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Shaming people for using single-use plastics is counterproductive

It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be environmentally conscious all the time.
Illustration: April Kinney • The Sentry

going green isn’t a competition

In the era of cancel culture, reusable straws, and Greta Thunberg, people are more hyper-aware of their carbon footprint than ever. Mass-produced, reusable alternatives to single-use plastics have flooded the market, from metal straws to reusable sandwich bags. The market capitalization of Tesla, the automotive love child of capitalism and environmentalism, has increased from just over $3 billion in 2012 to almost $60 billion in October 2019. While being eco-friendly is definitely helpful for the planet, its trendiness has further inspired competitive behaviors. 

Not using reusable bags at Trader Joe’s draws gasps and scowls from fellow patrons. Not bringing a reusable coffee mug to a local overpriced café means no discount. Using a plastic straw? Sorry Charlie, not going to cut it.

But what about low-income families who can’t afford to buy a $5 reusable bag? What about disabled people who can only use single-use straws for safety? What about people that just plain forgot to bring their artillery of silicone, metal, or bamboo alternatives? Are these demographics inferior to those who come prepared to avoid single-use plastic at all times?

While reusable options are absolutely a step in the right direction towards changing the planet, they are not always accessible. Reusable grocery bags cost between $2-$10, whereas single use plastic bags are free, and can be reused as trash bags. Sure, reusable bags are a pretty low initial investment, but a single parent trying to feed their family is likely more focused on paying for necessities, like food or clean water. 

In 2019, the plastic straw debate has become increasingly volatile. Public outrage has inspired several cities to ban plastic straws, including Seattle and Washington, DC, encouraging people to use sustainable alternatives. But not everyone can use metal or compostable straws. For people with motor or strength disabilities, such as Parkinson’s Disease, straws can help make drinking easier. Metal, glass, and bamboo straws can pose a danger to the user, particularly if they suffer from seizures.

Our society’s hyper-fixation on cancel culture has paved the way for unsubstantiated criticisms, and this phenomenon has permeated into conversations about eco-consciousness. The zero-waste lifestyle has become an Instagram fad, pushing an agenda filled with classism and ableism. 

A recent photo of Greta Thunberg eating her lunch on a train sparked controversy on Twitter. Responses flooded beneath the tweet, most criticizing the fact that her salad came in a plastic container. But she had reusable water bottles, and she was eating vegan food, not to mention that she’s pioneering a movement at the age of 16. 

Sustainability is no joke: it’s the pathway to a cleaner future. There’s no arguing that the youth-led movement to end climate change is a brave and noteworthy mission. People should be more conscientious of their everyday carbon footprint, and make changes where possible. But as Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef, said on Twitter, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”

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