The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

April 27, 2012

Get a Bag and a Receipt: When Social and Environmental Justice Collide

What does the Trayvon Martin murder have to do with sea turtles choking on plastic bags or the toxicity of bisphenol-A?  At first glance, not a whole lot.  And it’s not the kind of  news I would normally write about on My Plastic-Free Life.  But listening to the April 17 episode of the American Public Media radio program The Story last week, I suddenly made a surprising connection.

The host of the show, Dick Gordon, interviewed one of his regular contributors, African American high school teacher, Reuben Jackson, who shared the difficult feelings that came up for him after hearing about the murder.  For anyone who doesn’t listen to the news and hasn’t been following this case, Trayvon Martin was an unarmed African American teenager who was shot and killed by an overly-zealous community watch coordinator, George Zimmerman, while returning from a convenience store because he looked suspicious in his hoodie.  And because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the shooter was not arrested until public allegations of racism pressured the state to charge Zimmerman with second degree murder over a month after the shooting took place.  That’s a huge oversimplification of the situation.  You can read the details here.

On the radio show, teacher Reuben Jackson explained why the news of this murder hit him so hard personally, relating the story of the talk his parents gave him when he was just a boy.

My parents gave me what’s now known as “the talk” when I was very young in elementary school.  My father, a man I describe as a walking haiku because he’d give you three words every six months… became uncharacteristically verbose.  I was going to a mom and pop store to get a candybar, and he said, “Get a bag and a receipt.”  And I said, “Why?  I’m just gonna eat the Snicker bar” or whatever it was.  And he just repeated the same thing four or five times, “Get a bag and a receipt.  Get a bag and a receipt.”  My mother was the translator.  And she later told me, “Your father doesn’t want you to be suspected of stealing.”  And I said, well I wasn’t gonna steal, but it was the beginning of that armor that one needs to make one’s way through this society.

Listening to the story, I imagined myself in that situation, a middle-aged white woman, and it suddenly dawned on me:  I never take a bag because I bring my own to avoid plastic, and I rarely take a receipt anymore because many of them are coated with BPA.   And of course, I spend the better part of my life nowadays trying to convince other people not to take that plastic bag and to avoid thermal receipts when not needed.  It has never occurred to me that someone might think I was stealing.    And if they did think it, I would probably just flash them my big toothy smile, give them my card, and explain that I don’t use plastic and that I didn’t steal whatever it was from their store.

It’s a privilege to be able to assume that strangers will give us the benefit of the doubt.  It’s a privilege that I didn’t even know I had until I heard this story last week.  And it made me start to wonder not only what other privileges I have, but in what other ways personal survival conflicts with environmental protection as a result of social disparities in our world.  And this gets back to the topic of my interview on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last Sunday.

How can we create a world without plastic pollution when poor people are forced to take jobs in petrochemical plants and other polluting industries to support their families?  I had the benefit of a middle class education and employers who gave me the benefit of the doubt even when my experience and qualifications didn’t quite meet their requirements, most likely because I looked and sounded like someone they could trust.  I’ve never had to work in dangerous conditions producing a toxic product in order to survive.  Sure, I’ve been poor, but it was poverty by choice.  I’ve always known I could “sell out” and get a job making a bunch of money if I wanted to.  Being able to choose poverty over wealth and to spend all my discretionary income and time on environmental action is a massive privilege.

How can we do away with disposable plastic bottles when 884 million people in the world lack access to clean drinking water?  I have the privilege of drinking straight from my tap or installing a water filter to remove chlorine and few other chemicals I might not care to ingest.  But around the world, and even in some places in the United States, drinking the local water is hazardous, and bottled water is the only alternative.  Contrary to what the CEO of Nestle believes, clean water should be a basic human right and not a privilege for those with means.

Would we have fewer disposable plastic diapers, plastic-wrapped convenience baby foods, and formula bottles if women were paid as much as men and if employers created parent-friendly work places?  Would women have more time for parenting in harmony with nature if they didn’t have to work longer hours to make a living and if men shared in the parenting tasks equally?

