This Is Plastics: Plastics Role in Social Justice and Equity


Plastics Role in Social Justice and Equity

Learn how affordability and accessibility make plastic a critical equalizer in the fight for social justice.


Plastics have played an essential and, at times, unheralded role in removing barriers and providing economic opportunity and empowerment to marginalized communities. Here’s how affordability and accessibility make plastics a critical equalizer – now more than ever.

The low cost of plastics democratizes access to consumer products

For decades, plastics have enabled wider access to costly products, previously reserved for privileged circles of society, through mass production. In the 1950s, polypropylene and other types of plastic replaced fragile, hard-to-source materials like ivory or bone in the manufacturing of combs. Some 70 years later, Apple replaced the traditional aluminum casing of its flagship product with a polycarbonate shell on its first economy model – the iPhone 5C. The device, offered alongside the more expensive, aluminum models didn’t “look or feel like plastic,” was incredibly affordable and put the smartphone within reach for consumers in developing countries for the first time.

Plastics packaging helps families extend the shelf-life of their groceries

Not only does plastic packaging offer a solution to food waste issues, but it also safeguards critical food access for underserved communities. According to the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Food Trust, families living in low-income areas are more than two times more likely to live in food deserts, regions where access to healthy and affordable food is limited, compared to middle-income households. Racial gaps further heighten those economic disparities. African Americans are nearly 2.5 times more likely to live in neighborhoods without access to a full-service grocery store than their white peers. While plastics alone cannot solve this inequity, plastic packaging can mitigate the challenge by keeping fruits, vegetables, and meats fresher for longer. For example, shrink-wrap can extend a refrigerated cucumber’s shelf life by 50 percent compared to an unwrapped cucumber, allowing families to preserve their groceries for longer.

Plastics in construction helps to mitigate the housing crisis as low-cost building materials

According to the United Nations Human Settlements Program, some 1.6 billion people lack access to adequate housing around the world. Plastic materials are quickly emerging as one way to address this crisis as their affordability, durability, and longevity make them ideal for building construction. A startup in Mexico, EcoDomum, uses plastic waste as a raw material for creating low-cost wall and roof panels, and a subsidized housing program underwrites some of the cost. EcoDomum produces 120 of these panels every day, converting 5.5 tons of plastic waste to building materials daily. Similarly, UN-Habitat recently launched a project with Othalo, a Norwegian startup, to provide stable housing for the 60% of people living in informal settlements in Africa. Othalo uses a patented technology that mass produces housing, refugee shelters, and temperature-controlled mobile storage units for food and medicine, schools, and hospitals from recycled plastic waste.

Utilizing plastics in housing construction kills two birds with one stone— keeping plastics out of the environment and creating affordable housing through sustainable reuse.

Restrictive plastic policies must consider the individuals and communities who rely on plastic products

Many diverse communities rely on plastics to meet their basic needs—some many people may not even think of. One recent example is the new Nike Flyease Go sneaker, a shoe specifically designed to help people with disabilities, arthritis, and other chronic pain. The shoe relies on a neoprene tension band to make the shoes easy to put on and take off without having to bend down or lace up a shoe. In this instance plastic—in the form of neoprene—eliminates the simple activity of tying shoes, which can be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible for some individuals.

Yet policies that limit plastics can deny communities such opportunities to benefit from these products. For people with disabilities, access to plastic straws can be “a matter of life or death” as alternatives made of paper or metal are either flimsy or present usability challenges for individuals with limited jaw control.

Separately, with Mexico City’s new push to ban certain plastic items, including plastic tampon applicators, women in the region must now find more expensive, harder-to-source alternatives – creating a phenomenon of “menstrual poverty.” Women’s groups in the area have pushed back, pointing out that policies aiming to restrict plastics must examine the impact on all stakeholders to ensure perfect is not the enemy of the good. Sally Santiago, a Mexico City activist, said it best:

“A measure that might sound very progressive and well-intentioned with an environmental commitment is neglecting the needs of women.”

 Ultimately, in the fight for a more just and equal society, we must consider the role plastics must play in bringing about that change.

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