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Green Is The New Black

July is for going plastic-free. Here’s a three-step guide.

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Plastic-Free July is upon us. But between a global pandemic, growing international solidarity for all forms of intersecting oppression, and increasing awareness of intersectional environmentalism… It may seem insufficient, or even disingenuous, to be just asking people to go plastic-free. So here’s a guide to Plastic-Free July, but with a spin. It doesn’t reject the value of individual action. But it does explain how we can do more. Are you ready to take action?

 

WHY PLASTIC-FREE JULY STILL MATTERS

“Plastic” became somewhat of a buzzword in 2018. According to Google Trends, the term “plastic pollution” had its peak in search bars around the world in that year. But in recent years, the issue of plastic pollution has begun to fade away from the public eye. In the environmental space, it seems we’ve seen a shift away from the plastic problem, per se. In 2019, we were hearing report after report about various manifestations of the climate crisis around the world. (Remember the fires?) Then came 2020. When the global pandemic hit, and our attention turned towards emissions instead. In that year too, and in this year even more so, the environmental movement has been undergoing somewhat of a reckoning. Turning to environmental injustice, and having to explore how environmental movements must work with other justice movements.

Certainly, the questions we’re asking now are questions we must be asking. “Fixing” our environmental problems and addressing the climate crisis requires rethinking the entire system. But the plastic problem too, along with movements, campaigns, and actions to address the plastic problem, can be part of that rethinking. But it doesn’t mean we throw in the towel and stop recycling altogether. In fact, individual action is the start. And since we’ve only managed to recycle 9% of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced? We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us. Plastic-Free July still matters. Here’s what you can do about it.

 

INDIVIDUAL ACTION IS THE START

Let’s talk about individual action. It gets a lot of bad rep. Because some climate activists will tell you that it’s too late to do something about your plastic footprint, or that you alone can’t solve the crisis. These are true, to some extent. But it doesn’t mean that taking individual action doesn’t matter at all. What we need now is a rethinking of what that looks like. A nuance of the oft-repeated statement “individual action doesn’t matter”. (For which I am guilty as charged too.)

When it comes to the plastic problem, individual action, as far as attempting to reduce your plastic footprint goes, matters. There are two compelling reasons for this.

 

Individual action can be the beginnings of our journeys, but…

The first is that for many of us, such individual action is our first foray into environmentalism. Lots of activists start out by taking steps to reduce their plastic consumption. So by discouraging people from taking these baby steps, we might be discouraging people from joining the environmental movement, to begin with.

The nuance we’re looking for here is this. Don’t let these individual actions be the endpoint of your activism journey. Let it be the start. Which is to say, take steps to cut plastic out of your life, and do the research. But then go further. Aside from action on an individual level, can you enable action on a community level, or even on a global level? Can you leverage your position in your community to enable reuse systems? To make reducing plastic use more convenient, and more affordable? Or even better: can you reach out to your representatives? To initiate legislative measures, to increase corporate responsibility, to punish lack of producer action, and to encourage more regenerative, circular systems?

 

Individual action matters more if you’re privileged, but…

The second reason why it matters is that privileged consumers, who contribute, and have contributed, much more to the climate crisis, have an ethical obligation to manage and reduce our footprints. When it comes to the plastic crisis, “developed” countries, or the “Global North”, are far more responsible for the demand for these plastics than “developing” countries, or the “Global South”.

Again, we are looking for nuance. And the nuance is: don’t shame people, and aspiring environmentalists, for not being able to zero their plastic footprints. In practice, this means that if you’re from a more privileged part of the world, you have more responsibility to do something about the crisis. But we can’t take that too far. Because at the end of the day, we live in a system. A system that makes our choices for us. We can’t zero our footprints, because sometimes, it’s impossible to. So shaming—aside from being counterproductive because it freezes people into inaction—isn’t very helpful: we should think about how to change the system instead.

For example, instead of shaming someone for using a plastic bag? Think about why plastic bags are so ubiquitous to begin with (and who, or what, profits off such a phenomenon). And about what makes the alternative difficult, or even expensive. Redirect your anger away from individual consumers, and towards systems, institutions, entities, corporations, etc.

 

Where do you start?

So, with all that in mind, here are some resources for Plastic-Free July, if you’re looking to take some individual action.

1) Check out the Green Is The New Black Take Action page. Our Zero Waste page collates links to why action on waste matters, and provides ways to do something about it.