Isn’t fairness and justice for the world’s people also fairness and justice for the planet?  We are all connected.  And our issues and causes, whether social or environmental, are all connected.  For whatever reason, the issue that speaks to me the most loudly is plastic.  But that doesn’t mean I get a pass when it comes to other causes and issues.  Because ultimately, the recognition that we are all connected — people, animals, plants, planet, universe — means that whatever we do in support of a fair and just society will support a healthier planet.  At least that is my hunch.  Maybe I’m wrong.  I’d love to hear what you think.

In what other ways do social injustices undermine environmental goals?  And more importantly, what can we do about them?



You might also enjoy...


Responsible School Supplies at Guided!

I love Guided Products recycled binders & notebooks. Read my review.

Leave a Reply

40 Comment threads
29 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
32 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Thanks Beth. It’s enormously important to recognize our social privileges, and as activists, we need to recognize that it is easier for some of us to be activists than others.

JohnKawakami makes a good point. I live in Toronto, and the mapping of the city’s most toxic emissions is more or less IDENTICAL to the mapping of the city’s poverty.

Wilted Camellia

I was just thinking something similar to this post – that it would be hard to forgo reciepts. I always skip the bag at stores, but then I am always asked to show a reciept on my way out (it is not a case of racial prejudices in my case, though (I am what one would call a”lily-white” causcasion) – perhaps ageism is it? I am a teen). Anyway, I would like to forgo the reciept, but I do not want to drag the suspicious door greeter at Wal-mart up to the cashier and be all, “You remember me, right?… Read more »


Well… look at where poor people live. That’s where they site the most polluting industries. The people work all day, maybe two jobs, and don’t have the political power or often the physical energy to resist these toxic developments. People with means can often resist – the community is usually educated, old people are retired and have time, and people have 40 hour per week jobs, and usually there are a couple people around who’ve “made it” and have time and money to spend. So their communities don’t get industries that pollute, and aren’t cut up by freeways. But, since… Read more »

Emu Niz

Wow. Great read.


This is a really interesting post Beth. I have often thought about similar topics especially after going to a seminar by Will Allen from Growing Power, Inc. a couple years ago (have you heard of him? It was a great seminar). I realize that often people do not really have a choice in their plastic consumption but my thought is a large amount of people that consume a significant amount of plastic probably have the means to do otherwise but, unfortunately, and for their own individual reasons, don’t. I certainly do not have a plethora of wealth but I have… Read more »


Megan, you are SOOOO spot on with a number of profound points, the most brilliant of which is this: “The most important thing I have changed is my awareness of plastic usage which was free and the rest will come with time.” These words make my heart sing. Any change comes by meeting ourselves where we are at and by working within our means – be they financial, emotional, or otherwise. Bravo to you!


Thank you so much for your post. Working in environmental education and with a humanitarian background( I am a lefty teacher with an arts degree who also loves nature), I often feel disheartened by ‘fanatical’ green views(there are a lot of very strong personalities in this field, who of course serve their purpose!) that take such a hard nosed approach to environmentalism. To truely engage people in environmental causes it is so important to remain objective and compassionate and of course if people are to be engaged in environmental causes in the first instance, then equal access to education is… Read more »


I completely agree with you. It’s so important to make the links between social and environmental justice. Thanks for writing this. This reality is one reason it’s so important to go beyond individual actions and “lifestyle” choices to work on regulation, legislation, and social and political collective action — on plastic, the environment generally, and social justice generally. It all fits together. (Not that I’m doing all that myself!)


“…clean water should be a basic human right and not a privilege for those with means…” Add clean air to that statement, as well. This very statement is why I despise those politicans who wish to abolish the EPA entirely. How crazy is that? Rich, poor, skinny, fat, black, white, etc, we ALL have the basic right to clean water and air. The EPA ensures (I hope) we have those things. Any politician who advocates getting rid of the EPA basically has a suicide wish, in my book. I heard that segment on NPR as well and I found it… Read more »

Beth Terry

I accept receipts for things I think I might possibly return. I never take restaurant or other food receipts unless I need them for business write offs. Why do I need a receipt for something I have consumed already, you know?


