by Madison Cavallaro
In the wake of what is arguably the era of everyone "realizing things," often, people don't realize the toxicity of action without perspective. As society wakes up to the damage of plastic and human activity on the environment, we are making efforts to reduce our own carbon footprints. But at what cost? This isn't usually where our minds go. Yes, plastic pollution is a pressing environmental issue. Yes, every year, around 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into oceans. Yes, millions of animals die due to plastic. How are we addressing this issue? This is a question we have all thought about and tried to take the initiative on, but without proper consideration of the communities that rely on plastic, we are not informed consumers.
Check Your Privilege
We live in a world built on the idea of convenience and efficiency. Yet, it is no shock that inconveniences persist for many communities. This is particularly true for the disabled, and those with a chronic illness or other health issues and are faced with life-changing inconveniences often not on the minds of others. Most straw alternatives present a choking risk for individuals with mobility-related impairments, are not suitable for hot drinks, and are inflexible. Metal or glass straws are dangerous to those who cannot control their bite, especially those with neurological disorders. Although the straw alternatives ease our conscience, it heightens concern in others.
Plastic can be a necessity to some and is much bigger than just straws. Clinical care accounts for around 20-33% of total hospital waste. This care is something these individuals need and, in most cases, can't live without. I personally don't have a clean conscience when I go in for my biologic therapy, where I generate plastic waste, but it is unavoidable. So, are we doomed to a forever cycle of constant hurdles to a plastic-free world? How can we stop the Handmaid's Tale level of shaming towards others who are not able to part with plastic from their everyday lives? How do we make climate-positive initiatives without silencing the voices and needs of the disabled community? These are the questions we should be asking but not many people understand the experience of living in a world that wasn't built for you. Having to defend yourself from people who do not recognize their non-disabled privilege puts a person at the hands of micro-aggressions. All because single-use items provide them independence.
The Name Of The Game is Consumer-Blame
As consumers in a wasteful capitalistic world, we find comfort in the small things we can do to better the planet. But without realizing it, we have been bystanders to companies using their own consumers as scapegoats. Research shows that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of climate change. Yet, sustainability has fallen onto the individual consumer with mantras such as “recycle our products,” “use reusable bags,” and “buy our electric cars.” This is the same narrative companies have always spun, and we all perpetuate it when we side-eye that person who forgets their reusable bags at the grocery store. This is not to say small changes don't make a difference. But reframing the focus of sustainability away from the consumers will be how the narrative changes.
Consumer blame not only maintains the idea of plastic being a problem of the consumer, but it can also be a polarizing and toxic mentality. Bluntly put, plastic is cheap, and therefore it's anti-luxury. Alternatives to plastic are out of reach for many, especially marginalized communities. We all need basic necessities to live, but the quality of what we can provide ourselves depends on our resources. Reformation’s carbon-zero tagline is "being naked is the #1 most sustainable option, we're #2." Yet, being eco-friendly isn't cheap, and buying from these brands isn't any cheaper. Reformation closed 2017 with over 100 million in revenue. It is good to know sustainability is sustainable for them, but when their clothing is out of reach for so many who don't have the resources for a 200-dollar dress, we cannot be shocked when our peers still buy fast fashion, nor should we blame them. Being a sustainable consumer is a luxury, and the individuals that can't, become the scapegoat.
Turning the Tables
Instead of turning around and pointing fingers, perpetuating discrimination, and contributing to ableism, time would be better spent fueling large-scale change. Immense satisfaction in small changes breeds judgment for those not participating, regardless of the reason. At its core, the issue with plastic and other polluting practices is not that it exists, it is that it is overproduced. If we demand a worldwide plastic ban, we disregard the basic needs of disabled, chronically ill, impoverished, low-income, and homeless communities. The bottom line is these corporations can reduce waste while being accommodating to all people. If restaurants can offer vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options, businesses should be able to accommodate disabled individuals with plastic options. Not everyone needs plastic. That is true. Being a conscious consumer includes being faced with a choice and using ethical principles to guide your decision. It can be as simple as "No thanks, I don't need a straw," while fully understanding that there are people who do. Accept what you are capable of when making sustainable choices, but don't dismiss those who cannot match you. Instead of advocating for plastic bans, advocate for non-discriminatory policy change. While we have increasing fear for the future of mother earth, we cannot preserve the cycle the disadvantaged know all too well.