2) Check out this Greenpeace article on how to participate in Plastic Free July, along with a list of influencers to follow to get some handy tips.

3) And if you’re ready to take the step beyond action in your own life, and if you want to impact your community, corporations and governments, head over to the #breakfreefromplastic Take Action page, which covers all kinds of systemic-level individual action. From corporate campaigning to pushing for policy, from culture-hacking to tackling the petrochemical industry, you’ll find that there are much more large-scale, wider-impact, but still individual, actions you can take.

 

EXPANDING YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE PLASTIC PROBLEM IS UP NEXT

All this talk about expanding our concept of individual action may be confusing. This is why Plastic-Free July isn’t just about doing things, it’s about learning too. Learning, and tapping into the available wealth of resources on the Internet, is key to understanding why individual action during Plastic-Free July can’t just be about telling people to stop using plastic straws. So beyond taking individual action, we need to expand our understanding of the plastic problem. Because many of us are familiar with the doomsday plastic crisis facts. That there’s going to be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. Or that global plastic production will more than triple by that time. You’ve seen the documentaries, the posts, the articles. And from those, our futures sure look like an apocalyptic plastic-filled dystopia.

But these alone tell you nothing about the nature of the plastic problem. And because we don’t understand the true nature of the problem, often what happens… is that many people, in good faith or otherwise, start blaming the plastic problem on individuals alone. (As we’ve mentioned above, shaming individuals is not only counterproductive, it’s also not very effective.) At best, blaming individuals shame them into taking action out of guilt. And at worst, blaming individuals take the heat off of who’s—or what’s—really responsible.

So how do we expand our understanding of the plastic problem?

 

Learning about who the Big Bad Guys in the plastic crisis really are

Recently, the Plastic Waste Makers Index revealed that a whopping 55% of all plastic produced comes from only 20 companies. Including fossil fuel corporations. Basically, the report highlights that we can trace (a big part of) our single-use plastic problem back to a few powerful corporations. And that these corporations, who make the building blocks of all plastics, have escaped accountability. Why? Because government policies focus on companies that sell finished plastic products. The report is asking us to go straight to the source, and holding those who make virgin polymers—those who have an outsized footprint—accountable.

As we alluded to above, fossil fuel corporations have a big part to play. As this Our Changing Climate video essay makes clear, Big Oil has an inextricable relationship with plastic. Plastic is the industry’s Plan B. Because there’s really no future to be had in oil and gas, they want to find ways to remain relevant, to keep making profits. So they’ve doubled down on plastics, betting on the addiction the world has to them. Essentially, Big Oil has created a plastics infrastructure that’s very hard to escape from. Plastic use is ubiquitous, so we can’t say no, no matter where we go.

And just last week, another groundbreaking report, from #breakfreefromplastic, titled “Missing the Mark”, was released. This one examined the plastic solutions projects of the seven top plastic polluters—”fast-moving consumer goods” companies. The report concluded that instead of actually reducing their plastic footprint, they’ve been investing in “false solutions”, claiming to care, when they don’t. The false solutions include: unproven at-scale technology, third-party collection and disposal, announced-then nothings, and false narratives. One of the false narratives is that we can recycle our way of the plastic crisis. And here’s where it gets a little tricky…

 

The Big Bad Guys are telling us to recycle, but…

It’s true that recycling is one of the individual actions you can take. But it’s also true that recycling has been co-opted by the plastics and fossil fuel industry, and, frankly, over-hyped as a solution that can solve the crisis. Here’s where the nuance comes in: recycling is important, because we have to figure out what to do with all the plastic that’s floating around in our oceans, and that are clogging up waterways and landfills in the “Global South”. That plastic isn’t just going to go away. This means that we need to figure out plastic waste management solutions, and we need innovative circular economy solutions that deal with this plastic.

But what happens with the plastics and fossil fuel industry is that they’re telling people to recycle (and manage their plastic footprint), while they themselves are moving very slowly, if at all, on reducing plastic in their supply chains, or moving from virgin to recycled plastics, etc. They’re diverting attention away from themselves, so we point fingers at each other instead of holding them accountable. The Our Changing Climate video essay talks about this in more depth. And it touches on the myths around recycling. For more on the myths around recycling, check out Recycling Reconsidered by Samantha MacBride, or this essay by Sharon Lerner.