If you spend a lot of money one year, you can deduct sales taxes.

Beth Terry

You can? Where do you do it? If it’s a Schedule A deduction, I don’t qualify because we don’t own a home or make enough money to itemize. But I do keep receipts for business expenses related to blogging and now book writing.


@Beth Terry It pops up if you use tax software. The one I use asks a question about buying a car – that’s just the typical situation that triggers the deduction. Your total sales taxes have to exceed your deduction for state income taxes paid – my state income taxes are kind of high so it usually exceeds sales taxes. I believe that if your state doesn’t collect income tax, you can deduct sales taxes. You should look it up.


I have to concur with many folks who commented before me: this post blows me away, Beth. I love that you have deepened the conversation to address the socio-economic social justice issues about plastics in general. And to talk about privilege! Wow. This is just the beginning of a long dialogue that I look forward to reading and participating in.


This post brings up some good questions and lots of food for thought. You ask “Would women have more time for parenting in harmony with nature if they didn’t have to work longer hours to make a living and if men shared in the parenting tasks equally?” I would rather ask Would women have more time for parenting in harmony with nature if we didn’t live in a society where in most cases it takes two incomes to provide for a family? I am blessed that my husband has a great job with the US Navy and I am not… Read more »

Beth Terry

I agree, Kandi. I think part of combating sexism is valuing women’s choices, whether to have children or not, stay at home to raise the children or not, work outside the home or not, get married or not, love men or women or themselves. How can we live in harmony with the planet when our choices and our work are seen as less important than men’s? And I really hate when I hear women putting down other women’s choices because I feel like that’s a sort of internalized sexism, you know?


Excellent point! I often feel like the whole “women’s liberation” movement has totally backfired. I mean, I believe that we, as women should have the freedom to work any job that we want to, but it sort of seems like what’s happened is that since there are twice as many people in the workforce, salaries are that much smaller – I don’t think it’s really an improvement. And I know that there are MANY different ways to raise children, but as a child raised by a single working mother, I definitely know that I often felt cheated. My mother was… Read more »


Thank you for understanding my rant. I’m glad I’m not the only one that feels this way. I also feel like you two express some things I didn’t express as well or at all. Also, EcoCatLady, my parents were divorce and I spent the summers with my mom. She worked full time, so I have seen both sides of the street. Which is one reason why I feel so strongly that I want to be there for my children as a stay at home mom. Especially if my husband has the chance of being deployed and gone for months at… Read more »


The women’s lib movement was about more than work, but it ended up being about work, and mainly about white middle class women’s work issues – specifically access to white collar jobs. The number of white women working went up, but for women of color and white working class women, the numbers didn’t change much, because they were already working. The issues facing women in blue-collar, manual labor jobs, still exist today and haven’t been adequately addressed. You look in the construction trades, which are the best paid manual labor jobs, and there were and are few women, and the… Read more »

Revd Peter Doodes

Dear God, to avoid being murdered a teenager needs to take a store bag and a receipt? What kind of world are we living in?

Beth Terry

A world that is both beautiful and terrible.


Can I say that I both love and hate this post? I love that you are bringing such awareness to a fundamentally important topic relating to environmentalism and social justice. It gives one pause. It allows for conversation and a hopeful opening of the mind to a situation that may be unfamiliar to many of us reading. But I also hate this because it begs the question how can we have a balance between human rights, and the environmental rights we humans also rely on, when our humanity is challenged by horrific living conditions of a significant portion of the… Read more »


@HumaneEducation Thanks!


