When was the last time you threw away something made of plastic? It could have been a bottle or a wrapper, and there’s a possibility that the plastic was disposed of in a “responsibly managed” landfill. But how would you feel if that same piece of plastic you threw away weeks ago ended up in your backyard? What would you do if pieces of that plastic decomposed in the landfill and ended up in your community’s potable water? For some, simply throwing away a plastic bottle in a trash bin can have detrimental, long-term impacts on their quality of life. The troubling reality of these communities stems from a complicated social issue known as “environmental injustice,” of which plastic waste is becoming a key contributor.
What is Environmental Injustice?
According to Environmental Health Perspectives, environmental injustice is defined as “the unequal exposure of communities of color and the poor to higher levels of chemical pollution stemming from unfair environmental protection.” The people living in these communities often lack the proper resources and education to fight for equal treatment. For example, documented incidents of environmental injustice in the United States date back to the 1960’s when African-American residents in Texas had to protest the construction of a garbage dump in their community. Other cases are prevalent today on a global scale. Highly populated cities in India, such as Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai struggle with poor air quality, and chronic exposure to the polluted air can lead to lung damage, cancer, and asthma. Unfortunately, low-income individuals who work outdoors for long periods of time are more likely to succumb to these illnesses. So what do cases of environmental injustice in 1960’s America and modern day India have in common? Both are related to plastic waste.
What Does Plastic Waste Have to Do With Environmental Injustice?
After you throw away plastic, where does it go? In the United States, more than 50% of the plastics produced end up as waste in landfills. Similarly in India, it is estimated that only 80% of plastic waste is successfully collected, of which 28.4% is landfilled or incinerated and less than 10% is recycled. A majority of the plastics we use on a daily basis are polyolefins, meaning they are composed of long carbon chains derived from fossil fuels. Polyolefins often contain additives that enhance their resistance to degradation, and an example of a type of additive that exists in plastic food packaging are antioxidants. Antioxidants make plastics resistant to degradation by reacting with radicals that form when the plastic oxidizes at elevated temperatures. However, as plastic waste sits in a landfill, antioxidants and their degradation products can migrate into the soil and groundwater. Some synthetic antioxidants are endocrine disruptors, meaning they are harmful to the human reproductive system. Do you think it’s fair that unborn children in underprivileged communities are more susceptible to birth defects linked to chemicals in plastic waste?
Not all plastic that is thrown away ends up in a landfill; some plastic waste is burned. In Delhi, India, an estimated 476,000,000 pounds of municipal solid waste is burned per year, a majority of which contains plastic. Burning plastic releases many dangerous chemicals, such as dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls -- all of which can cause serious health complications after prolonged exposure. Another consequence of dioxins released into the atmosphere from burning plastic is poor crop health. As dioxins settle on soil from the air, they can increase the concentration of ground-level ozone. The devastating impact is a steep reduction in crop yields by 20-30%, leading to heightened food insecurity in poor communities. Individuals living in close proximity to dumpsites or areas where plastic waste is burned are more likely to be exposed to these kinds of pollutants and are victims of environmental injustice.
How You Can Make a Difference
Everyone has a right to live in a healthy environment, and it is important to raise awareness and work towards maintaining equitable communities. An easy way to get involved during Plastic Free July is to replace single-use plastic items with reusable ones in your everyday routine. Single-use plastics are plastic products, like straws or plastic bags, that are discarded after one use. To help slow their accumulation in landfills, opt for a reusable option instead. You can also support companies like Saathi who are taking a stand against environmental injustice with their biodegradable banana fiber menstrual pads that help reduce plastic waste in landfills. Educating yourself and those around you on the issue of environmental injustice is a great way to start open communications about systematic prejudices in our communities. The path forward towards environmental justice for everyone is complex, but change starts with awareness. Inspired by this Summer Olympics, Saathi has started an Olympic inspired challenge which consists of 16 days of exciting activities. The theme of the Olympics is sustainability in the honour of plastic free July. Those of you are interested, can participate in it and win exciting prizes.
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- Waste Inequality: Waste Inequality
- Why a sustainable solution is essential for creating period equity: Why is a Sustainable Solution Essential to Creating Period Equity?
Saathi is an award winning social venture which has a patented technology to convert agri-waste into absorbent materials. Our sanitary pads are 100% biodegradable and compostable made from banana and bamboo fibers, which convert into compost in 6 months of its disposal. Saathi pads are good for the body🩸, community 🌎 and environment 🌱. We are on a mission to revolutionize the hygiene industry as a consumer products company that makes products in a sustainable and responsible way.
We are recognized by the UNESCO Green Citizens project, University of St. Andrews, Solar Impulse Foundation and Global Cleantech Innovation Program among others for our innovative, social impact and sustainable work. We are working towards United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 12, 13, 3, 9, 5, 6, 8, and 14.
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The Environmental Justice Movement: The Environmental Justice Movement
Resources for Creating Sustainable Communities: Resources for Creating Healthy, Sustainable, and Equitable Communities
Delhi’s Air Pollution: Delhi's air pollution is a classic case of environmental injustice
Plastic bag bans can help reduce toxic fumes: Plastic bag bans can help reduce toxic fumes
Microplastics in soil: Source, migration and toxicology of microplastics in soil
Air Pollution in Delhi: “Air pollution in Delhi: Its Magnitude and Effects on Health”