 1. More people of color were also shown as perpetrators across the 26 series.

In relation to onscreen diversity versus diversity in the writers’ room, the study’s Racial Integrity Index found that series with characters of color had mostly white writers’ rooms, meaning that the cultural and racial backgrounds of the characters onscreen were missing behind the scenes.

“If these TV shows are overwhelmingly showing the victims to be white, and in particular avoiding showing that women of color, particularly Black women are oftentimes victims, what they are doing is they are taking away the power…of who should have their story told,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change.

Robinson said that the results have profound effects on how viewers think about how race and gender play a part in the criminal justice system.

“Unfortunately…these shows are constantly telling the public and painting a picture of white people being harmed by Black people in ways that are not actually existing in society,” he said. “What we’re building is a false understanding of what the problem is, and then we get false solutions built on public demand for things that are not actually problems. These shows do a whole lot of damage about race, but one of those damages is to make invisible the challenges that Black people face in communities and also taking away the power and voice of Black people to be the deciders of their own fate.”

“…The narratives that are coming out of Hollywood–for profit–are fueling some of the incentives that we’re seeing in our country, fueling people’s understanding of what they think justice should look like. It also makes it harder for us to push back against injustice,” he continued. “Police on these shows are constantly doing bad things but are either being rewarded or are able to give a speech about why they had to do it, [meaning] we are building the mental model for juries, for folks who vote for district attorneys. In order to keep us safe, things are going to be messy and some communities are going to have their rights trampled on, but it’s a means to an end. That can happen when communities are not seen as powerful.”

Some of that damage is coming from characters who look like the communities affected. Judges and law enforcement officers who are Black are used by writers to justify the injustice that happens within a show’s story. Robinson said that the effect helps audiences believe that the actions taken by the criminal justice system “must be fair” if a Black character is endorsing them. The characters, he said, are a “symbolic use of Blackness…Black visibility as a stand-in for actual justice and actual truth.”

“A lot of these shows have worked to diversify their casts…what we oftentimes see are people of color in all sorts of roles and in the last couple of years, people of color in law enforcement,” he said. “However the writers’ rooms haven’t actually changed. So you have justice written by white writers put through the mouths of elderly, stately Black judges, or police officers who never speak out against what’s happening in the system. As a result, it paints a very false picture.”

On a personal note, for him, seeing advocates portrayed as uninformed vigilantes is discouraging, but unsurprising.

“As a person who has been a lifelong advocate, I am used to the caricature of people who do this work. I am also aware of when a game or a situation is rigged. And the shows employ and uplift those from law enforcement to be the voice in the room,” he said. “If you only allow one side of the story to be told, if you only allow Bugs Bunny to tell his story, you know how everyone else is going to be framed.”

There are solutions Color of Change recommends for showrunners who want to create more inclusive shows based on the actual realities of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Solutions include hiring more writers of color and writers with specific knowledge of the show’s subject matter, reaching out to advocacy groups as consultants and doing proper research of the subject matter.

“These shows…and all those who are profiting from it, have made a choice. The report’s goal is to both expose that and to hopefully give more power to people on the inside because we know there are people on the inside who want want to do the right thing to push for the right thing and push for change. [We want] to give them more power and more data to do that well,” he said. “And then the goal…over time is that we are going to run campaigns. We are going to push back against these depictions and folks won’t be able to say that they didn’t know, that there wasn’t any information out there, that they aren’t making a choice, that they aren’t choosing profit over the real depictions of people’s lives and that it could have real harm.”

“For years we have been in writers’ rooms working with storytellers and producers and we’re going to continue to do that,” he continued. “For folks who want to work with us and want to invite us in and want to engage with us and…bring real people into the writers’ rooms from district attorneys to community leaders to people working on the front lines, we want to make sure we are there to do that. We’re going to be hosting salons and other things and we hope to engage with more people in the industry.”

Along with working with more writers’ rooms and networking more throughout Hollywood, Robinson said that Color of Change will provide an outlet for viewers to speak out and “push back against these narratives and tell stories about how these narratives have impacted their lives.”

“For us, all of that is going to be critically important to moving us forward,” he said.


Something in Deep Space Is Sending Signals to Earth in Steady 16-Day Cycles.

Join us:

Something in Deep Space Is Sending Signals to Earth in Steady 16-Day Cycles.

A mysterious radio source located in a galaxy 500 million light years from Earth is pulsing on a 16-day cycle, like clockwork, according to a new study. This marks the first time that scientists have ever detected periodicity in these signals, which are known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), and is a major step toward unmasking their sources.

FRBs are one of the most tantalizing puzzles that the universe has thrown at scientists in recent years. First spotted in 2007, these powerful radio bursts are produced by energetic sources, though nobody is sure what those might be. FRBs are also mystifying because they can be either one-offs or “repeaters,” meaning some bursts appear only once in a certain part of the sky, while others emit multiple flashes to Earth.

