It’s Plastic Free July, an initiative designed to help us reduce our global plastic consumption. But Evaluating Scenarios Toward Zero Plastic Pollution, a paper published by Science on Thursday, July 23, indicated that our efforts to reduce plastic waste are “wildly insufficient” (Fortune). Let’s take a closer look at the intersection of plastic, waste, and environmental racism.
8% to 10% of our total oil supply goes to making plastic. In fact, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil a year are used just for making plastic bags used in the U.S. (1 Bag at a Time). Humans are unloading 29 million metric tons of bottles, bags, and microplastics (little bits smaller than 5 millimeters) into the oceans annually, equaling 110 pounds per beach meter (Science). Consumed and undesired plastic products typically end up in landfills, incinerators, the environment, or a recycling facility.
Plastic products are often consumed more in lower-income BIPOC communities due to the taxpayer-subsidized low sales prices that incentivize companies to use them (Sierra Club). But these communities are often under-resourced to properly dispose of plastic waste than high-income areas (Wired). Together, these factors place marginalized communities at greater risk of consuming toxic chemicals in plastic, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and microplastics, than in more resourced areas (Sierra Club).
And all waste does not impact communities equally. Landfills have historically been placed in or near BIPOC neighborhoods. One of the distinct characteristics of garbage incinerators in the United States is that they are often sited in communities of color and low-income communities, also referred to as environmental justice (EJ) communities. 58 Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) incinerators – 79% of all incinerators in the U.S. – are located in environmental justice communities (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).
The incineration industry is a key demonstration of infrastructure strategically positioned in certain communities and not others. Environmental advocates have recognized for decades how these waste facilities prevent environmental justice. They also contribute to the cumulative and disproportionate pollution placed on communities of color and low-income communities (Tishman Environment and Design Center).
A few years back, I had the pleasure of working on the East Harlem Healthy Neighborhood Action Plan. As I explored social determinants of health further, it became clear to me that climate change and public health were not two separate communities. Communities with little to no landfills, incinerators, trucking, and bus depots have lower rates of asthma and cardiac disease. Additionally, studies show that where more incinerators are located, there is a decrease in recycling, composting, and waste reduction due to perverse incentives to burn more waste.
There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.”
The disproportionate impact of environmental threats on Black, Indigenous, and people of color is referred to as environmental racism. Environmental racism exists as the inverse of environmental justice, when environmental risks are allocated disproportionately along the lines of race, often without the input of the affected communities of color (The Atlantic). It is important to acknowledge that those impacted the most by the climate crisis are victims of decades and centuries of norms, values, regulations, behaviors, and policies that have made it this way today.
In terms of defining environmental justice, we have to start from the beginning, as you don’t have justice without injustice first. Environmental injustice for Native people is about being forcibly cut off from their source of life sustenance. Native people are inseparable from their lands in terms of their cultures and their identities.”
Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Indigenous Scholar and Journalist for Gizmodo
Since the late 1900s, the environmental movement has been pushed to center the knowledge and lived experiences of people of color. Reducing the number of plastics used will lessen the unfair burden diverse communities carry. If everyone worked to decrease their use of plastic, we would be able to decrease fracking substantially, preserve wildlife, protect coastal communities, and improve the health conditions of BIPOC communities across the globe.
In 2020, people still have a tendency to view the causes of climate change as separate from their daily actions. And although it’s clear that policies accelerate these disparities, we still need to do our part. Let’s analyze our plastic consumption as an environmental and anti-racist act. The future of a just and green planet relies on every single person, particularly those with access to resources, to take action that calls for larger societal changes.
• Despite our efforts to reduce plastic consumption, a recent study indicates our progress has been insufficient in making change.
• The consumption and waste from plastics disproportionately affect BIPOC communities.
•Environmental racism is a term that analyzes how environmental risks are allocated disproportionately.
• We need to look at our eco-conscious efforts as both environmentally-friendly and an act of anti-racism.