In my Issues in Environmental Justice class in fall 2020 our final assignment was to write a letter on a particular environmental justice issue to the people of 2050. I love learning about issues like this because it is an opportunity to educate myself and others, so that we can change things. My professor said it was a combination of "analytical seriousness with an accessible tone," which is one of the greatest compliments I have received because that is how I aspire to tackle overwhelming issues like climate change.
To the people of 2050… Here’s A Hopeful Story That All Started with a Straw
You probably have no idea what a plastic straw is due to a #StopSucking campaign that began in 2015 (does that sound super long ago? That’s the year Adele said Hello and Justin Bieber said Sorry, if those singers are still at all relevant), but they were a single-use plastic people mindlessly used until it became trendy to not. Apparently, Instagram and shame are a match made in heaven. Reusable straws became a badge of honor as plastic straws were stigmatized. All jokes aside, this movement exemplifies the power of social media and how much consumers can drive change. I personally remember 2018 being the height of the movement, although like all things, this change didn’t simply happen overnight, it was driven by people working behind the scenes for years. Activists shocked people with a video of a sea turtles with a plastic straw up its nose, educated people that plastic straws were actually too thin to be recycled so they end up in the ocean as microplastics or hurting sea creatures, and kept people interested through catchy campaigns. And it worked. People were outraged and ditching plastic straws became an easy thing to do. So much so that cities like Seattle, Washington banned plastic straws and companies like Starbucks introduced straw-less lids deemed “adult sippy cups” by the internet. A year later and now it’s just commonplace to skip the straw. Cities and companies are still banning this demonized plastic, although the main motive is probably clout and to stay competitive, some companies are driven by sustainability. Are there still plastic straws? Yes. Did banning them eliminate plastic use and pollution? Of course not. Did this movement make a difference? Absolutely.
In his book What is Critical Environmental Justice?, David Pellow offers a framework of four pillars to analyze justice issues and offers three timely and important examples. His first pillar requires a recognition that “social inequality and oppression in all forms intersect, and that actors in the more-than-human world are subjects of oppression and frequently agents of social change” (Pellow 18-19). This could not be truer, especially since my example involves a movement propelled by a “more-than-human,” a beautiful term; the sea turtle.
Writing this in 2019, I unfortunately cannot imagine a world without plastic, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Plastic straws woke people up. They stopped mindlessly grabbing them during their morning rush to work and started thinking about their impact on the environment and role in the world. It was a small and tangible step an ordinary person could take, and an opening for activists to educate people. Not only on our society’s extensive over use and dependence on plastic, but the injustices going on behind the scenes. We need to question not only the prevalence of the plastic industry but the industrial production system that exploits cheap labor and is driven by consumer demand for something new. We want it all and with same-day delivery, not even considering the implications this has. Since things are made to buy and not to order, so much goes to waste.
There is one caveat of where plastic straw bans are occurring that people aren’t talking about. Most of middle America has no plastic ban at all, but your typical elite liberal states, New York and California, do. Is it because they don’t care, because they can’t, or what? Orbitz, a travel information company, created an interactive map of the United States based on whether the whole state, a city, or hotel has a plastic straw ban, plastic bag ban, neither, or both. Very on brand, California was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags statewide and New York will be the second with their statewide single-use plastic bag ban going into effect March 1st, 2020, which weirdly sounded far away to me, when in reality that is slightly over three months away. The East Coast continues to represent with Washington, D.C. having banned all plastic bags and straws and Massachusetts and Maine with such extensive lists of cities with plastic bag bans that they are considering a statewide ban. On July 9th, 2018, the height of the plastic straw movement, Starbucks announced they would remove plastic straws from all locations by 2020. That is less than three weeks away and I would be very proud of the company if when I step into Starbucks on January 1st, 2020 for there not to be a single plastic straw insight. The green Starbucks straw was iconic, but I think getting rid of them completely is legendary.
Unfortunately, living a sustainable lifestyle is often seen as expensive. It takes educating people on ways that they will actually save money, and that sometimes short-term expense will be worth it in the long run. However, I do agree that availability to some of these products, especially the stereotypical ones, is usually centered in cities on the coasts, contributing to this geographic divide. Drastic lifestyle differences not only exist all over the world, but within countries, states, towns, neighborhoods. Despite these differences, we are all inextricably interconnected, one example being when it comes to pollution as Pellow’s second pillar of scale points out. In the spatial sense, just like how carbon dioxide from your car ends up in the atmosphere, your plastic straw can end up in the ocean all across the world, probably affecting a community that barely even uses them (Pellow 20). The plastic straw you throw out can end up in the ocean, broken down into microplastics, eaten by a fish that is later caught and killed, which is then sold as food and eaten by someone. This may sound dramatic or like a stretch, but this scenario is far too real.