Pulses from these repeat bursts have, so far, seemed somewhat random and discordant in their timing. But that changed last year, when the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment Fast Radio Burst Project (CHIME/FRB), a group dedicated to observing and studying FRBs, discovered that a repeater called FRB 180916.J0158+65 had a regular cadence.

The CHIME/FRB team kept tabs on the repeating burst between September 2018 and October 2019 using the CHIME radio telescope in British Columbia. During that period, the bursts were clustered into a period of four days, and then seemed to switch off for the next 12 days, for a total cycle of about 16 days. Some cycles did not produce any visible bursts, but those that did were all synced up to the same 16-day intervals.

“We conclude that this is the first detected periodicity of any kind in an FRB source,” the team said in a paper published on the preprint server arXiv in late January. “The discovery of a 16.35-day periodicity in a repeating FRB source is an important clue to the nature of this object.”

Scientists recently tracked down this particular FRB to a galaxy called SDSS J015800.28+654253.0, which is a half a billion light years from Earth. That may seem like a huge distance, but FRB 180916.J0158+65 is actually the closest FRB ever detected.

But while we know where it is, we still don’t know what it is. To that point, the beat of the FRB suggests that it might be modulated by its surroundings. If the source of the FRB is orbiting a compact object, such as a black hole, then it might only flash its signals toward Earth at a certain point in its orbital period. That scenario could potentially match this recognizable 16-day cycle.

It’s also possible that we are witnessing a binary system containing a massive star and a super-dense stellar core known as a neutron star, according to a study published on arXiv on Wednesday by a separate team that looked at the same data. In that model, the neutron star would emit radio bursts, but those signals would be periodically eclipsed by opaque outflowing winds from its giant companion.

Another scenario is that the FRB rhythm isn’t tempered by another object, and is sending out the pulses directly from the source. Scientists have previously suggested that flares from highly magnetized neutron stars, called magnetars, might be the source of some FRBs. But since magnetars tend to rotate every few seconds, a 16-day cycle does not match the expected profile of a magnetar-based FRB.

Ultimately, the CHIME/FRB team hopes to find similar patterns in the handful of known repeating bursts to see if these cycles are common. The researchers also plan to keep a careful eye on FRB 180916.J0158+6 while it is active in order to spot any other details that might point to its identity.

FRBs have baffled scientists for more than a decade, but new facilities such as CHIME are revealing new details about these weird events every year. While we still don’t know what is blasting out these bizarre signals, the discovery of a clear tempo from one of these sources provides a significant lead for scientists to follow.


Indian health minister claims cancer is caused by sins from a past life.

Join us:

Indian health minister claims cancer is caused by sins from a past life.

An Indian health minister has sparked outrage after claiming cancer is caused by sins in a past life.

Himanta Biswa Sarma, who holds office in the Assam state government, said people could also develop the disease through “divine justice” if their parents had sinned.

The minister’s comments drew anger from cancer sufferers, their families, and from political opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, of which he is a member.

Indian news agency PTI quoted Mr Sarma as saying in a speech: “God makes us suffer when we sin.

“Sometimes we come across young men getting inflicted with cancer or young men meeting with accidents.

“If you observe the background you will come to know that it’s divine justice. Nothing else. We have to suffer that divine justice.

“In this lifetime or in our previous life, or perhaps my father or mother, perhaps that young man did not do but his father has done something wrong.”

Many took to social media to criticise the remarks.

Journalist Smita Sharma tweeted: “I don’t tweet about personal issues. But I have to say this-my niece was only 11yrs old when she lost her father to cancer.

“Innumerable families have gone through the unspeakable pain & trauma of Cancer. I wouldn’t wish it even upon worst enemies. Shame on you Mr.Min @himantabiswa.”

Newsreader Supriya Shrinate‏ added: “Too enraged to resist tweeting. Shame on you @himantabiswa I pity you and your mindset.

“You are too insensitive to be an elected rep. Cancer is traumatic for patients and families. How will you pay for this sin? Awfully sick man.”

Attempting to clarify his remarks following the backlash, Mr Sarma tweeted: “I simply asked a new batch of teachers to work sincerely and work for [the] poor.

“In that context I argue that if we do not work sincerely in next life we might face karmic deficiency and that may lead to sufferings. What is insensitive about this?

“Go through my speech. I never said that sin cause was a speech to motivate teacher. Serve [the] poor or otherwise you may face karmic deficiency and suffer in next life.”

Cancer is a growing problem in India, where a lack of awareness has partly led to a five per cent increase in diagnoses among women, according to a report released this year by Ernst & Young.

The study found 2,000 Indian women are diagnosed with a form of the disease every day, with 60 per cent detected at a late stage.