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Leon Kaye headshot

Why Single-Use Plastics Get in the Way of Climate Justice

The circular economy’s success can’t occur without taking on climate justice, as the impacts of single-use plastics are mostly felt by communities of color.
By Leon Kaye
Climate Justice

(Photo: A 2017 climate justice rally in St. Paul, Minnesota.)

It wasn’t long ago when just about every company was talking up their contributions to the circular economy, a system in which materials are perpetually recycled and nothing becomes waste. Some chatter is still ongoing: Last month, 50 global leaders signed a letter pledging to “build back better” with the circular economy as the foundation of post-pandemic sustainable development. The circular economy’s success, however, can’t occur without taking on climate justice.

Many companies that previously touted their commitment to end the consumption of single-use plastics in a shift toward circularity are now silent. And in a step backward for climate justice, fears over the spread of the novel coronavirus have led to a surge in the consumption of single-use plastics worldwide.

Environmental groups have long pointed fingers at what they say is the culprit: plastics manufacturers. “The plastic industry likes to gaslight the public by trying to convince people that this is a problem created and solved by individual consumers,” Sarah Lakeman, project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, wrote last week.

The challenge here is that the problems, as well as the solutions, involved with taking on plastic waste often leave the greatest impacts on communities of color.

The Surfrider Foundation is one organization that has outlaid it all: From production to consumption and, finally, to disposal, the trail of single-use plastics leaves its largest footprint on these communities, whether they are here in the U.S. or abroad.

Single-use plastics have to be disposed somewhere, or else they are incinerated. And even if plastic containers end up in a recycling stream, they have to be sorted, cleaned and churned into renewed materials. The sites at which landfill, incineration and recycling processes occur are frequently located in or near communities of color. Those neighborhoods generally have little political clout and few resources to push back against the waste facilities that can end up in their backyards.

While the waste management industry and plastics sector largely contribute to what critics say is environmental racism, the nonprofits that fight these industries, along with their well-heeled allies, also have roles that end up exacerbating this ongoing crisis.

“I saw whole neighborhoods of wealthy ‘progressive’ white New Yorkers — vocally dedicated to recycling and ‘saving the planet’ — spend their seemingly limitless money and time to prevent their own responsibility for managing waste to ameliorate the historic targeting of waste facilities in communities of color," Mathy Stanislaus wrote in The Hill earlier this week.

Stanislaus added that incinerators, one go-to solution in an era when landfill space is running out, exemplify how the waste management industry’s supply chain operates on the backs of people of color: “The decisions to burn trash in minority neighborhoods did not happen in a vacuum; they were built on top of the systemic racism of land use and chosen because the residents have a limited capacity to fight back.”

The numbers don’t lie when it comes to systematic racism in the waste industry: Last year, one report found that almost 80 percent of the incinerators in the U.S. are in low-income communities or communities of color. In the end, that reality is why as California moved closer to its version of a statewide plastic bag ban in 2016, one survey that year showed as much as 86 percent of respondents from communities of color were in support of such a law.

But from the onset of the coronavirus crisis, there has been a well-coordinated campaign to raise fears about the safety of reusable shopping bags while promoting the alleged safety of single-use plastic bags and other disposable containers. And with energy companies viewing plastics as central to their long-term strategies in an era when renewables have become far more cost-effective and scalable, progress on climate justice could stall, or even be reversed, over the next several years if the resurgence in single-use continues.

In the end, plastic bag bans are only one small part of ending environmental racism in America, but rolling back these policies will hamper climate justice efforts and unleash even more toxins across the country’s poorest communities.

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Image credit: Lorie Shaull/Wiki Commons and Brian Yurasits/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye