The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 8, 2010

Plastic is a Social Justice Issue (Van Jones at TEDxGP2)

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.

Van JonesBut 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?

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13 years ago

This is exactly the kind of motivation I need to go further. Social justice issues just break my heart and before this I hadn’t made the connection.

Ok now on to find out how I can do this best.

13 years ago

This piece brings an new connection to me … what we anarchists called “environmental racism” when we weren’t “environmentalists” because that movement in the 80’s behaved like it was about hiking trails and acted against First Nations who wanted logging rights on their own lands over corporations.

So now I know – and I should have known – that plastics harms those who live near where they are produced! I wonder how bad it is on First Nations Reserves, too. I know that at Akwesasne, even the frogs qualify as toxic waste, and mothers are too toxic to breastfeed because of paper mill effluent. Paper! I use it every day!

I’ve been thinking that poor people are over exposed to the risks of plastic because of all the past dates (expired) food from food banks, discount food stores and free food distributions. When I worked in a drop in centre for women, we had a minimal grocery budget to feed 50-80 women a day – most of the food was canned, expired and donated by prisons. And poor people often live in places where you can’t cook; you can only use a microwave!

13 years ago

Thank you, Beth for highlighting important aspects of the terror we inflict on others unwittingly. Now, we know and cannot pretend to think we are doing good by “recycling.” There is so much to be “daylighted” by us environmentalists that involve lousy human conditions and the ways in which we treat each other.

I hope lots of people read your blog.


13 years ago

I am so happy to see Van Jones talking anywhere but especially happy to also see him talking about plastic. Thanks for posting this.

13 years ago

Clif: “We all try, don’t we?”

No, the problem is that we don’t. If everyone did try a little, (say, for example, we all didn’t eat meat at least one night a week) the impact would be huge.

13 years ago

I appreciate the reminder about biomimicry, and hope that we can end the use of plastics for the sake of our fellow humans who suffer due to mfg and disposal. When plastics are burned in another part of the world and degrade the environment and health of that area, the air with particulates of nasties whirls about carried by the Earth’s spinning and so we are all breathing in some of the toxins.

13 years ago

Powerful post!
Looking forward is seeing this TED video.

Cheryl Newcomb
13 years ago

If David Leonhardt at GlassDharma hears someone say they will throw something away, he quietly asks, “Where is away”?

Van Jones speaks the core truth, “In nature there is no waste”.

13 years ago

What a thought-provoking piece. I wish everybody could read this. I’m stunned with how beautiful & sadly honest it is.

13 years ago

The comment box says “speak your mind” so…….

What if we took the suffering of fellow humans so seriously that we would refuse to spend for anything extra on ourselves until we saw to it that everyone on earth was adequately fed and housed (let alone educated)? This without even starting on the things we do to animals. Think of the millions of people who are doomed before they even get to adulthood (if they do). Child soldiers, women killed by their male relatives, so many scratching in the dust of overworked soil or sheltering under a sheet of tin on the perimeter of so many mega-cities.

Suppose instead of entertainment, we had to view people suffering whenever we turned on the TV, or listen to them lament when we turned on the radio and our politicians would speak of nothing but those who were without?

The fact is there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t put all this aside to at least some extent and usually a very great extent. We have to or we would go crazy. In ancient times, any group of people only existed if they could eke out a living on their own because there was nobody to help them. Now, ironically, so many can be wealthy, but so many are superfluous in the sense that the earth can’t support them on overworked and limited land resources.

The fact is also that wealth comes from catering to those who have money to spend (or don’t – look at soaring debt!). Money makes money that goes into development of more things that make more money and, often, more jobs. This works for those in the market economy – but tens of millions are left out.

What am I getting at?

1) we have to have things to have a market economy and that economy is what allows us to have jobs and the money to spend on things that we enjoy. There’s no avoiding this system if we want the things we enjoy to keep coming from the cornucopia of Apple, or Nintendo, or Procter and Gamble. People don’t gladly give up enjoyments and right now we are in a paradise of personal enjoyments from gadgets to travel to contraception – I like them all.

2) the system doesn’t take care of everyone, as mentioned above, and damages the planet. At the most basic – we are taking what is natural raw material and processing it into what is not natural and almost entirely useless. How many many “old technologies” have we been through? Thus does the earth change from a raw materials resource to a artifacts dump.

So……we are asking the impossible – ever more stuff, ever more people but at the same time everyone should have enough. There is no avoiding guilt in this system, it’s intrinsic in a physical/material world vs a psychological/desire world in the head. We know what it is to have pleasure and what a horror it would be to have nothing. Those that have will say “why must I give up what I have? I worked for it!” while those that have will say, “can I not have the minimum to eat and stay warm? There is no work for me!” Who strikes the balance? Each of us, to the extent we can, does so in our favor. We are human, not saints.

This is a problem without a solution, a challenge to our desire to live justly and in doing so, live with ourselves. The information age can put our dilemma right in our face every day. For all that we may try to “do right” for others, we can’t do right enough and to try too hard brings one close to madness like the asceticism of the age of religion. Where to find one’s stability between Oprah and Mother Theresa?

We all try, don’t we? But still birds will die, species will continue to go extinct, land will go fallow, there will be more stuff around with nowhere to put it from radioactive waste to simple plastic. This is, sorry to say, a “natural” for our species, one that cares very much but also wants very much.

Mount up, my fellow Don Quixotes. Grasp your lances and let’s ride!

LA Stormwater
13 years ago

Thank you for sharing this great article! Unfortunately plastic does cause much harm to people, wild life and our waters! Plastic bags along with other items are constantly washed away in our stormdrains and dumped into the ocean, polluting our waters and sealife. If you want to learn more about preventing stormwater pollution check out:

Britt Bravo
13 years ago

Hi Beth,

Van is *always* inspiring!

It’s old now, but you still might like listening to my Big Vision Podcast interview with him from April 2007:

13 years ago

Another speaker, (I can’t remember who), mentioned that most of us have the idea that our trash just goes away. We put it by the curb and it just goes to the land of away. We really don’t have the cradle to cradle approach to our stuff. We tend approach trash and people more as out of sight out of mind.

13 years ago

Love that quote! “In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.” Thanks for posting!