The people behind the plastic: How plastic production affects marginalized communities
August 19, 2020
Straws stuck up an unsuspecting turtle’s nose, beached whales found with tons of grocery bags in their stomach – everyone is familiar with the threats of plastic pollution to wildlife and natural habitats. But plastic’s journey is dotted with plenty of injustices even before it ends up in a viral Facebook post, wrapped around the neck of an innocent critter. The exploitation of our natural resources often goes hand-in-hand with exploitation of marginalized communities, and plastic is no different.
Making plastic comes with levels of racial and socioeconomic inequalities at nearly every step of the process, and Earth Day Network’s End Plastic Pollution campaign is working to stop this cycle of injustice every step of the way.
It all starts with production. Everything we use involves some form of raw natural resource, and for plastic, that means the ethane in natural gas. The United States’ supply of shale gas, along with our expanding fracking technology, is feeding the plastics industry – and while not all ethane is sourced from fracking, the process is notable for its effects on nearby neighborhoods.
Fracking, along with the resulting wastewater disposal, disproportionately takes place near minority and low-income communities. Their economic vulnerabilities make them more likely to be targeted for fracking operations, even though everything from the chemicals used to lasting health effects are still largely unknown. This exposure to potential groundwater contamination and methane leaks fits a theme of unnecessary human risk in plastic production.
After the right resources are assembled, the next step is manufacturing. You may have heard of ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where high concentrations of petrochemical plants have resulted in skyrocketing cancer rates in nearby Black communities; this, as it turns out, is also linked to our insatiable appetite for convenience.
These factories, with their foreboding smokestacks and ominous plumes of vapor, aren’t concocting chemicals for obscure science experiments. They produce the very plastics we use every single day, and their placement is unsurprisingly tied to the racial makeup of local communities that have to deal with the harmful air and water for decades to come. Again, marginalized people are taken advantage of and their health put at risk all in the name of plastic and profit. New plants in ‘Cancer Alley’ are still being approved despite protests from locals, leaving residents that have been battered by years of toxic air unheard in their fight against giant multinational conglomerates.
Finally comes disposal and management of plastic waste. While we all want to believe in the effectiveness of our recycling system, in reality only about about 8% of America’s plastic waste is actually recycled. The other 92% ends up sitting in landfills or burning in trash incinerators, where it produces its own series of dangerous health effects.
It almost goes without saying that those very health effects, particularly higher mortality from respiratory disease, disproportionately affect Black and low-income communities. Many studies have proven the deliberate racist placement of waste management sites going back decades, resulting in the long-lasting health outcomes we still see today.
And so concludes plastic’s undercover journey from shale to shelf, the lesser-known but similarly devastating fallout of our consumer culture.
Fully understanding plastic’s environmental impact means connecting the dots between our everyday habits and their societal consequences. We need to remember that single-use plastics don’t just hurt cute animals and picturesque ecosystems – they also contribute to systems of oppression that permanently harm our neighbours and destroy communities.
From cradle to grave, plastic is a big problem, and EDN is facing it at every step. Learn how you can prevent plastic pollution before it starts by reducing your plastic consumption, or participate in our Great Global Cleanup to get it off your streets.