06 Jan Why plastic pollution is fundamentally an environmental justice issue
I have a bit of a weird New Year’s Resolution. It may not seem like much, but I’m pledging to stop including photos of turtles in my presentations on plastic pollution. Now, if you’re thinking: “Alexis, you could really stand to hit the gym a little bit more, why don’t you make that your New Year’s Resolution?” then read on! I’ll explain to you why this resolution is so important.
What is environmental justice?
In a nutshell, the movement of environmental justice seeks environmental benefits and burdens to be equally applied regardless of race, colour, national origin or income. As it stands, many groups, including but not limited to indigenous communities, communities of colour and low-income communities do not get fair and equal access to environmental resources and are disproportionately impacted by environmental problems that they did not cause. This not only happens within countries, but also on a global level: people in the developed world are extract natural resources from the developing world, depriving those citizens of their rightful access, living beyond our means and causing climate change. It is then vulnerable communities in developing countries who are subject to the brunt of increase in temperatures and higher variation in climate. The term ‘environmental racism’ can also help describe the concept of environmental justice, which is understanding that environmental injustices happen within a racialised context.
So how does environmental justice apply to plastic?
There are a thousand ways in which environmental injustice issues presents itself in plastic pollution issues, but for the sake of brevity I’ve chosen three examples to help illustrate the problem. When I wrote this blog post up, I realised that I could write pages on each of these examples, so I will be releasing this post in three parts so that you don’t get too saddled with reading. I’ll be covering these examples of how environmental justice applies to plastic:
- Where and how our plastic is produced
- Export of waste to the developing world
- Human health impacts of plastic
- Where and how our plastic is produced
Plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, the extraction of which cause a number of hazardous air pollutants to be released, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds. This causes human health issues around extraction sites.
Fossil fuels are then refined and processed into plastics in petrochemical plants. During production, known carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) are released, making communities sick. It is no coincidence that these plants are usually placed in areas predominantly populated by people of colour. The community of St. James Parish, Louisiana, United States, is fighting against a proposed $9.4 billion chemical plant proposed by Taiwanese industrial giant Formosa Petrochemical Corporation, which they stipulate will only worsen health in the area. This area is known as “the Petrochemical Corridor” to industry and as “Cancer Alley” to locals, as it’s in an area with the highest risk of developing cancer in all of the United States because of the vast amount of petrochemical factories. This is a compelling case study to demonstrate environmental racism and the willpower of communities to stand up to big industrial giants. If you have a few minutes, I recommend watching the compelling testimony by Cherri Foytlin, a Louisiana activist, at the hearing on December 12th 2018. Just a warning on language in case you’re watching with kids, some curse words are used, but as Ms. Foytlin says when they cut off her mic because of her use of a profanity – “You worry about my words while you poison our people?”).
So, back to the photos of turtles and to my strange New Year’s Resolution. For years I have used pictures of turtles, whales and other marine creatures to illustrate the problem of plastic pollution. And as someone who has worked in the field of marine conservation for the last three and a half years, don’t get me wrong: the damage to our oceans is incredibly important. However, when we narrowly define plastic pollution as an oceans issue (cough cough everyone who insists on calling it “marine litter”), we deny the very real and important human suffering that our rampant production and consumption of plastic is causing. Entangled turtles are a massive and heartbreaking problem, but if you google “plastic pollution” you will see about 50 photos of the ocean for every 1 photo of a human being suffering from plastic. We must not fall into the trap of ignoring how these issues play into existing dynamics of structural racism, inequality and injustices. I have come to this understanding of this issue far too late, but I’m motivated to learn more about how to reframe my understanding. 2018 was a humbling year of reading, understanding and re-evaluating my perspectives, confronting my privilege and working to create change at the social level.
Thanks for reading about my brief overview of the social impacts of plastic pollution. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the export of waste to the developing world, and on Tuesday I’ll release the last post about human health impacts.
 This video does a good job of explaining the issue of environmental justice in the United States. Grist (2016) Environmental justice, explained https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dREtXUij6_c
 The Economist (2018) Climate change will affect developing countries more than rich ones, accessed online https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/05/09/climate-change-will-affect-developing-countries-more-than-rich-ones
 Newkirk II, Vann R. (2018) Trump’s EPA Concludes Environmental Racism is Real, The Atlantic, February 28th, 2018, accessed online https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/02/the-trump-administration-finds-that-environmental-racism-is-real/554315/
 Heikkinen, Niina (2017) “Health Effects of Oil and Gas Emissions Investigated in Texas”, E&E News, June 12th 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/health-effects-of-oil-and-gas-emissions-investigated-in-texas/
 Dermansky, Julie (2018) “Permit Hearing for Taiwanese Plastic Plant in Louisiana Turns into a Referendum on Environmental Racism”, DeSmog, https://www.desmogblog.com/2018/12/13/formosa-plastics-plant-st-james-parish-louisiana-environmental-racism
 Blackwell, Victor; Drash, Wayne and Lett, Christopher (2017) Toxic tensions in the heart of “Cancer Alley”, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/10/20/health/louisiana-toxic-town/index.html
 Cherri Foytlin https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=39RzdHkeXw8