Juneteenth is a celebration of Black resilience and an urgent call to action to address long-standing discrimination, including the environmental injustices Black people in America continue to face.
This Sunday, June 19, we observe Juneteenth, a day marking the end of chattel slavery in the United States. The first people to celebrate Juneteenth were enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, who claimed their stolen freedom at the end of the Civil War.
At its core, Juneteenth is about Black resilience despite widespread systemic exploitation and abuse. At the same time, it is a stark reminder that the movement for Black freedom and equality in the United States is still underway today.
While many Black communities across the country have celebrated Juneteenth for more than 150 years, the date was only recognized by the U.S. government as a Federal holiday in 2021. Such delayed “official” designation is symbolic of the larger scale delay in establishing true freedom and equality for all, repairing relations and making reparations, and eliminating the racism and discrimination that runs through American society and culture.
Awareness of the need to urgently address the myriad forms of racial discrimination against Black people—including violent policing, housing discrimination, voter suppression, and an unjust criminal justice system—appears to be spreading. But there is much more work to be done to establish racial equity in the U.S.
One of the most pervasive and harmful forms of bigotry Black communities face today is environmental injustice. In the U.S., substantial environmental injustices—against Black communities, and other underserved groups of people—are perpetuated by the plastics and petrochemical industries and aided by government subsidies, activities, processes, legislation, and political support.
Environmental Injustice is Racism
Racialized communities, especially Black communities, have long been disproportionately burdened with environmental pollution and industrial hazards. This burden is intentional, and both the industries creating pollution and the governments facilitating the unjust placement of polluting infrastructure, activities, and waste perpetuate this environmental injustice.
Racist zoning laws and governance, housing and voter discrimination, industry lobbying and bribery, and other insidious forms of racism including slavery have historically ensured the majority of Black people live and work in the most polluted places in the United States.
As a result of environmental injustice, Black people are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than White people and are forced to shoulder a wide range of physical and emotional costs linked to living in proximity to dangerous pollution and industrial activities. Environmental injustice remains one of the biggest threats to Black lives today.
The Links Between Plastics and Environmental Injustice
In the U.S., Black people are more likely than other racial groups to live near hazardous waste sites and other polluting infrastructure. All parts of the plastics and petrochemical pipelines pose significant risks to human health and disproportionately harm vulnerable communities. Such discrimination has been deemed criminal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and identified as an urgent human rights issue by the United Nations—and yet, it is extremely widespread.
The entire plastics pipeline destructively impacts the natural environment, clearing and polluting lands that should be protected. It also exposes people to myriad kinds of serious pollution, including significant releases of climate-warming greenhouse gases and high levels of particulate air pollution known to diminish heart and respiratory health.
Near fossil fuel extraction sites (such as oil and gas wells), along fuel pipeline routes, and at refineries, people are exposed to air, water, and soil pollution, and face high risk of spills, fires, explosions, and other potentially lethal accidents.
Around plastics manufacturing facilities and transportation routes, people face similar risks to those living on the fencelines of refineries, plus microplastic pollution in the form of plastic pellets (also called “nurdles”). Plastic pellets, like all plastics, contain toxic chemicals and are known to accumulate in our bodies and the environment.
Plastic pollutes throughout its existence, harming people who live near landfills, incinerators, waste rail or truck transportation routes and hubs, sorting facilities, recycling plants (where little plastic is truly recycled), and illegal dumps. Waste-related infrastructure and activities pollute air, water, and soils with hazardous chemicals and noise, and diminish quality of life.
Logistics centers—warehouses designed to hold products often made of plastic and shipped to order—pollute surrounding communities with plastics and chemicals. They also require constant truck traffic, creating environmental and noise pollution.
The corporations involved engage in a variety of tactics designed to deflect and distract from and diminish the true harm they are causing. Their tactics typically include providing members of harmed communities with “freebies” such as stuffed “back-to-school packs” or building playgrounds (often in proximity to dangerous industrial infrastructure) for children—who are highly vulnerable to the effects of pollution. Polluters also maliciously attempt to ease the minds of people living in the communities they harm directly by holding information fairs or distributing “informational” materials full of misinformation crafted to minimize pollution concerns.
