Plastics make life easier. They are everyday items all around the world. They are “items of comfort”. However, they never go away. And for some applications this is not bad; plastic is used to make disposable syringes for diabetics, hard hats for construction workers, etc. On the other hand, when plastic reaches the ocean it becomes a threat to the animals that rely on the ocean for food and is now becoming a risk to human health. When plastic and other waste reaches the ocean it is swept up in currents and becomes trapped in one of the five large ocean garbage patches. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest garbage patch sitting in between the coast of Japan and the coast of the United States. Although this trash zone is a combination of trash and plastic from multiple countries, no country will take the lead in beginning to clean up the oceans and decrease the use of plastic. With little intervention marine life, humans, and the environment are at risk. Many people know the dangers of plastic when it comes to affecting marine life, but do not know the dangers affecting humans. Twenty million tons of plastic find its way into the ocean each year. It is estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles, about 268,940 tons, are currently floating in the world’s oceans. Due to this large amount of plastic in the oceans, it is taking over marine and human life. There are many dangers of the plastic problem, but also many of the current population solutions. Many mainstream solutions fail to be equitable and just to all communities affected, not just those of privilege.

Everybody is surrounded by plastic every single day. From food containers, plastic grocery bags, plastic water bottles, and straws. “Plastic is versatile, lightweight, flexible, moisture resistant, strong, and relatively inexpensive. Those are the attractive qualities that lead us, around the world, to such a voracious appetite and over-consumption of plastic goods” In the last 10 years we have made more plastic than in all of history. During that time one billion pounds of plastic has ended up in the oceans. Some research shows that there is a single mile of the surface of the ocean anywhere on earth that is free of plastic pollution. Plastic is taking over people’s lives as well as marine life. Climate change is a large component to the poor water quality and the rise in temperature. Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner said, “This should knock us into our senses. We knew that this plastic was coming back to us through our food chain. Now we see it is coming back to us through our drinking water. Do we have a way out?” 94.4 percent of the water across the United States is contaminated with microplastics. Every person on the planet is at risk of consuming toxic microplastics. Some more so than others.

The root issue that must be incorporated into the discussion of plastic pollution is environmental justice and intersectionality. Environmental Justice works for the fair treatment and involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income and the relationships between power, privilege and the environment. Intersectional environmentalism works to advocate for underrepresented communities, Black Indigenious and People of Color (BIPOC) and low-income communities and the environment. It is important to incorporate this idea as the injustices experienced by marginalized groups can be seen across the world. The issues of water contamination and climate change effects have greater impacts on marginalized groups. By embracing an intersectional lens and amplifying BIPOC voices we can work towards a better future that benefits the environment and public health.

The basis of health, described by the Ottawa Charters, are peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, and social justice and equity. The Ottawa Charters describe these as the fundamental conditions and resources for health, they are prerequisites for health. There are environmental injustices in everyone of these prerequisites for health. There is a persistent failure in our systems of environmental and health protective services that fail to address the needs and disparities of marginalized communities. Now more than ever we must recognize the health disparities in our communities around us and work to demolish them. Our current climate crisis is not only destroying our planet but is also impacting our health, and impacting the health of marginalized communities more than others.

To prevent the next generation becoming “Garbage Patch Kids” we need to rework the plan of action to discuss root issues and the impacts on marginalized communities. The work, knowledge, and voices of color and low income communities should be at the forefront of the movement. Within the zero waste and sustainability movements, voices of color and diverse forms of sustainability are often not uplifted. Zero waste is the philosophy that encourages reducing landfill-bound trash, and using the maximum amount of reusable resources. For example, white vegans and vegetarians, sustainability and zero waste advocates and influences did not create the idea of excluding animal products from the diet, living low waste, and reusing sustainable items, they have existed and flourished in communities of color for centuries. For example, many vegan nonprofits, such as the Humane Society of the United States, Mercy For Animals, the Humane League, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, are largely staffed with white executives and board members and carry out the will of white funders and priorities. This trend can also be seen in the political and institutional settings of current environmental change.

Many major indigenous and religious groups in non-white communities in Asia and South America have been eating vegatarian or vegan for many thousands of years. Western plant-based diets and zero waste movements often fail to give credit to who cultivates and the origins of popular foods such as legumes, yams, rice, quinoa, chia seeds, and tofu. We need to move forward and connect the intersectionality between the zero waste and sustainability movements and race. The sustainable voice of color needs to be amplified for the zero waste movement to be successful and have a purpose beyond the stereotypical white, able bodied individuals that seem to fill the environmental positions in leadership and movements. In order to enact change we should focus on bringing diverse voices of sustainability movements. We must decolonize the education system, health system, and sustainable movements, to make change and interventions available to all, not just privileged bodies. Trash is messy, so are the health impacts and injustices that tag along. The future of sustainable packaging should be geared to address the years of systematic inequality and work to invest in marginalized communities.

Essay by: Emma Edmisten
Western Washington University

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