This blog post was guest-written by Kristy Drutman, Founder of BrownGirlGreen.org and Host of the Brown Girl Green Podcast. Follow Kristy for more environmental content on Instagram, Patreon, Twitter, and YouTube.
To talk about Plastic-Free July through an intersectional lens, we have to discuss the political and racial barriers around waste reduction and who is to bear the blame and responsibility to deal with the world’s waste. We can’t talk about plastic pollution without discussing the privileges behind production and consumption.
In terms of production, many of us with the socioeconomic privilege to indulge in plastic consumption most likely don’t stop to think where or how plastic is produced in the first place.
99% of the plastic we use comes from oil and natural gas. It is produced in petrochemical plants like Formosa Plastics’ “Sunshine Factory,” which are placed smack dab in the middle of low-income communities and communities of color like St. James Parish, Louisiana. Frontline communities like St. James Parish face the difficult battle between economic development and environmental justice. As the plastic industry continues to grow and increase production, the greater demand there will be to build more mega-petrochemical plants that will continue to harm and threaten the health and safety of Black, Indigenous, and people of color populations. Where is their agency over how these products are being created and what chemicals they are forced to be exposed to every day?
Then we have to talk about the consumption and disposal of plastic in western countries, and how that, once again, ends up impacting and harming communities in the Global South.
As someone who identifies as a Filipino American, the sheer volume of waste from the Global North that ends up being dumped in Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines baffles me. A recent report found that a majority of plastic being “recycled” in the EU right now is actually just being exported and dumped into Asian waters. This story is nothing new as there are many other western countries in the world such as the US and Canada who do the exact same offense.
When I think about plastic waste, I think about the inadequacy of institutions and global waste management streams to address the volume of waste consumers are producing worldwide. It is not American or Western consumers like myself who have to bear the burden of plastic waste impacting my community, it’s members of Southeast Asian countries who must deal with the weight of plastic on their shoulders to sort, incinerate, and throw out the trash. Most of which end up in landfills or spills into the ocean, due to the lack of capacity to sort or manage it.
Growing up, my family taught me the values of sustainability by saving money. Turning off lights, using less water, and reusing plastic bags was a way to get the most value out of the objects and environment in which we were living. For Filipinos, many of us grew up reusing plastic objects for storage, for plants, for mini foot baths etc. Yet, many of us also grew up learning that using and consuming plastic was a sign of being classier and middle-class. Single-use plastic snacks and toys were things my immigrant mother practically dreamed of me having as a kid because it was a sign of making it in America.
As I’ve gotten older, I can understand the appeal, convenience, and luxury of plastic, especially for immigrant families who may not be able to afford or have access to sustainable alternatives. Thus, it’s become so much more apparent to me how much I want to fight to dramatically reduce and move our society away from plastic. I want to use my platform to tell stories that show that the plastic crisis should not be the struggle or responsibility of low-income communities or communities of color who have to deal with a wide array of other social injustices in their day-to-day lives.
I believe people need to #DroppPlastic because it isn’t just about “saving the earth,” it’s about calling out the critical flaws in waste management as well as the mass production and consumption of plastic in our society today. For me, I reclaim my plastic reduction by developing more reflection and introspection about the items I own, how long I plan to own them, and ways I could use less plastic.
For those of us with the privilege and access to choose alternatives to plastic and/or to lobby and push for systemic shifts in the waste stream, we must take action. We have to continue demanding that companies and institutions address their waste production and consumption to figure out how they can close the loop.
In order for us to create a regenerative economy that is aligned with the planet and our values, we have to challenge our own comfort zone and question why we allow something as ubiquitous as plastic to rule our lives. Why aren’t their alternative products or options for people to come from BIPOC entrepreneurs and innovators who want to reduce waste and create a healthier space for communities to thrive? We must examine these barriers to representation and access to living plastic-free and the long term consequences of not addressing how waste ultimately impacts BIPOC communities first and worst.