The plastics industry continues to treat Black and Brown lives as disposable

by Linda Rodriguez and Vincent Ha

July 17, 2020

People of color often live in communities hit harder by the pandemic because industries have disregarded their well-being for decades. This is environmental racism

Black and Brown lives matter. But the racist plastics industry continues to treat them as disposable.

The plastics industry has tried hard to repair its tainted image during a pandemic. It has launched a public relations campaign against reusable bags and asked Congress for a $1 billion bailout for recycling infrastructure to keep its polluting plastics around. It has successfully lobbied to temporarily pause plastic bag bans and seen its packaging profits rise.

But that same plastics industry continues to destroy the lives of countless people, especially low-income communities of color. In San Diego, plastics can be seen on the streets we walk and the beaches we frequent. It is in our air, water and food. Plastic does not come without a massive cost to our environment, climate and health. A pandemic only exacerbates that.

There is no doubt that some plastic is necessary for medical and safety reasons. But the plastics industry wants to continue churning out unnecessary plastics, too. It wants your bananas wrapped in plastic and your groceries in a single-use bag. Industry surrogates call these cheap throwaway plastics “clean and safe” or “recyclable,” but they are fueling environmental crises that worsen injustices worldwide. The plastics industry does not create the majority of its plastics to protect us — it creates them to increase profits for fossil fuel giants.

Almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels. The same companies destroying our climate want to keep producing plastic to make their wealthy CEOs more money. Consumer goods companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PepsiCo are complicit in the destruction fueled by companies like ExxonMobil, Dow and Chevron Phillips by continuing to use their cheap materials to package food and personal care products. These companies exploit and pollute the most vulnerable among us first.

Countries in Southeast Asia have become the world’s dumping grounds, yet the plastic industry and consumer goods companies have turned the other way or offered greenwash as rivers overflow with pollution and landfills are burned next to low-income communities. Much of that waste has been shipped overseas from countries like the United States because we cannot handle the amount of plastic produced here.

Communities next to petrochemical facilities should not be expendable in the plastic industry’s quest for profits, yet they continue to face elevated risks thanks to the toxic chemicals. People of color often live in these communities and are hit harder by the pandemic because these industries have disregarded their well-being for decades. This is environmental racism. The plastics industry has bragged about its products in recent weeks, but nothing about plastic is clean and safe.

Low-income communities, including those in San Diego, are targeted with more plastic packaging and single-use products that end up polluting neighborhoods and waterways. There are also increasing concerns about carcinogens and endocrine disruptors in plastic packaging that require a precautionary approach. The plastics industry has ignored these risks to turn a profit and externalize the true costs to others.

On top of it all, we are dealing with a pandemic. The industry could have devoted its time mobilizing alongside legislators to get additional ventilators and masks to hospitals, but instead it spent the first days of this crisis demonizing reusable bags. It used older, industry-funded studies to claim that reusables are dangerous, despite credible research on the coronavirus from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Princeton University and UCLA showing that the virus can live on plastic surfaces longer than most. And there has not been one documented case of the coronavirus from surface contact. In fact, over 125 health professionals recently weighed in on the safe ways to use reusables during the pandemic.

The plastic industry is desperate because it is intertwined with the fossil fuel industry. Plastics are part of an industry in rapid decline due in part to massive debt, investor skepticism and concerns about climate change. These companies were failing before the crisis and are now begging for government handouts because their era is coming to a close. The pandemic has sped that up.

While the plastic industry has had some temporary success exploiting fears around a pandemic, it won’t last. The world is ready to move beyond a throwaway model that exploits vulnerable communities. In fact, we are already building it.

On the other side of the pandemic, we must continue to fight for all communities, especially those most vulnerable to health impacts from plastic pollution. What’s best for our environment is best for all of us: ending our reliance on polluting single-use plastics.

Originally published in the San Diego Union Tribune on July 16, 2020.

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