Rethinking Plastic, Consumer Choices, and Our Values as Americans

by Dyaami D’Orazio   |   September 18, 2019

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When I was 16, it felt like the only thing I knew for sure was that I loved our planet and wanted to help protect it—everything else was a mess! My mom came across an opportunity to pitch a project for reducing plastic consumption in the community in exchange for free attendance at a youth summit in Long Beach, California. I was yet to find out how attending this conference would shift how I understood plastic, consumption, and consumerism, and how our desire to buy, buy, buy impacts the well-being of all communities.

The Plastics Are Forever Youth Summit featured young people from around the globe reducing plastic waste by increasing awareness about the five floating plastic gyres in our oceans—large areas where ocean currents cause plastic of all kinds to collect into masses the size of Texas. I pitched an idea to my homeroom adviser, selected a teammate (my sister), and sent in a presentation. A few weeks later, we received the news that we were selected to attend the summit! As a low-income, mixed-race kid from the Bronx, affording the flights proved difficult. My adviser, a true ally in my life, spoke with the principal and secured funding to fly the three of us to Long Beach. 

Arriving in California felt like a dream. The sun was bright and warm, the coast sent a lovely breeze in our direction, and smiling faces of all kinds meandered about for this epic summit on reducing plastic waste. We spent two days learning about ocean life, the plastic vortex locations, the lifespan of plastic (hundreds of years, because plastic breaks down into smaller pieces instead of disintegrating like other waste), and how we could inspire action and change in our communities. We met inspiring people, and I ultimately carried the lessons through my high school experience and my life.  

Awakening to Environmental Justice

A few years later, I completed my degree in environmental studies with a focus on food and environmental justice. Between classes and my peers, I was exposed to the vocabulary, literature, and societal analysis to accompany my passion for the environment. I developed a lens to understand the complexity of the environmental movement, the ways it has been shared historically, and the changes that need to occur to reach more people. 

A large part of my time in college was spent advocating for more relevant material in our classrooms, reading diverse authors, and developing analyses in tune with personal connections to our families and cultures. I both learned and was challenged by the need to widen the scope of inclusion around the information I was learning and the perspectives my professors would prioritize.

I have since worked in several organizations that focus on developing relationships between people and the planet (parks in particular) through various methods. This included experiential education, community building, land ownership, grants, conservation, and organizing for change. Each time, my environmental justice lens aided my own work and that of the places I work in. My sister majored in biology with a focus on marine life and education, receiving scuba-diving certifications while studying in the Caribbean, one of our ancestral oceans, and facilitating connections between youth and nature. 

The Long Beach summit molded much more than our career choices—it gave shape to the lifestyle and consciousness around plastic and environmental practices that we have today. It is not always easy or pretty to have conversations around inequity, inaccess, and erasure, but they have expanded people’s perspectives and expectations in the environmental field.

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Plastics Are Forever Youth Summit, Long Beach, California, 2011

Aligning Our Values and Practices

The more experience I have in the environmental movement, the more I realize how the mission of stewardship—the act of caring for the planet in order for it to continue taking care of us—is out of sync and disconnected from actual human behavior. The lights of buildings are left on for hours, air conditioning is on full blast, the technology we use comes from mineral extraction, and we work so many hours that we eat take-out, leading to greater consumption of disposable products. Despite the goals of many environmental programs and organizations, we have trouble connecting the philosophy of eco-friendly practices with our day-to-day living experience. I routinely notice the separation of our work’s environmental mission from our work culture, and the opportunities for shifting our collective practices often seem limited.

The community organizing I was a part of in New York City centered on getting residents more involved with their local parks and resources. To meet those goals, our meetings and events included using disposable products. Even though we were forming relationships and creating change, we were caught in the loop of consumption and waste. After discussing this, several of our programs decided to be more intentional about purchasing and about limiting the waste stream at these gatherings. One of my coworkers advocated for budgeting around biodegradable and compostable products, encouraging people to bring their own utensils, and creating a city-wide workshop on hosting environmentally friendly events. 

New York City is plagued by trash and consumption. We are bombarded by advertisements, shops, and endless delicious food options to purchase on the go. There are so many ways that people connect to nature—through spiritual connections, access to land and green space, displacement or forced migration, farming, access to clean water or quality food, ancestral healing practices, caring for and giving back to the planet through gardening, cooking, and cleaning, and many others. Some people grow up in close relationship to the environment and others distance themselves. In that distance, there can be a different understanding of nature’s value, or a complacency in continuing behaviors that negatively impact our communities.

