Mopping Up or Turning Off the Tap? Environmental Injustice and the Ethics of Plastic Pollution
Authors would like to acknowledge support from the Fulbright Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
Frontiers in Marine Science
Plastic scrap -- Management, Waste minimization -- Sustainability
Decades of scientific research confirm that plastic pollution poses a threat to many species, to water resources, and to economies around the world (Laist, 1997; Barnes et al., 2009; Gregory, 2009; Teuten et al., 2009; Chen, 2015; Newman et al., 2015; Rochman, 2015). Experts demonstrate that oceanic plastic pollution is increasing at astounding rates (Eriksen et al., 2014; Geyer et al., 2017). Research indicates harmful levels of toxicity in everyday plastic items (SCP/RAC, 2020). Scientists find this issue so important that they have recommended plastics be classified as a pollutant on par with hazardous waste (Mouat et al., 2010; Rochman et al., 2013) or that single use plastics should be banned (Telesetsky, 2019). For many years, experts have noted that increasing plastic manufacturing and use will worsen the condition in the marine environment (Carpenter and Smith, 1972; Azzarello and Van Vleet, 1987; Gregory, 2009) and yet the global plastic industry continues to increase production, cumulatively producing 368 million tons in 2019 (PlasticsEurope, 2020). If current growth trajectories continue, by 2050 plastic could account for 20% of global oil production (Giacovelli, 2018) and the world could have four times the amount of plastic waste that we generate today (Geyer et al., 2017). Plastic debris contributes to a comprehensive global environmental problem that –if current trends continue— will worsen significantly (Borrelle et al., 2020; Silva et al., 2020). The COVID-19 crisis only exacerbates the problem, as it has led to an increase in the use of single use plastics in the form of personal protection equipment, which researchers have already begun to see in the environment at high levels (Ammendolia et al., 2021; Mejjad et al., 2021).
The majority of the plastic pollution problem falls disproportionately on the global south, especially in south and southeast Asia (Jambeck et al., 2015; Lebreton et al., 2017), creating an issue of slow violence (Homer-Dixon, 2000) and environmental injustice. While plastic pollution is universal, some consequences such as clogged drainage systems, increases in vector-borne diseases, and reduction in tourism are particularly felt in poorer communities, where solid waste management systems are not in place (Barnett, 1997; Coe and Rogers, 1997; Liffmann and Boogaerts, 1997; Jambeck et al., 2015; The Ocean Conservancy, 2015; Lebreton et al., 2017; Giacovelli, 2018; Godfrey, 2019). Plastics may be exported from the developed world to the developing world for legal or illegal disposal (Blettler and Wantzen, 2019; McCormick et al., 2019). In poorer communities, plastics may be burned as fuel (heat or cooking) or in disposal (Giacovelli, 2018). Poorer communities may also be selected as sites for plastic manufacturing (Ramirez, 2021).
Responsibility for managing plastic waste often falls on the people and places least responsible for producing said waste (Conlon, 2020).
© 2021 Owens and Conlon.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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Owens KA and Conlon K (2021) Mopping Up or Turning Off the Tap? Environmental Injustice and the Ethics of Plastic Pollution. Front. Mar. Sci. 8:713385. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.713385