Great post Beth– I went to a high school were there was a low grade race riot every spring. I say low grade because there was never any guns, looting, or arson. (There were about 150 people in my high school.) But, people occassionally did get the hell beat out of them and there was a tension that hung in the air. It was always rednecks and black kids. The two groups of outsiders in our school. Both groups tend to be working class and intent on staying true/real/legit or whatever and behaving in a way that demonstrates it. The… Read more »

Eve Stavros

This one really hit home with me. I just returned from a trip to Kenya and witnessed first-hand the way people live without electricity, running water, indoor toilets. The plastic litter & trash I saw everywhere was a sad reminder that the western concept of disposable everything only works where you have trash pick-up, but leaves millions of people with no “away” to throw things, but their own backyard. But with incomes of less than US equivalents of $300 a month, the cheapest, most easily obtainable goods are, unfortunately, plastic. Water & food, according to our Kenyan friend, the #1… Read more »


Honestly, a huge barrier to all movements is the ability to get along with each other. So many non-profits are so ineffective because of bad communication and organization. Can we be open and honest with each other? How can we move forward collectively if we can’t even trust each other? I love that Majora Carter and Van Jones focus on the intersection between social injustice and environmental pollution. We are all interconnected, and all of our surface problems stem from a core issue. David Korten writes that it is a “love of money over love of life” that has caused… Read more »


Woops, I didn’t quite finish my comment there. David Korten wrote that in “The Great Turning”, which is about embracing Earth Community over a culture of conquest and domination. After seeing the documentary, “Within Reach”, which is about a couple who bike-camped across the country to visit 100 intentional sustainable communities, the message essentially was that caring for people is almost more important than caring for the environment and sustainability. This is because you can’t have sustainability without people working together. And when the work of creating a sustainable future goes against the currents of the world, you need a… Read more »


Fabulous post. I have spent the vast majority of my adult life living on the bottom end of the income scale… but, like you, this is a choice that I made. Still, there are times when I just don’t have the extra money to buy organic or make other “green” choices. And even though I have experienced “poverty” I have no way of understanding the institutionalized oppression that so many people face. I once had a black co-worker who wanted to grow dread-locks, but was afraid that it would make him a target of police profiling. Worrying about whether my… Read more »


Your last paragraph sums it up perfectly. For a long time, I’ve felt that children and the environment should always come first. Whatever decisions we make, if we keep those two priorities in mind, everything else will fall into place; because what’s good for children, and good for the planet, is good for everyone, and will carry on into the future.

Anita Gwynn

That’s him!

Anita Gwynn

The POWERFUL words of David Banner on Trayvon Martin.

Lynn Johnson

i really appreciate your post, i don’t think it’s crazy at all. what i appreciate most about it is…your acknowledgement that there are alot of reasons why people don’t give up plastic, especially how privilege and lack of privilege affect that decision (whether conscious or unconscious). my sense is that positive change is not just a job of education, it’s a job of understanding the systems of power and inequity at play that create toxic sh*t which i guess is also education…and inspiration maybe. keep it up!

Anita Gwynn

I’ve asked around….will post when I find out! It started off being about Trayvon and about black vs white and then he ended up saying…actually this is about rich vs poor. It’s getting like that here too. #depressing! am drinking wine to forget!

Anita Gwynn

memory like a seive!!!

My Plastic-free Life

Anita Gwynn, I know exactly who you’re talking about! Just kidding. But I would love for you to find out and let me know.

Anita Gwynn

saw a really interesting video with some american singer today, which would totally back you up. Can’t remember his name tho, and I am English, so never heard of him before. Will do some research. But really interesting…….

Dale Beeman

what ever, People are spoon feed shit and told what to think, by the time it’s flushed out the other end then it comes out as a blessing

Zenith Lillie-Eakett

This is, quite possibly, my most favorite post you’ve done. Just 7 hours away from me (in the same province), there are people who don’t have clean drinking water or safe living conditions. In my own country.

Linda Cooper

I just shared this with the comment “Most thoughtful thing I’ve read in a while.” Thank you.


