In conversations about environmental sustainability, it’s common for plastic to play the part as a universal villain.

 Indeed, the harmful environmental impacts of plastic pollution are well-documented and significant. And while we spend the month of July recognizing Plastic Free July with calls to reduce our reliance on plastic, it’s critical to remember that the ability to completely avoid plastic consumption is a privilege that not everyone shares.

Plastic pollution not only disproportionately affects marginalized communities, it also greatly affects their ability to reduce plastic use due to socioeconomic circumstances. Undeniably, plastic has been so deeply woven into the fabric of our societies because it’s cheap, durable, and convenient. Because of this, communities in economically distressed regions often depend on plastic for its accessibility and affordability. To expect these communities to prioritize plastic reduction over immediate economic concerns is not only unfair, but also unfeasible.

This begs us to question – Who truly has the ability to avoid plastic use? The answer shouldn’t be surprising. Those who are best suited to afford to live a plastic-free lifestyle typically enjoy a certain level of economic stability and live in environments where plastic-free alternatives are readily available. They have the privilege to make this choice – a choice that is not universally accessible. 

This is not a justification for complacency. Rather, it is a call to broaden our understanding and work towards true inclusive sustainability. Just as with our discussions on climate change and its disproportionate effects on marginalized groups, the dialogue on plastic consumption should also include its social and economic dimensions.

 The discourse around plastic use reduction must include plastic-free options that are affordable and accessible to all communities. Green initiatives need to extend their reach beyond the privileged and include those on the front lines of plastic consumption. And most importantly, we should never shame people who make the decision to purchase plastic products. While we may be in a position to avoid plastic consumption, it is unfair to assume that everyone has that same luxury. 

Inclusion is a key to a truly sustainable future. This blog serves as an invitation for us to widen our lens and recognize the privilege inherent in our consumption choices. It calls upon us to be advocates for change not just in our actions, but in our understanding of sustainability and the challenges faced by others in achieving it. The pursuit of sustainability should not be a luxury, but a necessity, and it must be done so through a process that holds those in power accountable so that it can be a pursuit that includes us all. 

There are many excellent organizations that work at the intersection of environmental justice and social equity. Here are a few that you can learn more about:

Green For All is an organization that fights for a world that is green for all, not green for some. They work at the intersection of the environmental, economic, and racial justice movements to advance solutions to poverty and pollution.

The Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Program, one of the oldest environmental organizations in the U.S., has a program specifically dedicated to promoting environmental justice and reducing health disparities by engaging leaders in communities that are most affected by pollution.

WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that People of Color and/or low income residents participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices.

Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders aims to serve as a resource to increase the capacity of philanthropy to support just and sustainable food and agriculture systems. They offer various resources and avenues for involvement.

Indigenous Environmental Network was established by grassroots Indigenous peoples to address environmental and economic justice issues, and to empower Indigenous communities towards sustainable livelihoods and preserving their cultures.