HAVING seen the amount of waste littering communities and waters, Filipinos do not doubt that the plastic crisis is an environmental problem. Still, it’s often overlooked that it’s an issue of social justice.

We are all too often faced with images of plastic waste in our ocean or trash flooding our barangays, as well as a long list of facts showing just how inundated our world is with plastics. A quick online search will show you photos of plastic waste. Some further research will bring up disturbing statistics. For example, one study estimated that there are at least 1 trillion plastic particles in our ocean—another report estimated daily single-use plastic usage in the Philippines alone to be in the millions.

The numbers are staggering when you think about how heavily impacted our ecosystems are by these plastic wastes; however, plastic pollution’s social impacts on communities are not as visible and discussed even less. When examining the issue closer, it’s clear how much of the burden of waste is inordinately placed on vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

Low-income groups are the most affected by environmental problems, given their limited resources, contaminated environment, and direct pollution exposure. In the case of the plastic crisis, these groups bear the burden of society’s waste problem and improper plastic disposal.

Landfills are often located near disadvantaged groups’ residences. Plastic production sites and incinerator facilities worldwide are usually in areas where low-income groups reside, resulting in more significant health impacts from exposure to toxins and waste for them. A Greenpeace UK investigation showed that incinerators are three times more likely to be built in the most impoverished areas versus the wealthiest neighborhoods.

At the same time, in the US, the petrochemical corridor, or “Cancer Alley,” as locals have named it shows many low-income and minority populations at risk due to the processes involved in manufacturing plastics. If injustices can happen in a developed country, there’s no question that similar issues are prevalent in the Philippines, too.

Rural and disadvantaged communities also often rely on natural resources for their livelihood. In the Philippines, coastal communities usually live off the sea, getting their food and income from fishing and related industries, but plastic-polluted waters threaten that way of life. Plastic production facilities, toxic run-off from dumpsites, and the burning of waste also contaminate water and the ground in surrounding areas. For Filipinos, it’s not only pollutants and toxins entering the food chain in different ways, but a case of direct exposure, too.

With the Philippines also becoming a dumping ground for the trash of other countries, due to our looser regulations and cheaper costs, there’s also inequity on a global scale. Many developed nations take advantage of this since they can afford to export their waste problems to developing countries in the global south.

What’s even worse is that many affected communities are also being made as scapegoats in our plastic problems. It’s sad to see those most at risk being linked to the large volumes of sachets and single-use plastics. This narrative perpetuated by companies shifts the responsibility for plastic waste to people instead of the corporations and manufacturers producing single-use plastic. We can no longer put the blame on communities and people’s consumption. That in itself is an injustice when the real culprits -- the plastic and fossil fuel industries that benefit from our society’s dependence on plastic – are not doing their part. With Big Oil pushing for us to use more plastic than comes from fossil fuels, and big corporations routinely shying away from the plastic phase-out commitments and a shift to reusables, they should be accountable for waste, too.

Having seen and read about all the problems brought about by plastic pollution, it’s pretty obvious that we have to approach this as an environmental justice issue and an urgent one at that. To address it, environmental considerations have to be discussed alongside social problems arising from plastic pollution. When coming up with solutions especially aligned to our hopes for a better normal, impacted community have to be prioritized so that our response doesn’t aggravate their challenges or create new problems. The better normal we seek should be zero waste, just and inclusive. (Marian Ledesma)

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(Marian Ledesma is a campaigner at Greenpeace Philippines.)