Beth — A very powerful post that shows serious reflection and contemplation on your part. You touch on points I have thought about myself as a middle class, middle aged, white woman: the use of my own bags without being suspected of stealing (though I do usually take receipts just for that reason), being able to buy a nice filter for our sink, being able to choose a higher grade of food, buy a nice stainless steel water bottle, choose to buy a house not next to a toxic dump, etc., etc., etc. I agree with what someone else spoke… Read more »


Sharing, sharing, sharing this one! Wonderful piece with a truly intense message.


Thank you Beth for this important post. I appreciate that you look at context and culture instead of passing judgment on people who make different decisions from you. I saw this in your post about disability (which can generate so much more plastic, use more gas for transport, use more electricity, and so on) and I see it here. The real problem we have is that we’re presented these issues as personal choice (bring your own bag or use plastic). It’s the corporate culture and what is allowed as the default that should change. In the meantime, us individuals make… Read more »


I think you hit the nail on the head. This is essentially why for me being a Catholic and protecting the environment goes hand in hand. There have been numerous articles suggesting that Christians shouldn’t be eco-friendly because it destroys humanity in order to do so (like the affordability of electric cars). It’s completely laughable. As a Christian, I think it’s incumbent upon us to protect the environment not just to be stewards of wildlife but to protect our brothers and sisters in areas of the world that are being heavily polluted. So while you may come at it from… Read more »


Thanks so much for bringing this up Beth. I think it’s something that doesn’t get talked about enough when it comes to the environmental movement. In my line of work (a cooperatively owned grocery store that focuses on local and sustainable food) I often see how economic realities affect a family’s ability to contribute to a thriving sustainable food community in Chicago. We can’t make the progress we need to without addressing these issues.

Thanks again.

Will Terry

Love your blog and don’t really want to get in the way of the overall message but one thing that bothered me was in the way you described George Zimmerman as: “an overly-zealous community watch coordinator.” How do you know he was ” overly-zealous” ? I don’t know that he wasn’t but I don’t think it’s fair to describe him this way when all the facts aren’t out. We do know that he had injuries. We don’t know if he felt that his life was in danger as he and Trayvon struggled on the ground (according to an eye witness).… Read more »

Beth Terry

Will, one reason I consider him overly-zealous is because he followed Trayvon even when the police dispatcher told him not to.

Will Terry

Two years ago I was at my in-laws and witnessed a crime – I followed one of the suspects leaving the scene while on my cell phone with a 911 dispatcher. I was talking the police into the location where the injured man was walking. I stayed on the phone the entire time with the dispatcher describing the suspects clothing, skin color, behavior, and direction of travel. The dispatcher never asked me to discontinue my pursuit. Were my behaviors “overly- zealous”? I did the exact same thing that George Zimmerman did.

Beth Terry

Hey Will, can we take this offline? Because, as you already stated, it’s not the point of the post. and I really don’t want to get into that kind of debate here. But I’d love to hear your thoughts about the connection between environmental and social justice.


“The dispatcher never asked me to discontinue my pursuit.” So you did not do “the exact same thing George Zimmerman did.”

Will Terry

The dispatcher is not the law – so even is she had asked me to peal off I would have still followed the suspect just like George Zimmerman – because I care about my family and our community – sometimes you have to risk to protect that which you love – if this makes me “overly-zealous” I’ll gladly wear this label.

Will Terry

@Beth Terry We can absolutely take if off line – perhaps you shouldn’t editorialize with your off -topic opinions if you don’t want people to respond to them.

Beth Terry

Not people. Just you, bro. xxooxxoo

Will Terry

Most people aren’t loud mouths like me – I’m also probably in the minority here on your website – a conservative (shit really?) who actually cares about the environment. The bias in the media on this case was a disgrace – even got an NBC producer fired and other early reports got it wrong saying that George was a white guy. If it were properly reported from the beginning (hispanic guy shoots black guy) you probably wouldn’t have ever heard of Trayvon and subsequently wouldn’t have made this blog post.

