Plastic pollution is one of the most severe issues facing our planet
It is estimated that the world produces 381 million tonnes of plastic waste each year—a number that is set to double by 2034 unless significant intervention occurs. This plastic sits our ocean or land, breaking down into toxic pollutants or microplastics, risking and taking the lives of wildlife, and accelerating global warming.
As citizens of Planet Earth, our collective goal ought to be to protect our home for a more sustainable future. So the solution seems simple: everyone must reduce plastic waste, or better yet, remove it altogether.
But it’s not that simple.
The global population is comprised of a variety of income levels, races, genders and other identity markers, which have different roles and impacts when it comes to the climate crisis. The issues facing our planet are intertwined with those in marginalized communities—and we must not generalize the global population in the call to reduce plastic when not everyone is coming from the same position.
Let’s explore the different factors that determine why everyone can’t just reduce plastic waste.
In order to manage our impact on the climate crisis, we must first learn and understand it—and not everyone around the world has the same access to resources and actionable solutions on this subject matter. Changemakers are working to incorporate environmentalism into the education system, as exemplified by the new platform created by Hot Planet Cool Athletes, which is designed to engage and encourage students to become advocates for the planet.
These types of innovative education programs are a great step towards a sustainable future, but are not equally accessible across the globe. There is a dire need for better integration of environmental topics in schools around the world. Many emerging nations or lower-income schools lack the funding and resources to implement proper training for both teachers and students to effectively administer and learn the tools and skills for fighting plastic pollution.
Photo by Micheile Henderson on UnsplashSingle-use plastics are embedded into the daily fabric of our lives. We order online goods that arrive wrapped in plastic. We stop at a convenience store to grab a plastic bottle of cold water. We drink our beverages through straws because we’d rather not lift the glass to our lips. We place our produce into a plastic bag in the grocery store, and then put those plastic bags into other plastic bags to transport them to our homes.
Shifting this behaviour requires a constant effort to say “no” to the plastic. It requires foresight and planning—bringing a reusable bag to the store or a reusable bottle to fill from the tap, or refusing plastic straws at cafés and restaurants. It requires researching materials and searching for eco-friendly alternatives to the plastic products that have become staples in our lives. It requires shifting our mindsets away from being short-term and selfish, and towards being long-term with our planet in mind.
Sometimes the use of plastic goes beyond convenience. Some plastics are necessary to the way we live or make an income, and there just aren’t any other viable or available options—at least today.
While a plastic straw ban is well-intentioned, a consideration that gets neglected is that of disabled people who rely on straws as a necessary tool to drink. There are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws but they are not always at the ready, and this can leave people without the basic ability to drink if they are not able to lift the cup to their mouth.
Furthermore, some people rely on plastic as a source of income, and there may not be a feasible alternative yet. For example, over 640,000 tonnes of “ghost gear”—lost or discarded fishing gear—ends up in our oceans per year, which is a massive amount of plastic. Much of this is unintentionally lost by fishermen who are using the fishing nets and lines to make a living.Photo by Reuben Hustler on Unsplash
There is no denying that the fight against plastic pollution comes at a cost, and developed nations and higher-income individuals have a head start in the shift towards sustainability.
Developed nations have more advanced waste management systems, and have been more progressive at providing plastic-free alternatives or incentivizing away from plastic. For example, many higher-end grocery stores have eliminated plastic bags or charge a small fee for those who opt for the bag, encouraging customers to bring their reusables instead.
In contrast, many emerging countries have poor waste management systems, leading them to be the main sources of global plastic pollution. About half of all the plastic waste that ends up in the ocean comes from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. These are countries with rapidly growing economies, but with this comes a consumption boom, and an accompanying increase in plastic goods.
On an individual level, the shift towards eliminating plastic is a pricey one. Sustainable products often cost more than their cheaper plastic alternatives. Those living paycheck to paycheck may not be able to purchase that reusable, sustainable options, when they can get the plastic ones for a lesser or no cost.
Regions around the world face inherent disadvantages in the fight against plastic pollution due to their geographical location and climate.
The Indonesian island of Bali, notorious for its mounds of trash-polluting tourist hotspots like Kuta and Seminyak beaches, faces a monsoon season that carries its trash from landfills to rivers and oceans. The effects of the weather only compound the trash problem that faces this developing island that has been hit by a massive tourist boom and is struggling to keep up with the demand in consumption.Photo by Ocean Cleanup Group on Unsplash
Another example is areas that do not foster an environment for fresh produce—known as “food deserts”—and therefore require food to be shipped over long distances, for which it is wrapped in plastic to keep the food fresh for longer and protect it against bacteria. This plastic packaging ends up in landfills—a problem not faced by fertile and agricultural areas where fresh food is plentiful.
Societal pressures and physical necessities mean that genders are not equally positioned to eliminate plastic waste from their lives. Society leads women to believe that makeup equates to beauty, and the vast majority of personal care and cosmetic products are plastic. In addition, menstruation requires women to purchase plastic applicators or pads out of necessity. On average, every woman that uses sanitary pads generates 60 kilograms of pad waste in her lifetime, and these take hundreds of years to biodegrade.
While plastic-free alternatives tend to be more difficult to seek out and come at a cost, they do exist. India-based Saathi pads are 100 percent biodegradable, made from plant-based material such as banana fibres, and are a great eco-friendly alternative. Diva Cup provides another eco-friendly alternative for managing menstruation.
Also look for eco-friendly brands in the cosmetic space like Lush, which minimizes plastic waste by providing “naked” products or, when this is not possible, using recycled or reused materials for packaging. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy.
Historically and statistically, environmentalism is skewed towards protecting white, middle-to-upper-class citizens, with marginalized communities taking the toll of climate change the hardest. White people make up the majority of the faces and the changemakers of most sustainability movements, while people of colour lack representation to lend their voice to environmental policies or developments that may benefit marginalized groups. These groups often get neglected in the progression to end plastic pollution and are either less invested due to their lack of involvement, or directly targeted.
One of the ways environmental racism manifests is when areas that host large percentages of marginalized communities are disproportionately populated with hazardous waste sites or dumping grounds, releasing toxins and affecting the air quality for those who live there.
Black people are exposed to 1.5 times more airborne particulate matter than white people, and Hispanic people were about 1.2 times more exposed than non-Hispanic whites, according to a study by the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment. An example is the zip code 48217 in Detroit, Michigan, which hosts a dense population of Black and Hispanic people. 48217 also happens to be the most polluted zip code in all of Michigan due to over three dozen toxic chemical facilities in the area.Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
This begs the question of why racial minorities should be expected to reduce their plastic use and fight against climate change when they aren’t even given the chance at a healthy planet in their own backyard.
Unfortunately, we tend to not care profusely about an issue unless it affects us directly. This is white privilege in a nutshell: if we have the privilege to turn a blind eye to racism, we are part of the problem.
Similarly, if we have the privilege to ignore the effects of plastic on our planet, we are choosing to be ignorant, because it is not affecting us directly right now. But it will. And it will affect generations to come.
It is difficult to imagine the impact that one straw can have on the environment or marine life. But when we see a deceased turtle with a straw caught in its throat, that may be a major wake-up call. As humans, we need to see a tangible result of our actions in order for us to change them. This unfortunately holds many of us back from making choices for the greater good—for our planet.
While we all must do our best in the fight against plastic pollution, not everyone shares the same ability to do so. There are many privileges, biases and limitations at play, and when we are looking towards a more sustainable future, we must give significant consideration to both people and planet.