The temporal dimension of scale is by far the most terrifying aspect of climate change to me (Pellow 21). I was first introduced to this concept in my Ethics of Climate Change class my freshman year in the fall of 2018. Essentially, actions like air or plastic pollution, for example, do not only have immediate impacts, but unforeseen future consequences. We are currently feeling the effects of pollution from years ago. So why did this terrify me? Our emission levels have only gone up over the past 50 years, with some decreases, and we won’t know what affect that will have on our environment until the future when it is too late. That means people who are not even born yet will most likely be experiencing the worst of it, even though they did not contribute at all. This gets into the idea of distributive justice, which focuses on “issues of equity regarding the distribution of environmental harm and risk” (Pellow 11).
Pellow’s fourth pillar addresses the unfortunate reality that certain groups are seen as indispensable, most usually racial or sociological. Instead of recognizing the respect everyone deserves, people are devalued and used as a means to an end. Your straw’s lifespan is so much longer than the time it took you to drink your iced coffee. We need to not only think about where does my straw go after I use it, but where did it come from? Most straws, like other cheap goods were made in China, probably by an underpaid and mistreated factory worker.
Anything that is mass produced has consequences, and social justice issues are environmental justice issues. Even Lou Zhongping, the “King of Plastic Straws,” in China who has been in the business since the 1990s, company, Soton Daily Necessities Co. Ltd., is investing $15 million into keeping up with new market demands. Extremely knowledgeable on the subject, Lou explained that paper and biodegradable straws are not the best solution. I find this admirable because he could easily try and find the quick and cheap solution, but instead provides ideas of what he sees as the future of straws. He listened to consumers, the market, and the times and I believe he will be rewarded for his innovative energy in the long run.
I see the way businesses will be run in 2050 going one of two ways. The apocalyptic, Wall-E like scenario in which industrialization will be even more extreme, there will be less regulations, and a product with a hidden story will be the norm. Or, the more optimistic version, which includes companies like consumers will have forced companies to be transparent with product production and will value quality over quickness. In his third pillar, Pellow focuses on the role of state. Time and time again the state has been the one responsible for injustice that allows for people and the planet to be put on the backburner as profit is prioritized. We cannot sit around and wait for the state to take action, we must make it happen ourselves. Just because this nation is supposed to be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” doesn’t mean it is. Fight for your rights and the rights of those who can’t whether it be someone or something hundreds of miles away.
I think an important thing to note here is that people are innovating, exploring, and simply trying. Trying new things. Trying to eliminate their plastic waste. Trying to learn. Trying to be better. So here’s my advice to someone reading this thirty years from now. Don’t take anything at face value. Ask the hard questions, and lots of them. Expect more from companies and push them to expect more from themselves. It is so easy to be intimidated by the system in place and let it gather strength like a snowball that becomes bigger as it rolls down the mountain. Often when people realize they are a victim of an injustice, I hear them blame “the system.” I sure have done it and although I still think it is true, I think it is a cop out. It is a way to be upset and then not do anything about it. “The system” becomes a lot less scary when you realize that in reality you have the power. Yes, companies put out products for us to buy and we cannot control whatever ethics they broke in the process, but we do get to decide if we buy into it, literally. Research, read, and educate yourself. External rules are not enough to change peoples’ hearts, minds, and actions because genuine motivation comes from within. If enough people boycott a product, company, commercial, practice, etc. then the threat of bankruptcy will force them to change. We live in an unapologetically capitalist society. Take advantage of it.
In 2018, the International Planet Protection Committee (IPPC) released a report on global warming and essentially told the world that we had until 2030 to get our act together or else. I am vague because as 2019 winds down that “or else” embodies all the chaos and pain that has already begun that I hope we can prevent from getting any worse. Although there are a lot of people who are working against us, there are so many more fighting for our future. For example, Greta Thunberg, a sixteen-year old climate activist, is Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year. For me, it is not a question of if we can fight this, but if we will. We are from a point where we could have stopped or reversed climate change, but we cannot give up on creating a better future. I’m not sure what life looks like in 2050 for you because 30 years sounds like a crazy amount of time, but I hope from the bottom of my heart that we didn’t fail you. If things didn’t go as well as I hoped, please don’t give up either; if not for yourselves, then for the people in 2080, because we all deserve a fighting chance on this one earth we have the privilege of calling home.
A play on words on the movie Jaws.
New strawless lids for iced drinks like the ones for hot drinks at Starbucks.
What iced drinks used to look like at Starbucks with green plastic straws.
A sign at my local Starbucks.
Houck, Brenna. "Why the World Is Hating on Plastic Straws Right Now." Eater, 12 July 2018,
www.eater.com/2018/7/12/17555880/plastic-straws-environment-pollution-banned-alternatives-ocean-sea-turtle-viral-video. Accessed 13 Dec. 2019.
Kanthor, Rebecca. "China's 'King of Plastic Straws' Invests $15M in New Factory as Market Shifts."
Plastics News, 12 Mar. 2019, www.plasticsnews.com/article/20190312/NEWS/190319161/china-s-king-of-plastic-straws-invests-15m-in-new-factory-as-market-shifts. Accessed 13 Dec. 2019.
Langone, Alix. "All the Major Companies That Are Banning Plastic Straws." Money, 18 July 2018,
money.com/starbucks-hyatt-ban-plastic-straws/. Accessed 13 Dec. 2019.
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Pellow, David Naguib. What Is Critical Environmental Justice? Polity Press, 2018.