Beyond Stainless Steel Straws and Recycling
April 22, 2019 will mark forty-nine years since Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970. The idea was to dedicate a national day to focus on the importance of the environment in cultivating sustainable conditions for life and to force issues of environmental protection into the political agenda. However, it is also a day that seems to be founded while ignoring people of color or marginalized individuals. Over the years, Earth Day and the environmental movement has evolved and broadened its agenda to encompass environmental justice.
During the weeks leading up to April 22, I have encountered various articles, social media posts, and images about how to celebrate Earth Day. Majority of the content consisted of lists of eco-friendly “activities” or actions such as riding a bike instead of taking the car or switching from plastic to stainless steel straws. While these actions take a step in improving our ecological footprint, these steps need to be sustained and woven into our daily lives.
However, looking deeper into these actions and lifestyles such as zero-waste reveal how certain tips to aiding the environment are restricted by factors such as cultural background or socio-economic status. For example, organic products and fresh produce are often more expensive and can be harder to find in some communities such as areas labeled as food deserts. In addition, stainless steel straws, mason jars, or eco-friendly merchandise are not always accessible or affordable to everyone. It can appear at times that living “zero-waste” or having the products to live more sustainably is becoming a trend and fad.
As a society, the acknowledgment of how every action impacts the environment needs to be woven into our daily decisions and how we participate in the environmental movement. However, we must not ignore the historical and continual environmental injustices that communities of color and marginalized individuals endure. This is where the environmental justice framework needs to be adopted.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice centers around the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The framework demands individuals from minorities, low-income, tribal, and other marginalized communities to have equal access in decisions about the environment.
These failures in infrastructure and environmental quality in specific communities have been present in history but often disregarded. The water contamination in Flint, Michigan is only one example. Communities of color have higher exposure rates to air pollution, and landfills, waste sites, or other industrial facilities are more often located in low-income communities. In addition, the effects of climate change such as the aftermath of extreme weather conditions are disproportionately felt. The efforts of city officials to rebuild low-income communities or communities of color are inadequate compared to the efforts to rebuild higher-income and white communities.
To propel the goals of the environmental movement, we need to recognize and center the voices of activists in marginalized communities, specifically in regards to policy discussions. Earth Day is not only one day but rather every day because the effects of environmental decisions are felt on a daily basis. Our fight for the environment should also be a fight for justice and equity in low-income or communities of color and cannot be restricted to only April 22.