Profit at Great Cost: Plastic and the Intersection of Environmental and Racial Justice

BY CHAD BARON | June 28, 2021

More and more these days, consumers are aware of their environmental footprints thanks to advocates, scholars, and even advertising by the very companies putting environmentally harmful products on the shelves. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Consumers who are aware of the impacts of certain purchases are certainly more likely to change consumption patterns than those who are generally unaware of the production, consumption, and disposal process.

Plastic and the Intersection of Environmental and Racial Justice

But unfortunately this isn’t enough. Our present situation calls for more than responsible consumerism because consumers can only be considered partially responsible in an economic system that prioritizes ever increasing production and profit. Plastic is a perfect case study. Producers and consumers alike are aware of the unfortunate toll this particular industry has on the environment and humans, yet plastic use continues to trend upward.

And should we be surprised? The ethos of companies producing plastics is not one of care for the common good, or our common home, but one of the bottom line and growing profits — which unfortunately drives systemic issues like environmental racism. In the United States we see this quite clearly as local issues, with ties to national economic patterns, reveal the struggle between corporate power and local communities. Cancer Alley, Louisiana, illustrates this unfortunate trend as communities of color fight to protect their friends, family, and communities from high rates of cancer caused by local plastic production. In response to this reality, many activists, including Catholic activist Sharon Lavigne, are living the call to care for our common home. Lavigne is currently leading a campaign in St. James Parish to prevent another large plastics facility from being built in the area. 

The struggle would not be nearly as long or difficult if collectively we fostered an economic system that prioritizes societal well-being over generating more profits. As the USCCB states in A Catholic Framework for Economic Life, “Decisions on investment, trade, aid and development should protect human life and promote human rights, especially for those most in need wherever they might live on this globe.” The common good must be our goal, and we need to recognize that this is inextricably linked to the health of marginalized communities and the environment. If the economy functions in destructive ways, we have a responsibility to make changes, and racial and environmental justice demand it.

Changing consumer habits is a necessary component of the effort to foster a healthier socio-economic system, but further pressure must be applied to legislative bodies at the local and national level to influence corporate behavior. In order to do this, there are a few steps that can be taken:

    • Act local: If you are aware of plastic issues in your community, it is always a good idea to contact local representatives, and/or go to city council meetings, or talk to local businesses to make known any concerns.
    • Think global: Shedding light on who is funding plastic production can be an impactful strategy as consumers become inclined to support companies that share their values. If plastic projects cause financial institutions to lose customers as a result of unwanted publicity, they will reconsider funding strategies. The Plastic Waste Makers Index is a good source to learn more about companies that support plastic financing and how to address plastic production at the systemic level.
    • Opt out: Consider one change that you could make on a personal level to use less plastic. While this problem was not created by individuals, we have the power to influence the system through our collective habits. 

In July, follow along with ISN on social media for tips for reducing your plastic use, and be sure to check out the Plastic Free July website. 

1 reply
  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Plastic waste is harming the health of Planet Earth, our Common Home. In some places beaches are littered with all types of plastic waste. Such waste has been causing harm to fish, birds and animals.


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