Environmental Inequalities in the Age of Plastics

Issue 2019, vol. 73

Eco-poet Craig Santos Perez writes, “Plastic keeps food fresh, delivers medication and clean water, forms cables and clothes, ropes and nets, even stops bullets – ‘plastic is the perfect creation because it never dies.’” Perez articulates how plastic has permeated almost every aspect of our lives. Society has deemed it perfect – it is cheap, durable, and versatile. We use plastics every day. Many are meant to be single-use and are thrown away, even though they last forever. We have become so accustomed to the convenience plastic provides that we don’t often think about where our trash goes after we toss it into the dumpster. However, when we dig deeper, we can see the immense environmental impact plastics can have, and how our overuse of plastics might be seen as a form of violence.

To explain how excessive plastic use can be considered violent from a Christian perspective, we first must address what biblical peace, or shalom, means. At first glance, we see shalom as tranquility, an absence of violence. However, this view of the word is incomplete. According to Perry Yoder, a theologian and retired professor of Old Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the term “shalom” is three-fold in meaning, used in the Bible to refer to material and physical well-being, justice and straightforwardness or honesty. Combined, these three aspects give us a very different picture: Peace is not simply the absence of war; instead, it is the presence of justice, everything in order, things as they ought to be. Shalom is God’s ultimate will and cannot be achieved in the presence of injustice. While I don’t see people trying to shoot each other over plastic use any time soon, there are a multitude of ways our use of plastics contributes to injustice and prevents our neighbors, near and far, from enjoying physical and material well-being.

When we toss out a plastic water bottle, it will most likely be transported to a landfill, where it will sit for years. The chemicals used to create plastics are not considered harmful when chemically linked together. However, these chemical bonds can break down over time when plastics are exposed to heat or other stresses, “liberating the building blocks of the chemicals, which are toxic” (Arizona State University). Scientists have raised particular concerns about bisphenol-a, or BPA, found in plastics. BPA is a weak synthetic estrogen, and over-exposure to this chemical can affect hormone function (Sutton).

But BPA is not the only problematic substance, as other toxins found in some plastics are “directly linked to cancers, birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues” (Andrews). These substances from landfills can leach into the ground, contaminating the soil and drinking water, which has health implications for locals. Many studies show that the populations confined to areas of substandard environmental conditions, such as near landfills, are disproportionately low-income people of color (Bryce and Konczal). In this way, we find ourselves assisting in the decline in the health of others, and unintentionally contributing to institutional, environmental racism by producing a great deal of plastic trash.

If these plastics aren’t sitting in a landfill, they usually wind up in the oceans. We know there is now a ton of plastic for every three tons of fish in the ocean, and that there’s a huge mass of garbage, twice the size of Texas, accumulating between Hawaii and the California coast (Lebreton, et. al). These ocean plastics are problematic for a number of reasons. First, those dependent on the fishing industry for their livelihoods often find themselves battling plastic pollution. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 97% of fishers operate in developing countries. Fishing in these areas helps alleviate poverty and food scarcity, but it has become less reliable as a “safety net” due to plastic pollution. This is exemplified in a recent article from the Times of India that explains that fishers in the coast town of Kochi have recently been pulling in more plastic than fish – and this is becoming common around the world. In addition, plastics damage the stake nets used by the fishers, adding to overall costs (Nambudiri). While the instability of a once-dependable job is unfortunate, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems caused by ocean plastics.

Plastics in the ocean are even more toxic than those in landfills, due to their tendency to act as a sponge and absorb other toxins floating around. Plastics break down into increasingly smaller pieces, which are mistaken for food and consumed by ocean animals, with millions of birds and fish dying each year due to “suffocation, starvation or slow death from the chemicals in plastics” (Grosenick) If the ocean creatures do manage to survive consuming something so unnatural, toxins from the plastics are absorbed into their tissues. These toxins can then bio-accumulate in animals, meaning more harmful chemicals are present at each level of the food chain.

Sometimes the top of the food chain is humans. It is difficult to study the effects of plastic chemicals that eventually wind up in humans, as there is no control group – the problem is so pervasive, it is hard to find anyone who has not ingested some chemical pollutants from their food (Seltenrich). Though we do not yet know the extent of the negative health effects associated with consuming food tainted with plastics, we do know we are not immune to the consequences of consuming these toxic chemicals.

