This story originally appeared in Volume 04: Cascade of Atmos, a nonprofit biannual magazine and digital platform curated by a global ecosystem of artists, activists, and writers devoted to ecological and social justice, creative storytelling, and re-enchantment with the natural world.
Words by Danni Washington Photographs by Michael James Fox
Nearly two decades before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a peaceful wade-in protest at Haulover Park resulted in Miami-Dade County selecting its first “colored beach”: a small pocket of coastline on a barrier island not far from downtown, called Virginia Key Beach.
It’s hard to picture the ocean — a place of unparalleled biological diversity — as a symbol of systemic racism. And yet, over 75 years on from that revolutionary day, the waves of the sea still witness constant discrimination. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic enters our ocean. These plastics items come in all shapes and, more importantly, all sizes. The danger of microplastics is absolute. In 2018, the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment published a report in the American Journal of Public Health confirming that people of color are disproportionately impacted by microplastic pollution.
The study focused on small airborne particles called particulate matter (PM), which have been linked to lung cancer. For PMs of 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, those in poverty had a 1.35 times higher burden than the overall population and non-whites had a 1.28 times higher burden. The reason: plastic refinery plants are usually placed in areas predominantly populated by people of color.
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about how plastic begins its life as crude oil, usually at least a mile beneath our feet. The fact that humans decided over a century ago to pull up liquified dead animals and burn it to produce energy baffles me every day. Petroleum is created as a result of a geologic process in which organic matter, primarily from dead zooplankton or algae from ancient oceans, is buried in the Earth’s crust over long periods of time while being subjected to intense heat and pressure. This decision to use fossil fuels has caused widespread pain and suffering to humans and many other inhabitants of our biosphere.
A small group of people were able to leverage the chemical combustion of this compressed liquid carbon for their own financial gain by creating a finite resource accessible to a select few. This set the stage for twentieth-century economic and political power — or dare I say, life as we know it. Their strategy was aligned with the typical colonizer code of ethics focused on exploiting the most vulnerable for their resources. Simply put, this industry has wreaked havoc on countless marginalized communities across the world. From initial extraction to disposal, there is no question that our addiction to fossil fuels has been a significant factor in bringing humanity to its knees during this current superstorm known as 2020. In a way, it feels like karma has finally caught up with us: the planet is reminding us that we are the ones ultimately responsible for deciding the fate of our future existence. And it’s a hard realization for this new generation that Earth will go on… with or without us.
But why do we continue to collectively justify this relentless extraction of fossil fuels despite the obvious injustices rampantly causing widespread harm? Easy: it’s called innovation and consumerism. The digital age wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for crude oil. The computer I’m using to type this article is chock full of the plastic parts that make this kind of communication possible. In fact, I’d like you to stop for a moment as you’re reading this and take a visual inventory of the varieties of plastic in your direct line of vision. How many individual items and products are made of plastic in your current space? Even as someone who advocates for the health of the ocean and has worked their entire life toward the goal of inspiring the just transition to a society powered by renewable energy, it is honestly hard to imagine my current lifestyle without certain types of plastic.
What you’ll discover about most anti-plastic or zero-waste evangelicals is that many of us are still locked into a distinct dependence on reusable plastic, just like everyone else in our modern society. The only difference is our refusal to consume single-use plastics, items that are utilized for a short period of time and then quickly discarded — cue the appalling video in which Dr. Christine Figgener’s team pulls a rogue plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nostril off the shorelines of Costa Rica. Many people ask, “How could an inanimate piece of trash inflict so much pain on that innocent and highly threatened Olive Ridley? And how in the world did it manage to sniff that straw into its nose with perfect alignment?” The uncomfortable image still resonates in my mind, but thankfully, it galvanized millions of people to reconsider what they use to sip their tropical piña coladas at the beach. The truth is that this type of unnecessary suffering has been happening on a much larger scale and for far longer than you’d think. It has also happened perfectly in tandem with systemic racism. The only difference now is that we’re beginning to capture both types of atrocities on camera.
Scientists are increasingly learning that plastic toxicity has a vast detrimental effect on marine life beyond ingestion or entanglement, but very little attention has been paid to micro and nano plastics. Before these plastics and other pollutants have reached the coast, they have been deposited in rivers, absorbed into soil, and released into the air. It’s an environmental issue that directly impacts health. It also disproportionately affects marginalized communities and innumerable people of color worldwide.
The impacts caused by plastic refineries are particularly apparent in an 85-mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, nicknamed Cancer Alley. This area is home to more than 150 plants and refineries. It also has one of the highest cancer rates in the country. The communities closest to these plants are predominantly Black. Years of living in the toxic shadows of these factories have weakened residents’ respiratory systems. It also means that they’re far more susceptible than the general population to Covid-19.