What’s more, both the industries causing pollution and representatives and governments tasked with regulating them choose to communicate in English at the exclusion of other languages. The omission, and by consequence dismissal and disrespect, of non-dominant languages is language injustice. It too plays a role in ensuring the silence of communities harmed by industrial development, pollution, and lack of governmental protection.
Support Environmental Justice in Black Communities
Every person deserves to live in a healthy environment without having to carry a disproportionate pollution burden. As underserved communities have long been expressing, they deserve clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. They deserve much better.
You can support environmental justice for all, even if you do not live in a community directly harmed by industrial development and pollution. This Juneteenth (and every day), we urge you to help:
1. Learn the facts
Take the crucial first step to acting as an environmental justice advocate and ally! Educate yourself about the links between systemic racism, the plastics and petrochemical industries, and the disproportionate health risks Black and underserved communities face. (This blog is a great start.)
Check out additional resources on the connections between the plastics and petrochemical industries and environmental injustice in this excellent blog from Plastic Pollution Coalition member Surfrider Foundation.
We also suggest you take a few Toxic Tours with our partners at Break Free From Plastic. Toxic Tours are community-led storytelling and mapping experiences that reveal the impacts of plastic production on frontline communities from across Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Plastic Pollution Coalition is hosting a webinar about Toxic Tours on June 24 where you can learn more about this important project from frontline representatives, Break Free From Plastic, and collaborators. Learn more and sign up.
2. Amplify frontline voices
A core part of the change necessary to counter continued environmental injustice is to make others aware of systemic racism and how it drives environmental injustice. After learning more about environmental justice, support frontline communities by amplifying and uplifting their voices and stories. Share media featuring Black community leaders, such as Sharon Lavigne in St. James Parish, Louisiana, with your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and on social media.
3. Hold systems accountable
Frontline communities are working hard to change the broken systems that drive environmental injustice. If feasible for you, make a financial donation or volunteer with groups serving frontline communities.
Get involved in local issues where you live—even if you’re not living in or near a frontline community:
- Learn more about the ways your municipality governance and activities run by attending and participating in local meetings.
- Vote in your elections after researching each candidate and their stance on environmental justice issues.
- Pay special attention to what is communicated and done with issues related to environment, zoning, industry, land use, and policy enforcement.
- Practice language justice by advocating for all members of your community to have equal opportunity to participate in local processes through access to verbal, written, physical, and other interpretive services readily available and accessible in their language.
In these ways, you can advocate for transparency and prioritization of equity, safety, and health for all people, starting where you live. Use your new knowledge about environmental justice to shape your own values and priorities. Also keep your eyes on the need for wider opportunities for systems change, such as federal legislation to hold polluters and governments accountable.
Join Plastic Pollution Coalition and allies in asking President Biden and Administration officials to stop approvals for new and expanded petrochemical and plastic facilities.
4. Speak with your wallet
As mentioned, plastics and petrochemical corporations intentionally spread misinformation in order to continue selling their lethal products. You can show allyship and support for frontline communities by doing your research on corporations’ environmental justice track records before you shop.
It’s almost always better to shop local and avoid buying from big corporations—which typically cause outsized harm to the environment. They also tend to have poor (and often appalling) social justice track records. Large corporations’ “profit-over-people” focus drives environmental injustice. Avoid funding corporations by causing harm by purchasing directly from small businesses, particularly those that are owned and operated by BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) individuals.
5. Join Juneteenth environmental justice events
Check with your local organizations, NAACP chapters, faith groups, and other community groups to join events bringing attention to environmental justice on and around this Juneteenth.
We’ve compiled a small selection of such events held on and around this Juneteenth 2022, below, to help get you started:
Virtual and in-person at the University of Michigan
In-person in Pennsylvania
- Climate Action PA’s 16th Annual Philadelphia Juneteenth Festival on Friday, June 18, 12-6pm – Philadelphia, PA
- Bucks Students for Climate Action and Protection of the Environment is tabling at Bucks County’s 2022 Juneteenth Celebration on Sunday, June 19, from 11am-3pm in Doylestown PA
Support Black communities harmed by environmental injustice—not just on Juneteenth but every day!