The history of the environmental movement is inextricably linked to the history of petrochemical lobbying. Each outcry for reform against plastics has been quelled by a twofold counterattack: corporate lobbying in Washington that kept Americans reliant on plastics and relentless marketing for recycling that places the blame for plastic pollution on the individual consumer. The result has been a stubborn reliance of the working class on plastic products, with the ability to break codependency condensed exclusively with the affluent. Recycling became the new champion of “green thinking” despite the fact that only 12% of plastics are recycled.
Blaming low-income communities for their own reliance feeds into the narrative that has allowed plastic production to double every year for the last 15 years. Even if every American made an active effort to continuously recycle, most plastic waste would get shipped to impoverished countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Laos, and Senegal. Impoverished communities are the ones responsible for the sorting and disposal of plastics, resulting in a wide range of health issues and stunted economic growth.
That said, the solution to this health, humanitarian, and environmental crisis is not to eliminate efforts to reduce plastic consumption in our personal lives altogether. Those who have the means to live a zero/reduced waste lifestyle should be encouraged to do so, not only from an environmental standpoint but from a health advisory one as well. This work is meaningful, even if it won’t ultimately slow the tide of single-use plastic. A more effective use of our energy would be to shift the focus of the environmental movement to policy and policymakers. If the market can’t hold petrochemical companies accountable as a result of harmful legislation, the solution is to then reform our environmental legislation.
This is especially critical in the face of the newest narrative being pushed by fossil fuel lobbyists: the implementation of chemical recycling. Chemical recycling is the practice of melting down all plastics, no matter what type, in an effort to create new plastics. The problem is that it is largely ineffective at doing so, and releases a host of harmful chemicals into the atmosphere in the process of trying. The outcome is almost never usable plastics, but a small amount of fuel, which will ultimately be burned and release carbon into the atmosphere. This new push is eerily similar to the tactic employed just as the public was waking up to the dangers of plastic in the late 20th century. The corporate response was to recycle, and as that is also proven to be ineffective, they advocate for a different form of it.
As more and more research is released about the reproductive and respiratory health risks presented by microplastics–along with the ecological impacts–the most effective strategy is to advocate with impacted communities to halt plastic production rather than employing fearmongering and guilt tactics. This is the future of making sure our plastics don’t end up in a chemical recycling facility, in a landfill, on the beaches of Africa, in the stomach of a bird, or in the air we breathe and the water we drink, as microplastics.
Written by: Isabel Harper