Once again, they are unequally distributed to underprivileged populations. In the same article, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that reliance on fish for protein is especially important in coastal areas of developing countries, with sometimes over 50% of people’s protein consumption coming from fish and other seafood. These people rely on fish to survive and cannot simply skip eating it to avoid possibly consuming toxins. In addition, due to their economic status, they aren’t financially equipped to deal with the negative consequences that may arise from eating contaminated fish and cannot get help to combat these health problems they cannot prevent.

By following the journey of the plastic water bottle we’ve tossed in the trash, we can see how, over time, the toxic substances used in plastic production can wind up on someone else’s plate, negatively impacting their overall well-being. By crowning plastics as “perfect substance” and creating a world in which throw-away culture is the norm, we have unintentionally contributed to the oppression of the poor, who are less able to combat the effects of pollution and environmental degradation.

While many Christian peacemakers focus their efforts on preventing direct physical violence and injustice, we must also note that we are called to care for God’s creation, and that doing so is essential to promoting peace. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it.” Translated directly from Hebrew, “to cultivate” means to work and serve, while “to keep” means to watch and preserve. However, our responsibility to care for the Garden of Eden (the earth, our home) is not solely for the purpose of the earth. Passages like Exodus 23: 10-11 and Leviticus 25:8-12 describe Sabbath years and the Year of Jubilee, which are meant as rest not only for the land, but also for the poor in the land, showing how the preservation of nature and concern for the poor are deeply intertwined.

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” he did not simply mean, “Do not kill your neighbor.” Our Christian peace perspective calls us not only to abstain from fighting, but also to go beyond current societal norms, examining our own lives to find ways to prevent injustice and speak up for the oppressed – and combating environmental degradation is one way to do so.

Dealing with the issues created by plastic pollution can seem nearly impossible, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I do know we cannot begin to solve the problem unless we quit contributing to it in the first place. We can educate ourselves and others about the harmful effects of plastics, noting that they are not as perfect as we once thought. We can advocate for policy changes, such as the plastic bag bans and taxes implemented in California and 132 cities around the United States. But most importantly, we can change a few of our everyday habits, taking our reusable bags to the grocery store, refusing straws at restaurants, or taking the time to do the dishes at family gatherings instead of using plastic utensils. Minimizing our contributions to plastic waste is one of the multitude of ways a few small changes in our everyday lives can help reduce inequality and injustice and promote shalom around the world.

Works Cited

Andrews, Gianna. “Plastics in the Ocean Affecting Human Health.” Case Studies, 7 March 2018, serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/health/case_studies/plastics.html.

Cover, Bryce, and Mike Konczal. “Environmental Racism.” Nation, vol. 302, no. 10, 7 March 2016, p. 5, EBSCOhost.

“Exposure to Chemicals in Plastic.” Breastcancer.org., breastcancer.org/risk/factors/plastic

Grosenick, Charles. “The Price of Plastic.” Administrative & Regulatory Law News, Spring 2017, vol. 42, issue 3.

“Impact of Plastics on Human Health and Ecosystems.” News-Medical.net, Arizona State University, 20 Mar. 2010, www.news-medical.net/news/20100320/impact-of-plastics-on-human-health-and-ecpsystems.aspx.

Lebreton, L. et al. “Evidence That the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Rapidly Accumulating Plastic.” Scientific Reports, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018.

“Many of the World’s Poorest People Depend on Fish.” FAO Site, 7 June 2005, www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2005/102911/.
Nambudiri, Sudha. “A Swirling Ocean of Plastic Debris-Times of India” Times of India, City, 17 Apr. 2018, timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kochi/a-swirling-ocean-of-plastic-debris/articleshow/63795528.cms.

Staples, Heidi Lynn and Amy King. Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change. Buffalo, N.Y: BlazeVOX, 2017, pp. 164-166.

Sutton, Timothy. “The Current State of the Health Effects of BPA.” World Medical Journal, vol. 63, no. 1, March 2017, pp. 27-29, EBSCOhost.

Seltenrich, Nate. “New Link in the Food Chain? Marine Plastic Pollution and Seafood Safety.” National Institute of Environmental Health Science, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015, ehp.hiehs.nih.gov/123-a34/.

Yoder, Perry B. Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice and Peace. Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Publishing House, 1999.