I’m back from the TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch conference and feeling refreshed. I’ve got many things to report about plastic toxicity, plastic and animals, plastics legislation, and even a new product that you’ll be excited about. The videos will be posted on the web in a few days, and I’ll let you know when they’re up so you can experience the event for yourself.
But for right now, I just want to share my notes from what I felt was one of the most important talks of the day: Van Jones on Environmental Justice. (Van Jones is the author of The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.)
How many of us check the number on the bottom of a plastic container to see if it’s one of the “bad plastics” to avoid? How many are still willing to use #2, #4, or #5 plastics (the “safe” ones)? Well, besides what I always say about how we can’t know for sure that any plastics are safe without knowing what chemicals have been added to them, there is another factor to consider: the impact on the residents of the communities where the chemicals in plastics are processed.
According to Van Jones, plastic harms poor people in every stage of its life cycle: production, use, and disposal.
Plastic’s Toxic Life Cycle
Production: In the primarily African American town of Mossville, LA, surrounded by fourteen petrochemical plants, residents suffer from diabetes, liver cancer, kidney problems, and the incidence of endometriosis is so high that disproportionate numbers of young women have had to undergo total hysterectomies. Blood tests have revealed three times the national average of dioxin (a byproduct of PVC manufacturing) in their bodies.
Gulf communities of Southeast Texas like Houston and Corpus Christi are regularly subjected to disproportionate levels of benzene (a carcinogenic building block of plastics like PET, linked to leukemia and other blood disorders) and other hazardous chemicals used in the production of plastics and petroleum-based products, over and above safe standards.
Van Jones said that these illnesses “are the price poor people pay for us to have disposable plastics.”
Use: Poor people have fewer choices of products they can buy. Oftentimes, they don’t have the same options as those of us who can afford to buy plastic-free options. So poor people are more likely to suffer from the chemicals that can leach out of plastic products than wealthier people.
Disposal: When we toss our plastic waste into the recycle bin, thinking we are doing a good deed, many of us don’t realize that that plastic is being shipped to Asia, where it pollutes communities and where much of it is burned in open incinerators, harming the health of the poor in other parts of the world.
What those of us in the U.S. might not realize is that by shipping our waste overseas to be burned, we are actually harming ourselves, as much of that smoke ends up right back here. According to Jones, air pollution from Asia has erased the clean air gains we have made here in California. We are truly “one planet.”
Disposable Products and People
Jones asserted that the root problem is the idea of disposability itself.
“In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people. But if you create a world where we don’t trash people, we can’t trash the planet.”
He also said that bio-mimicry (solving human problems by emulating nature’s models, systems, processes, and elements) is an important social justice idea and opens the door to zero waste production, since in nature, there is no waste.
According to Jones, we need Bio-mimicry (respecting the wisdom of all species) + Democracy (respecting the wisdom of all people) and to be as passionate about rescuing people as rescuing stuff from the landfill. “How can a movement be so passionate about not having throwaway stuff and not care about throwaway people?”
He closed by lamenting how many of us, when deciding where to focus our energies, have been asked to choose between “hugging a child or hugging a tree.”
“Most of us have two arms,” he said. “We can hug both.”
We are the albatross
Every day for over 3 years, I have carried an image of a dead albatross chick in my head. It’s there with me at the grocery store and walking down the street and sitting at my desk. It affects the daily choices I make. That photo = harm, harm that I am no longer willing to inflict.
I have no right to inflict that kind of harm on people either. Even if a plastic container is safe for me to eat from, how can I buy it knowing that its production was so toxic to the workers and residents of the community in which it was manufactured? Why is an albatross more valuable than a human?