What Is Plastic-Free July & Is It Intersectional?
How Is Plastic-Free July Part Of The Zero Waste Movement?
When I first discovered the “zero waste” movement, it was incredibly niche. The minimalist, aesthetic and plastic-free lifestyle emerged as though it was tailor-made for Instagram, painting a future without marine life choking on plastic waste, stores filled with package-free goods, and farmers markets bursting with organic produce. It said that we as individuals can take action every day to minimize our reliance on plastic and fossil fuels, that this was the environmentalism the world needed.
With the increased awareness around the zero waste movement in the past decade, newer initiatives also gained popularity, including Plastic-Free July. The global challenge, which began in 2011, encourages folks to reduce their single-use plastic waste through habit changes and community building. With 326 million participants worldwide in over 100 countries, Plastic-Free July hopes individuals continue these positive habits beyond a single month.
But while Plastic-Free July and the zero waste movement are well-intentioned initiatives we can all strive towards, there is a hyper-focus on individual accountability. Yet, according to the Plastic Waste Makers index, just 20 firms are responsible for producing 55 percent of the world’s plastic waste.
At the same time, these movements can demonize the use of plastic and create an anxiety-inducing, unattainable vision of “zero waste” perfection. Often, we’re left with many unanswered questions—questions like: When does something become your trash? Or, is it better to drive 20 minutes to the bulk store and save on plastic, or walk to the local bodega for certain items and save on emissions?—and in doing so, it also leaves a lot of people out. While these questions might seem small, they are representative of a larger issue:
A Zero Waste Movement For Everyone
The reality is that the zero waste movement often excludes communities who do not have the privilege of always making the plastic-free choice. For example, the movement to end widespread plastic straws is noble, and I believe we can reduce usage significantly. However, in the fight to ban plastic straws entirely, we have completely left out voices from the disabled community, many of whom are reliant on straws for consumption. Glass and metal straws don’t work for hot beverages, paper straws disintegrate, and not everyone has the time or mental energy to consistently clean reusable straws.
Additionally, people in low-income communities often have limited plastic-free options and reduced access to fresh produce. Food apartheid is a huge problem in America. It affects around 23.5 million people and disproportionately targets Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Not everyone can afford, let alone lives near, a farmers market.
Without voices from every community, we only serve to divide the climate movement. I do not wish to be part of a version of environmentalism that excludes anyone, let alone the people who are most targeted and impacted by natural disasters.
For Plastic-Free July’s 10th anniversary, we must recognize the importance of not just helping the planet but helping its people by adopting an intersectional lens. This means learning about environmental injustice and the Black and brown communities at the frontlines of the climate crisis. It includes listening to new perspectives outside of your own. And it means directing your energy away from calling people out for using plastic, and instead inviting them in to be a part of the environmental movement.
Looking beyond the plastic crisis, an intersectional lens will allow us to build a future that takes communities from all backgrounds into consideration. Beyond individual action, we can put just as much energy, if not more, into contacting brands and policymakers alike. By demanding stricter standards, requiring companies to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products, and placing restrictions on how much plastic they can produce, we can use our collective voices to drive meaningful change.
Environmentalism is a journey, one in which we are encouraged to continue expanding our understanding of the planet. If you’re unsure where to start, I highly recommend starting with the resources on the Intersectional Environmentalist website and Instagram page. Follow intersectional environmentalists on social media, including Pınar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd, José G González, Teresa Baker, Aditi Mayer, and Leah Thomas. Whether you prefer books, podcasts, videos, articles, personal stories, or bite-sized downloads, there are resources out there for you to challenge your understanding of sustainability.
At the end of the day, our fight for a more just environment must include all of us, not just those who can afford safety razors or clothing from sustainable brands. Instead, a holistic and inclusive approach is necessary to combat the climate crisis. Movements that consider both people and the planet are the only way forward.
Sabs Katz is a social activist who advocates for low waste living, ethical + secondhand fashion, plant-based eating, conscious consumerism, and personal health + wellness. She is also a Co-Founder of Intersectional Environmentalist and the content creator behind Sustainable Sabs on Instagram.