The Economic Injustice of Plastic: Van Jones (Full Transcript)

Van Jones is an American news commentator, author, and non-practicing attorney. In this hard-hitting talk, he shows us how our throwaway culture hits poor people and poor countries “first and worst,” with consequences we all share no matter where we live.

Van Jones – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

I am honored to be here, and I’m honored to talk about this topic, which I think is of grave importance.

We’ve been talking a lot about the horrific impacts of plastic on the planet and on other species, but plastic hurts people, too — especially poor people.

And both in the production of plastic, the use of plastic and the disposal of plastic, the people who have the bull’s-eye on their foreheads are poor people.

People got very upset when the BP oil spill happened, for very good reason. People thought, “Oh, my God. This is terrible, this oil — it’s in the water. It’s going to destroy the living systems there. People are going to be hurt. This is a terrible thing, this oil is going to hurt the people in the Gulf.”

What people don’t think about is: What if the oil had made it safely to shore? What if the oil actually got where it was trying to go?

Not only would it have been burned in engines and added to global warming, but there’s a place called “Cancer Alley,” and the reason it’s called “Cancer Alley” is because the petrochemical industry takes that oil and turns it into plastic and in the process, kills people. It shortens the lives of the people who live there in the Gulf.

So oil and petrochemicals are not just a problem when there’s a spill; they’re a problem when there’s not. And what we don’t often appreciate is the price that poor people pay for us to have these disposable products.

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The other thing we often don’t appreciate is, it’s not just at the point of production that poor people suffer. Poor people also suffer at the point of use.

Those of us who earn a certain income level, we have something called choice. The reason why you want to work hard and have a job and not be poor and broke is so you can have choices, economic choices.

We actually get a chance to choose not to use products that have dangerous, poisonous plastic in them. Other people who are poor don’t have those choices.

So low-income people often are the ones who are buying the products that have those dangerous chemicals in them that their children are using. Those are the people who wind up ingesting a disproportionate amount of this poisonous plastic in using it.

And people say, “Well, they should just buy a different product.” Well, the problem with being poor is you don’t have those choices. You often have to buy the cheapest products. The cheapest products are often the most dangerous.

And if that weren’t bad enough — if it wasn’t just the production of plastic that’s giving people cancer in places like Cancer Alley, and shortening lives and hurting poor kids at the point of use — at the point of disposal, once again, it’s poor people who bear the burden.

Often, we think we’re doing a good thing: You’re in your office, drinking your bottled water or whatever it is, and you think to yourself, “I’m going to throw this away. No — I’m going to be virtuous. I’m going to put it in the blue bin.”

You think, “I put mine in the blue bin.”

And then you look at your colleague and say, “Why, you cretin! You put yours in the white bin.” And we use that as a moral tickle. We feel so good about ourselves. If we — well, OK, I’m just … me. Not you, but I feel this way often.

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And so we kind of have this moral feel-good moment. But if we were to be able to follow that little bottle on its journey, we would be shocked to discover that, all too often, that bottle is going to be put on a boat, it’s going to go all the way across the ocean at some expense, and it’s going to wind up in a developing country, often China.

I think in our minds, we imagine somebody’s going to take the little bottle and say, “Oh, little bottle! We’re so happy to see you, little bottle. You’ve served so well.”

He’s given a little bottle massage, a little bottle medal. And they say, “What would you like to do next?”

The little bottle says, “I just don’t know…”

But that’s not actually what happens. You know? That bottle winds up getting burned. The recycling of plastic in many developing countries means the incineration of the plastic, the burning of the plastic, which releases incredible toxic chemicals and, once again, kills people.

And so, poor people who are making these products in petrochemical centers like Cancer Alley, poor people who are consuming these products disproportionately, and then poor people who, even at the tail end of the recycling, are having their lives shortened. They’re all being harmed — greatly — by this addiction that we have to disposability.

Now, you think to yourself — I know how you are — you say, “That sure is terrible for those poor people. It’s just awful. Those poor people. I hope someone does something to help them.”

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