Last year was the biggest year yet for the plastic pollution movement. A nationwide survey was released showing that two out of three Americans were very concerned about plastic in the environment. Plastic pollution was one of the central themes of Earth Day. Kids and community activists mounted homegrown campaigns all over the country. Big corporations made major commitments. And cities really started to focus on reducing single-use and setting up reuse systems - instead of just recycling.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit. And while the rest of us were busy keeping our loved ones safe and figuring out how to stay in business, the plastics industry saw an opportunity. And they quickly moved to exploit the crisis to roll back plastic bag bans and other laws - and to promote a message that single-use plastics are safe and sanitary, and reusables aren’t.
And with all the questions circulating about how the virus is transmitted, policymakers, grocers, retailers and restaurants have been rightly focused on what they can do to protect customers and workers. But because of this, they’re especially vulnerable to misinformation.
But we know that the result of coronavirus cannot be to open the floodgates to more plastic pollution. While now is the time to focus on keeping everyone safe, fed and employed, we can also continue conversations and work to create the future we all want to live in. So what could that future look like?
Before we dive in, let’s talk about the old “normal.”
* It starts with the globalized “take, make, waste” economy built on the exploitation of natural, human and social capital.
* The flow of energy, materials and goods is mostly linear. Companies work to sell as many products as possible in shorter and shorter time frames - with most of the products and packaging going to waste when consumers are finished with them.
* One of the central values of this system is “disposability.” Essentially that natural resources, energy, products, packaging, and unfortunately people and communities - especially low-income and communities of color - are disposable. There is even a term - “sacrifice zones” - which describes places that have been “sacrificed” to the “take, make, waste” economy.
* This system generates a lot of sacrificed people, wildlife, communities and landscapes. And single-use packaging and the plastic pollution it generates are a symptom. And with climate change (another symptom), this economy’s addiction to fossil fuels is sacrificing humanity’s future for the greed of the present.
* To be clear, there are benefits to this system especially for wealthy nations. In developed countries, the lights are on, the majority of people are fed, housed and employed, and there are a plethora of experiences and entertainment at most people’s fingertips. If you have a 401K, you’re benefiting from this system, and many of us benefit from it in myriad ways every day.
But to say that we need to get back to “business as usual” is missing the chance we have to build off what’s working and start to create something better.
So what does that look like? How can we work together to create a new normal where people, the planet and communities are seen and treated as indisposable?
Rather than just put out ideas, I want to offer up some questions. Because ultimately we need to come together as communities to decide what kind of future we want to co-create together. And while ideas are important, action and implementation matter way more.
Implementation requires community engagement, deep conversations and planning, organizing, mobilizing and achieving. It is so much harder to execute on big ideas than to come up with them. So here are 7 questions to get us thinking together.
1. How do we create equitable, inclusive conversations in our communities, companies and organizations to dream up and implement ideas to co-create the beautiful, thriving world we all want to live in (now and after the pandemic)?
2. How can we bring leaders from different sectors together (business, NGOs, creatives, government, etc.) to identify and hack the challenges that are the obstacles to overcoming disposability?
3. How do we build new businesses and systems that create local and regional supply chains (especially for food and other necessities) that are less vulnerable to crises like pandemics, and also create good jobs in our communities?
4. How can we unleash human creativity, and find untapped and overlooked people to maximize their talents and contribute to designing and implementing big, bold ideas?
5. How do we create new societal norms that nourish creativity, connection, community, sustainability, health, abundance and beauty?
6. How do we dry up the investment (and consumer participation) in the corporations and industries working to carry on the old broken systems? (e.g. oil, gas, coal, petrochem, plastics, single-use packaging, junk food, fast fashion, junk products, etc.) How do we help the people currently employed in these industries find fulfilling work in creating new systems?
7. How do we drive investment to the people, businesses and institutions co-creating the beautiful world?
This is just a start. We need lots of thoughtful questions, ideas and organizers (and many are already hard at work), but I want to close with one idea of a vision for a beautiful, thriving world.
It’s a future where people, the planet and our communities are seen and treated as indisposable. Where we keep the fossils in the ground and harness the Earth’s natural systems for our energy. Where single-use is history, and real and reusable the new norm.
Where we come together to celebrate what’s working and build off it to co-create the world we all want to live in.
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