"We consume to have fun, to fit in, for convenience, to fill the spaces between ourselves and our families, to look more like 'ideal' images of what we’re told it means to be 'an American,' and we consume because the structure of society forces us to."

Purchasing goods, particularly plastic products, is a lifestyle that many generations have adopted in the culture of the United States. We consume to have fun, to fit in, for convenience, to fill the spaces between ourselves and our families, to look more like “ideal” images of what we’re told it means to be “an American,” and we consume because the structure of society forces us to. We cannot escape plastic materials: packaging around our food, the containers and toys we enjoy, and even in chewing gum! So we learn to fill our lives with these items, and have been coerced to. Even people or families whose financial security is challenged and where excess income is rare face the constant pressure and expectation to spend money on products that we think we need—within an illusion of wellness.

Moving Beyond the Luxury of Environmentalism

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Catalyst and Friends of Simeone Park Clean Up, November 2018

The folks I’ve spoken with about sustainable practices want to support an environmental lifestyle, often coming from families that value the planet’s resources. But in the documentaries and the books I absorbed, an “environmental life” seemed to be one of luxury and consumer choice. The reality is that many families already conserve many of their purchases or cannot afford biodegradable products or “green” alternatives. These options also ignore the cost, time, and distance needed to find them, since local shops often do not supply them. Meanwhile, “green” solutions to sustainability still often pressure people to continue buying products, keeping us in a loop of consumption and illusion. 

For decades, if people used cloth diapers, reusable utensils, thrift stores, or carried a sticker-laden water bottle, they risked being made fun of, looked down on, or judged for the consumer choices they made. Communities of color that reuse and recycle out of necessity and whose cultural practices are rooted in a connection to the Earth face discrimination, judgement, and misunderstanding. 

Today, there is more media and communication around caring for the planet, alternative products, and organizing around waste management, including for food, clothing, and furniture. The media perspective, depending on its source, can reflect diverse folks with different relationships to consumption and the planet. Having conversations about what we buy, why, and how to stop this endless cycle can bridge the gap between stewardship-based values and their practice into our work spaces, homes, and communities. There are a finite amount of resources on this planet, and the way we use, distribute, and value them matter.

"Having conversations about what we buy, why, and how to stop this endless cycle can bridge the gap between stewardship-based values and their practice into our work spaces, homes, and communities."

Plastics are made from oil and manufactured to be waterproof, which makes them a useful and flexible product. Sometimes, plastic assists perfectly for certain things like building, durability, transporting liquids, etc. Whether or not we need or should have plastic in our furniture, appliances, toys or toothbrushes is a more complicated conversation. People’s perceptions of what we need and what we desire are blurred with the consumer culture we live in. We do not always need things to the extent that they are produced. Consumerism will have us believe that we need things because they are cute, convenient, or temporary. By reducing our demand, we can reduce the supply. 

Shifting Our Understanding to Shift Our Culture

Participating in the plastics summit at such a young age instilled in me a practice of sustainable choices, because it showed me the direct impacts of plastic consumption and waste. Birds mistake plastic for food, sea life get caught in nets, and we develop illnesses from plastic chemicals present in our bodies. I reduce my consumption of plastic packaged goods (juice, soda, toiletries, chips, candy) and find or create alternatives (lemon and mint in water, shampoo bars, baking). I reuse glass jars and reuse or recycle any plastic containers to lessen the demand on plastics. 

Different experiences shift different people’s understanding of consumption and plastic. Some channel the traditions of generations before them, and some people experience nature through hiking, gardening, or programs that share stewardship values. Others learn from documentaries, some face significant environmental issues in their hometowns, and others choose to preserve resources for future generations. 

All of these efforts matter. It takes all of us, every day, through open, loving, and challenging conversations, to shift culture. Thank you for participating in one with me today!

Dyaami D’Orazio is a writer, reiki practitioner, dreamer, and schemer. As a community organizer, conservation diversity fellow, and student of life, Dyaami thinks critically and imaginatively about the role of marginalized communities within environmental movements. Dyaami is a Pisces working towards liberation, starting within themself and sharing those practices in community— believing in the importance of play and radical love. In Octavia E. Butler's words, Dyaami is 'positively obsessed' with science fiction, the natural world, reducing consumption, and living one's truth.