All of this isn’t to say that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not that recycling is not an important solution, but that we have to recognise its limits, and the way it’s been co-opted. Again, it’s about expanding our understanding of the plastic problem. Doing so will help us see the problematic ways in which plastic-free solutions are introduced. We cannot let ourselves be playing in the sandbox of the plastics and fossil fuel industry.

 

DECOLONISING PLASTIC-FREE JULY IS LAST

And the very last piece of the puzzle in this guide to Plastic-Free July? Is the ask of decolonising the movement, and decolonising the solutions. This year, the environmental movement has been turned upside-down. We’ve had to come face to face with ourselves. The ways in which our movement has been colonised, the ways in which it hasn’t been radically inclusive. How do we extend that to Plastic-Free July? Stopping the blame of individuals for the plastic crisis is a start. Figuring out who’s really behind the crisis is a good follow-up. Decolonising the movement is where we should be.

 

The plastic problem is intertwined with colonialism

There are many aspects to this statement. On one level, the issue is that narratives around the plastic pollution crisis unfairly blame the “Global South”. As Dr. Max Liboiron highlights, lands in the Far North, Southeast Asia, and western Africa, among others, are colonised as “places to ship disposables or are used for landfills”. This is what we mean when we talk about “waste colonialism”, coined in 1989, “at the United Nations Environmental Programme Basel Convention when several African nations articulated concerns about the disposal of hazardous wastes by wealthy countries into their territories.” You might have heard about China banning the imports of such waste from other countries in the “Global North” in 2018. But other countries have not been so (able to be) assertive.

Even though they are on the receiving end of modern-day waste colonialism, these countries, often in the “Global South”, Dr. Liboiron writes, “are framed in scientific articles, the media, and policy papers as “mismanaging” their waste. This is a perpetuation of colonialist mindset, discourses that have long associated some uses of land as civilized and moral and other uses as savage and deficient.” (Dr. Liboiron has written an entire book about how pollution, the problem and its solutions, is colonialism, aptly titled Pollution is Colonialism. Check out the book’s introduction here, and an interview with them here. And an extensive introduction to waste colonialism here.)

 

Solutions perpetuate colonialism

On another level, as Dr. Liboiron alludes to in their book, the solutions perpetuate colonialism too. Another way to understand this is to look at the solutions often proposed to the plastic crisis. As environmental educator Isaias Hernandez (aka @queerbrownvegan) explains, zero-waste solutions can often be inaccessible and a privilege. When white or privileged folks propose their zero-waste solutions, they can fail to realise that people of colour have been practicing such solutions for their entire lives. It’s just not had the branding that it has in the present day. Forcing marketable, capitalistic versions of zero-waste solutions on communities of colour who have already been zero-waste… is a form of perpetuating colonialism.

So to avoid this, what can you do? How can you decolonise Plastic-Free July? One way to start is to look out for resources from communities of colour, from people of colour. Intersectional Environmentalist has various resources, one of them is their resource page on Waste, which embeds articles, books, films, etc. that talk about the waste (and plastic) crisis, from an intersectional perspective. But beyond simply reading from diverse perspectives, decolonising Plastic-Free July also involves practising intersectional environmentalism in addressing the plastic crisis. It’s about adopting and advocating for solutions that aren’t just for privileged folks. It’s about seeking out justice for communities of the “Global South”, who have been impacted by and blamed for, the plastic crisis. And it’s about moving beyond individual action to manage your plastic footprint.

 

PARTING SHOTS

There’s room to be hopeful about the plastic crisis. People around the world are waking up to the greenwashing of the plastics industry. Reports on the industry’s insufficient efforts are aplenty. Governments are focusing more on producer responsibility. Movements are working at systemic, structural levels. And the awareness of the plastic crisis has always been, and continues to grow. Plastic-Free July and individual action to watch your plastic footprint are good ways to get people into the movement. The question now is how we can activate them to move faster, and further.

 

FEATURED IMAGE: via Haley Photography on Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a zoomed-in shot of a person looking through crinkled plastic, with yellow text edited over the photo, reading “Plastic-Free July: a three-step guide”

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Tammy (she/her) is an activist-in-progress and digital creator and communicator, based in sunny, tropical Singapore. Her mission is three-fold: (1) to make climate justice activism and theory more accessible; (2) to create digital and physical community and learning spaces towards a more just, regenerative, and loving world within our current one; (3) and to mobilise the best parts of social media in service of all this.

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