Teen Vogue headlines are usually about celebrities or fashion–what someone tweeted or which celeb besties just hit up Disneyland. In their latest issue, however, the glossy teen magazine is laying that aside to run a piece from a fellow at the radical left-wing organization Science for the People arguing about the inherent colonial oppression of plastic.
“Disposable plastics are simply not possible without colonizer access to land,” Dr. Max Liboiron, a fellow with Science for the People writes bluntly. “The end of colonialism will result in the end of plastic disposability.”
It’s a thesis that paints plastics with a broad brush, setting aside many of the advances in recycling and efficiency that are making today’s plastics more environmentally friendly than ever, while also ignoring the benefits of plastic.
For Liboiron, a member of an organization originally founded by the radical New Left in the 1960s, plastics encourage a culture of single use products and increase consumer waste, which in turns needs to be stored in landfills, incinerated, or recycled.
“This idea assumes access to land. It assumes that household waste will be picked up and taken to landfills or recycling plants that allow plastic disposables to go ‘away.’ Without this infrastructure and access to land, Indigenous land, there is no disposability,” she explains.
The plastics industry says that gives only a partial picture. They point out that plastic is lighter than other packaging materials, meaning that it takes less energy to produce and ship. They also help to prevent food waste and contamination, benefiting public health.
“For the better part of a century, plastics have revolutionized the way we live. We use plastics because they can do things that other materials simply cannot – the versatility and durability of plastic is unmatched,” Scott DeFife, vice president of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, tells InsideSources. “Their lighter weight minimizes the environmental footprint by decreasing production of waste, energy use and carbon emissions through the full lifecycle of the product.”
Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration at the Recycling Partnership, agrees, adding that not only is plastic being recycled, but manufacturers are also changing package designs to use less material.
“A lot of the packaging industry has adopted something called ‘lightweighting,'” he told InsideSources, making packaging thinner or smaller. “This makes it hard to compare recycling rates over time because as you’re recycling more [as a percentage], you’re actually recycling less [by weight.]”
That distinction is important in that, according to Teen Vogue, China and southeast Asia are being crushed under waves of plastic sent to be recycled in continuing roungs of “waste colonization.”
Besides the uncertainty of how China can be considered indigenous land, is it really getting that much American plastic? The answer is all in the details, says de Thomas, who added that that part of the Teen Vogue piece “was a little off.” China had been one of the primary importers of American scrap plastic, the majority of overall recycling–including plastic recycling–occurs domestically.
Even this ended in January, 2018, when the Chinese government halted further plastic imports, leaving recycling centers in the U.S. and other parts of the world to gather stockpiles of plastic. With China closed to plastic recycling imports, western countries have begun to ship recycling to other countries in southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Unfortunately, many of them have more lax waste disposal standards than Western nations. According to Liboiron, this is the fault of the colonizers.
“Colonialism refers to a system of domination that grants a colonizer access to land for the colonizer’s goals. This does not always mean property for settlement or water for extraction…” she wrote. “It can also mean using land as a resource, which may generate pollution through pipelines, landfills, and recycling plants.”
Ironically, his criticism of waste management practices in these countries seems to cause him to fall into what he labeled as another colonialist tendency: that of framing the regions as “mismanaging their waste.” In short, even recycling is not enough to save the planet. The only way to prevent plastic trash from contaminating arctic communities is to set aside the focus on consumer choice that “as a concept makes no sense” and to abandon plastics altogether.
Abandoning plastics would have a serious impact on our standards of living, though.
“Plastics are used across all industries including agriculture, medicine, transportation, and they ensure the quality of life we enjoy in America,” says Daniel Turner, executive director of Power the Future, a group promoting the economic benefits of the energy industry. “People in developing worlds are starved for the benefits of fossil fuels, not just products like plastics, but the power and light which enable our way of life.”
In fact, narratives that frame plastic in terms of pollution alone set aside discussions both of the befits of plastic and the power of consumer choice.
“The Teen Vogue Plastic Planet series makes numerous claims on plastics, however the full story has not been told,” said DeFife, who also encouraged people worried about the environmental impact of plastic to recycle.
“As a generation, young people have the opportunity to make a difference. The series is missing a discussion of personal responsibility and how individuals can make a difference. A generation of change will push more nations to invest in recycling and recycled materials.”
Perhaps Teen Vogue should stick to Miley Cyrus’s wedding dress.
CORRECTION: This piece was edited to correct that Max Liboiron is a woman.