The residents of St. James Parish, Louisiana are currently fighting against a $9.4 billion chemical plant proposed by Taiwanese industrial giant Formosa Petrochemical Corporation. It is expected to double the release of toxic chemicals from 1.6 million pounds to 3.2 million pounds per year. The complex will be the state’s second-largest emitter of benzene and ethylene oxide, two cancer-causing chemicals. Louisiana is the third poorest state in the country: according to the most recent census, nearly 20 percent of its population live below the poverty line.
The levels of poverty are even greater around these chemical plants. In the city of Baton Rouge, where Exxon’s Standard Heights plant is located, nearly 25 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Around 50 percent of households are headed by single women with children under the age of five. With the Black communities in these areas unable to afford to move elsewhere, it’s hard to argue that environmental racism isn’t at play.
Tragically, a report by the Louisiana Bucket Brigade stated there were 331 industrial accidents in 2013. That’s an average of nearly one accident every single day of the year. The group calculated that these accidents released more than 200,000 pounds of hydrogen cyanide, 200,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, and more than 800,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the air.
Air pollutants will often make their way into our rivers, lakes, and oceans, as the people of Flint, Michigan know all too well. For more than a century, the Flint River served as an unofficial dumping ground. The waterway received raw sewage from the city’s waste treatment plant, agricultural and urban runoff, and toxins from nearby landfills. In 2013, the city — facing a deficit of around $25 million — ended its five decades of piping treated water from Detroit in favor of a cheaper alternative: temporarily pumping water from the Flint River until a replacement water pipeline from Lake Huron was built.
The new, untreated drinking water immediately affected the health of local residents. A study conducted the following year by researchers at Virginia Tech collected water samples from 252 homes. It indicated that citywide lead levels had spiked, with nearly 17 percent of samples registering above the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion. In September 2015, Flint pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha reported that blood lead levels in children citywide had nearly doubled since 2014 — and nearly tripled in certain neighborhoods. Around 9,000 children were supplied lead-contaminated water for 18 months.
The majority of Flint’s 100,000 residents are Black and 45 percent of the city’s population live below the poverty line. In February 2017, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission concluded that the poor government response to the Flint crisis was a “result of systemic racism.” Fortunately, there is evidence that the situation in Flint is improving, but the long-term effects are yet to be seen. Low levels of lead can impair the brain development of fetuses, infants, and young children. And the damage can reverberate for a lifetime, reducing IQ and physical growth, contributing to cardiovascular disease and behavioral problems.
But what about every other plastic item that ends up in your trash can on a daily basis? Plastic bags, utensils, cups, plates, wrappers, and cartons. What does it truly mean to “throw it away,” and where does it eventually end up? The answer is simple: this plastic waste is dumped in landfills towering over communities, strewn on every shoreline, and piled in heaps overseas in the backyards of island nations where it is left for them to sort. Forget recycling. The system is completely broken and hasn’t worked effectively for years. As mentioned in the recent documentary The Story Of Plastic, the lifespan of plastic is insidious. The ocean has regurgitated tons of discarded plastic waste, but that only represents a small portion of the problem.
Malaysia has been one of the biggest used plastic importers: from January to July 2018, approximately 754,000 tons of plastic waste were imported into the country. With nowhere to store all this waste, since 2017, the small town of Jenjarom has been smothered with 19,000 tons of discarded plastics.
According to the Malaysian State Council, there were soon 33 illegal plastic recycling factories in Jenjarom, which disposed of a portion of the waste through burning. Burning plastics releases dangerous chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid and sulfur dioxide, as well as particulates. These emissions are known to cause stress to human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.
The BBC has reported that residents of Jenjarom experienced skin rashes and respiratory issues. It’s a similar story for those living next to the Dandora landfill site on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Cows graze along the site, feeding on the organic waste among the plastic. These cows are often slaughtered for human consumption, and occasionally, plastic can be found in their stomachs. Ingesting microplastics leads to a variety of health problems, including reproductive harm, obesity, organ problems, and developmental delays in children.
Over seven decades ago, in 1945, the protests at Haulover Beach in Miami were a significant spark that helped set ablaze the civil rights movement. Fast forward to 2020, and the deep wound of racial inequality must be faced and actively healed by all parties. Reconciliation and remediation will be the only ways in which we can forge a path forward. When people talk about pollution, we’re often reminded that everything is interconnected. Environmental pollution will eventually cascade back to every single human on the planet in some shape or form. However, it is crucial for us to recognize that environmental pollution disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities everywhere. Harnessing clean natural energy from wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal sources still remains the most logical and clearest solution to halt this hot mess known as climate change. With greater access to every form of clean energy combined with the wonders of human technological innovation, we have the divine opportunity to finally create the infrastructure to power our lifestyles the right way. As a single droplet of water falls from the sky and adds to a stream, that serves a river, that ends up in the sea, we as individuals can come together to create an ocean of change.