Plastic’s Influence on Environmental Racism

As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic and the tragic deaths of George Floyd and others like him, it is important to rally for environmental justice including environmental racism. Environmental racism is defined as environmental hazards that effect Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) communities in the United States. There are many examples: from Flint, Michigan to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by environmental racism. 

Environmental racism particularly impacts BIPOC communities in the form of plastic. Plastic conveniences our lives in many ways but carry hefty tolls on other communities. The three key ways that plastic affects these communities are through production of plastic, consumption and disposal. 

Production refers to the process in which crude oil is extracted from the ground and refined into oil products such as gasoline and furthermore plastic. The drilling process known as “fracking” has been known to contaminate drinking water supplies with methane gasses according to studies and reports done by Duke University and Propublica. The water contamination causes a multitude of heath complications including respiratory problems, pregnancy complications, endocrine abnormalities and diabetes, heart disease, increased blood pressure stress, depression, and has been linked to learning difficulties in children according to Forbes. 

Consumption refers to the use of the plastic product. Plastic products are used in BIPOC communities with a large frequency due to the taxpayer subsidized low sales price that is offered as well as the convenience that comes with the use of plastic items. Because of the convenience and price, BIPOC communities may have no choice but to choose plastics over reusables and are at greater risks of consuming toxic chemicals in the plastic such as bisphenol A (BPA) and microplastics.  

Disposal refers to the plastic products' afterlife. The consumed and undesired plastic products typically end up in either landfills, incinerators, the environment, or a recycling facility. Landfills have historically been placed in or near BIPOC communities. According to a 2019 report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), 79% of incinerators are located in BIPOC communities. As per GAIA, the pollutant fumes produced by incinerating plastic have toxic effects when inhaled. 

Plastics are in our daily lives but affect BIPOC communities more so than other affluent communities. Targeting BIPOC communities to drill for oil, place a landfill, or incinerator all disproportionately affects them, particularly in cases involving communities who do not want new facilities placed near them. By reducing the number of plastics, we consume, we can reduce the unfair burdens they bare. 

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Written by Alex Paul