Why a “fracking refugee” is attending the global plastics treaty negotiations
Jill Hunkler is pictured in front of the Shaw Centre, where the plastic treaty negotiations are taking place. Credit: Allison Woolverton.

Why a “fracking refugee” is attending the global plastics treaty negotiations

“Fracking and building pipelines in order to create more poisonous plastic is ruining people’s lives.”

Jill Hunkler, an Ohio resident who considers herself a “fracking refugee,” is telling her family’s story at the global plastics treaty negotiations in Ottawa this week, where negotiators from about 175 countries are working to advance a treaty to address global plastic pollution.


“I was forced to leave my home that I built with my own hands,” she told Environmental Health News. “I lived in Somerset Township, Ohio, where my sister, my mom and I had 13 acres of land and we had spent years building homes on it that we loved, but then 78 fracking well pads were built within five miles of our home.”

Air pollution from the fracking operations sickened her and her family, Hunkler said, and they experienced symptoms like headaches, nausea, rashes, body aches and difficulty breathing that they hadn’t experienced before the wells were drilled. The family tried to get help from regulators, but after years of suffering with little action, they opted to move.

Her family moved to another property, she said. “But eventually fracking showed up there too, and I moved again to try and escape it. So now I’m twice a fracking refugee.”

More than 99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, and as the world transitions to renewable energy, fossil fuel companies — particularly those invested in fracking — are driving a new plastics boom to stay profitable. For example, in the Ohio River Valley, where Hunkler is from, Shell recently began operations at its massive Pennsylvania plastics plant that converts fracked ethane gas into plastic pellets, many of which are used to create single-use plastic products like bags and packaging.

Since starting up in 2022, Shell’s Pennsylvania plastics plant has been fined millions of dollars for violating clean air laws and is being sued by environmental advocacy groups over potential health impacts from harmful emissions. Last week, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Michelle Henry also announced charges against Shell for violating Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams laws with industrial waste during construction of the pipelines that bring ethane feedstock from fracked natural gas to the plastics plant. Concerns about pollution from the plant have also caused families to move away from the region.

After becoming a fracking refugee, Hunkler spent eight years fighting to stop a similar plastics plant from being built near her home in Ohio — a project that has been put on hold indefinitely.

“When people think about the health impacts of plastics they tend to think about harmful microplastics in our bodies, which is really important, but it’s also important to look at the devastating public health impacts all the way down the supply chain” Hunkler said. “Fracking and building pipelines in order to create more poisonous plastic is ruining people’s lives.”

Tensions at the plastic pollution treaty talks

Jill Hunkler (right) and Anaïs Peterson (left) hold a banner during a march in Ottawa organized by the Break Free From Plastic coalition

Photo by Diane Peterson

If the current trajectory for the plastics industry continues unabated, plastic manufacturing is estimated to account for more than a third of the growth in oil demand by 2030 and nearly half by 2050—ahead of trucks, aviation, and shipping, according to the International Energy Agency.

The stated goal of the global plastics treaty is to end plastic pollution by 2040. Hunkler, like many other activists, believe this goal won’t be achieved unless plastic production stops. They are supporting a version of the plastic treaty supported by a group of “High Ambition” countries that includes slowing down plastic production via bans, restrictions or caps.

"It’s important to look at the devastating public health impacts all the way down the supply chain" – Jill Hunkler, an Ohio resident who considers herself a “fracking refugee.”

Meanwhile, plastic industry lobbyists – also attending the negotiations in Ottawa – are promoting plastic’s beneficial uses, such as medical products and reducing food waste. The plastics industry, alongside a coalition of mostly fossil-fuel-producing countries, are pushing “chemical recycling” as a solution to plastic pollution, but environmental advocates say the process is energy-intensive, creates toxic air and water pollution, and fails to actually reduce plastic waste.

It has also proven difficult to profit from chemical recycling operations — none of the approximately ten operational plants in the US are currently operating at full capacity, according to a report from the advocacy group Beyond Plastic. This month a chemical recycling plant in Oregon was shuttered, and a proposed plant in Pennsylvania was canceled amid concerns about the efficacy and feasibility of chemical recycling.

“I hope sharing my story will help the negotiators in Ottawa recognize that fracking and extracting fossil fuels to keep making more plastic is toxic,” Hunkler said. “With the exception of the small amount of plastic that’s needed for medical and other essential uses, we do not need plastic to function as a society. It’s a relatively new product on the planet, and the convenience of it is not worth jeopardizing the health of our children and future generations.”

planetary health diet
Credit: Unsplash+

This diet will likely keep you alive longer — and help the planet

New research finds the Planetary Health Diet lowers our risk to most major causes of death.

People who closely follow an environmentally conscious plant-heavy diet that also includes modest portions of meat and dairy, dubbed the Planetary Health Diet, have a 30% lower risk of premature death from common causes such as cancer and heart disease, according to new research.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
green party setbacks eu elections
Credit: Matthias Berg/Flickr

Green party faces setbacks in EU elections

Green parties in the European Union have lost significant ground in the latest elections, prompting concerns about the future of the Green Deal and climate policies.

Ajit Niranjan and Lisa O'Carroll report for The Guardian.
Keep reading...Show less

The White House introduces a unified standard for zero-energy buildings

The Biden administration has unveiled a new federal definition for zero-emissions buildings, aiming to set a national benchmark for sustainable construction.

Kriston Capps reports for Bloomberg.

Keep reading...Show less

Michigan's water extraction issue continues despite promises

In Michigan, unchecked water extraction by a major corporation is raising red flags about environmental sustainability and social equity, especially as communities such as Flint struggle with ongoing water quality crises.

Anna Clark reports for ProPublica.

Keep reading...Show less
scotus & chevron doctrine
Credit: Matt Wade/Flickr

​Chevron deference may face changes but not complete repeal by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is poised to decide on the future of Chevron deference, a key doctrine for federal agencies, with potential significant changes expected instead of a full repeal.

Pamela King reports for E&E News.

Keep reading...Show less
methane manure biogas digester
Credit: s pants/Flickr

Manure digesters may worsen pollution in large farms

New research suggests that manure digesters, hailed as a solution to livestock farm pollution, may actually exacerbate environmental harm by encouraging larger farms.

Laura Schulte reports for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
environmental justice

LISTEN: Jose Ramon Becerra Vera on democratizing science

“In their own way, they’re becoming experts, not just of their experiences but also of the data collection process.”

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

“Of all the levels of radium in produced water or brine around the world that I’ve looked at, I have encountered none that are consistently as high as what comes out of the Marcellus Shale.”

environmental justice pittsburgh

Environmental justice advocates find hope, healing and community in Pittsburgh

Advocates and researchers gathered to not only discuss ongoing fights but victories, self-care and cautious optimism about the path ahead.

air pollution pittsburgh

Amidst a controversial international sale, U.S. Steel falls behind in cleaner steelmaking

U.S. Steel’s proposed sale to Nippon Steel stokes concerns over labor rights and national security, all while the company continues to break clean air laws in Western Pennsylvania.

exxon houston petrochemicals

Spanish-speaking residents feel left out of permitting process at massive Exxon petrochemical plant in Houston-area

“It is important to ensure meaningful engagement efforts are inclusive and accessible to all diverse members of our communities.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.