sa ada

hi, will. this is what’s wonderful about the internet. you come here for environmentalism, not politics, and you don’t have to agree with other’s politics in order to agree with their environmentalism. i also understand about conflicting identities as i am variously libertarian, religious conservative, progressive, communist, depending on what the issue is. we all have different facets but it’s more convenient to label and box people and ideas. anyway, my question to you is, do you think it would have been a good thing to have never heard of trayvon? did you read the word ‘overly-zealous’ and then turn… Read more »

Will Terry

Beth always has great posts – including this one – she’s a big girl and a little criticism might help her get even better. Let me re-state: This is a great post! But, for me she clouded her message in a small way by labeling George Zimmerman’s actions. This is a blog about the environment not about “overly zealous” gun wielding nut jobs.

sa ada

wow, will, way to act like a little boy. calling a grown woman a big girl? here’s some criticism for you. grow up.

and now i’m going to call you a troll. you claim to understand and support beth’s message but you come on her blog and criticize one word on one post but won’t answer any questions that are actually relevant to the post.

Beth Terry

It’s okay, sa ada. Thanks for defending me. Will is my brother. He can call me girl if I can call him boy. We’re discussing this off my blog now.

Will Terry

I am blessed to live in the Rocky Mountains. My backyard IS the mountain – like- I walk out the back yard into bear country. I hike everyday either in the foothills or up the canyon. I feel like a minority amongst many of my conservative friends because I really care about the environment and I get the sense that many of them don’t. I’m saddened when I see waste and pollution. I’ve limited my plastic usage since Beth has brought it too my attention. I’m very proud of her for doing what she does. I know it’s not been… Read more »

Beth Terry

I love you, Will.

sa ada

sorry, beth and will, i was a bit slow with the surname connection. i’ve got two brothers so i completely understand.

what i got from this post, will, is that you should want your conservative friends to love the earth, yes, but also all of the people on it.

will, do you have a blog for conservative environmentalists?


That’s a totally different situation. You saw a crime and pursued. Zimmerman didn’t see a crime and pursued.

Will Terry

@johnkawakami I’m not going to respond to your question because I’ve talked to Beth over the phone about this issue in depth and we’ve both decided that the mechanics of the Trayvon Martin death is irrelevant to this blog (the aspects of parents counseling ethnic children to get a bag and a receipt however is quite relevant in my opinion). In short we both agreed that blogs are more powerful when they stay on topic. If you want to have a private conversation about this case with me I’m all ears but lets do it off blog so our personal… Read more »


Also, he may be considered over-zealous by the fact that the called 911 46 times to report various things that he saw going on in the neighborhood, including, but not limited to, children playing in the street and stray dogs.


This post gave me chills, too! I really mean that. And I just skimmed the last few paragraphs because I am tearing up. I am reminded that my most important tool as an activist is my heart. I come from a place that quietly banned “inter racial” dances at high schools, hotels, conferences, wherever, because people of different races “mixing” meant violence to so many people. It is a “get a bag and a receipt” place. It probably still is. It is heartbreaking, and I am not on the receiving end of that pernicious human degradation that is racism –… Read more »


Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

Adrienne Jurado

Beth, this post gave me chills. This is actually something I’ve been thinking about fairly often over the past few years since I’ve been trying to live “greener” and since taking several courses about racial and ethnic challenges. I’m very much in the same boat you are as far as being a middle-class white female and the (often unrecognized) privilege that comes with that. I think one of the best things we can do is create awareness, just like you’re doing. Too many people think we live in a “colorblind” society where racism and prejudice no longer exist, but it’s… Read more »

Erika Gill

Beth, I love that you wrote this post. I’ve faced a lot of confusion and may have unintentionally alienated a lot of people not realizing that what I am advocating requires a certain amount of privilege. However, there is a lot of sense and frugality in living simply and with as little waste as possible. Many people I interact with feel that buying organic and investing now in small habits and ways that pay off later is not practical, when really it can be.I believe a lot of this prejudice and misconception toward investing in the future, especially health-wise, comes… Read more »

The Queen of Light

I think this is, quite possibly one of my favorite posts you’ve done.