In recent years, plastic has become public enemy number one for environmentalists. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and of animals trapped in plastic rings are commonplace in the media. Documentaries such as A Plastic Ocean explain how harmful plastic is to both environmental health and human health. While there has been much debate about who is responsible for reducing plastic use— individuals or big corporations?— one thing is clear: the people of the world must reduce their use of single-use plastics in order to protect the health of the planet.
Local governments in US cities have proposed and implemented legislation surrounding single use plastic bans. San Francisco was the first US city to ban plastic bags in 2007. Since then, over 300 municipalities have banned or heavily taxed plastic bags, according to this article from Columbia University (although many of these policies were temporarily reversed during the COVID-19 pandemic). Other cities have also implemented plastic straw bans. This push in legislative action has been met with relatively little resistance and has been celebrated by environmentalists.
However, these victories for some come at a cost for others. Disabled people, who are commonly left out of environmental justice discussions, often rely on single-use plastics in order to live independently. Plastic alternatives are not always accessible or safe for them to use. Additionally, alternatives such as metal or wooden utensils, cups, and straws are typically more expensive, making them inaccessible to those of a lower socioeconomic level. This necessary reliance on single-use plastics, combined with social stigma and implicit bias surrounding disability, has led to the ‘othering’ of disabled people.
On June 14th during a weekly Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion discussion, the Turning Green interns reflected on how plastic bans and other environmental policies can actually be harmful for disabled populations. After reading this article from Sagepub Journals, which discusses how plastic straw bans are problematic and exclusionary towards disabled people, we were asked to share initial reactions to the article. “Surprise” was a common sentiment, as several interns mentioned how ableism is not something they typically think about in their everyday lives; others shared how they had never considered plastic bans as an injustice from a disability studies perspective. In many conversations surrounding environmental justice, disability rights have been left out of the picture.
I reflected on how sustainability is not always accessible or equitable, and how social media can feed into this false narrative. Sustainable products, whether that be food or plastic alternatives, typically cost more. Vegan or vegetarian diets are not a viable option for everyone, whether because of allergies or a variety of other reasons. Plastic straw alternatives, as explained in the article, are often not a feasible option for disabled people. Thus, recognizing that ‘green’ is not always the healthiest or safest option is an important step to help reduce the stigma surrounding single-use plastic. Disability activists have shared stories about how their continued use of single-use plastics has led to others treating them as second class citizens. Everyone has different circumstances, so refraining from making assumptions about people’s lifestyle choices is particularly important, considering both visible and invisible disabilities.
The first step to making sustainability more inclusive and accessible to everyone is by recognizing some of the initial prejudices and false assumptions at the root of the mainstream environmental movement, and exploring avenues that champion both environmental protection and the health and wellbeing of all people. In order to bring disability rights into the conversation, we need to amplify disability activists’ voices and provide pathways for them into policy and leadership roles. As we build the future we want to live in, it is critical that we listen to and acknowledge diverse perspectives, needs, and ideas. As interns, we are constantly evaluating how Turning Green can bring more voices into the environmental justice conversation and educate student leaders on how to build a more equitable world. While there is still room to grow, we are ever striving towards a more inclusive and accessible future.