Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Last Straw
distributed 6/1/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Some official occasions are more important than others.

Today is National Doughnut Day. It began during World War I as a way to celebrate the female volunteers for the Salvation Army who were serving doughnuts to soldiers. Now it is a marketing occasion using sweets to lure customers into stores.

Next Tuesday, June 5, is World Environment Day. Celebrated in more than 100 countries, it is the UN's most important day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. The theme for 2018 is "beating plastic pollution."

It is a tough call, but I vote for World Environment Day as the event of greater significance.

Plastic pollution is a huge, global problem. As I've looked into some of the current initiatives for beating -- or at least reducing -- that pollution, I've noticed an important strategic approach that should be considered for most forms of eco-justice activism.

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I could give you all sorts of frightening statistics about plastic. But instead, I'll just refer you back to some previous Notes: "The Island of Plastic Junk" (May, 2017), and "More Plastic Than Fish" (February, 2016). You might notice that plastic in the ocean is a compelling way to raise awareness of the problem. I've seen that emphasis continuing in many articles and action alerts this year.

There are all kinds of plastic junk, but by web searches this spring show a growing push to address single-use plastic stuff as a particularly onerous kind of waste and pollution. We're being encouraged to look at the stupidity of products that are designed to be discarded after just a few minutes of use -- flimsy shopping bags, disposable plates and cups and spoons, and plastic straws. Many of these materials can't be recycled, and a huge percentage of them never make it into the trash. It becomes litter, and a lot of that makes its way into the ocean. It is used for a few seconds, but lasts for many years as an ecological hazard.

The European Commission is proposing a ban on 10 single-use items that make up 70% of all litter in EU waters and on beaches. The list includes plastic plates and drink stirrers. Some countries in the EU are moving even more quickly to reduce this waste.

The category of single-use plastic still may be too big and complex to really stimulate concern. So there is a rising call to zero in on one particular kind of plastic waste -- the drinking straw.

As the Plastic Pollution Coalitionnotes, in pointing toward their project "The Last Plastic Straw:"

In only the past twenty years, people have come to expect plastic straws in every drink, in an example of extreme waste being generated for minimal convenience. These short-lived tools are usually dropped into a garbage can with no further thought, instantly becoming a source of plastic pollution.

A few of the other initiatives addressing straws are the social media campaign, "#StopSucking For A Strawless Ocean", the 5 Gyres effort on straws, and the "Give A Sip" campaign in New York City.

What is it about plastic straws that stirs up this interest? A New York City Councilman interviewed on NPR this week said, "Over the past few years, I started looking at single-use plastics that we can begin to eliminate without having severe impact on New Yorkers' daily lives. Plastic straws happen to be one of those [products]." In other words, straws may be low-hanging fruit where measurable change is relatively easy.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition sees straws as a starting point for a longer initiative. In the short term, they say,

we educate individuals to refuse plastic straws and spread the 'straw free' message; and we work to change local regulation to stop this unnecessary plastic pollution. In the long run, this collective engagement around the gateway issue of plastic straws will meaningfully shift the way individuals and businesses think about plastic pollution -- and about our society's disposable culture on a larger scale.

The plastic straws that most people encounter multiple times a day are a gateway issue when they start people on some form of action, and increase awareness of a much larger issue. The straw served in a glass of water -- and you know that you don't need it to take a drink -- provides an up-close and personal experience of waste and pollution. There's an emotional impact and opportunities for action that don't come with photos of piles of plastic on the beach of a South Pacific island, and talk of international treaties.

Straws are not the biggest form of plastic pollution, but they are an effective way to get people involved.

Looking at the narrowing of the issue -- from plastic pollution in general, to single-use plastic, to drinking straws -- make me think of a short resource from Network for Good to help non-profits with fundraising. Their fourth principle is "Small, not big." Current research finds that "humans simply can't act in the face of massive numbers -- a phenomenon called psychic numbing. But the issue isn't just an inability to handle a large scale. Once you get past one person -- or animal, for that matter -- empathy declines."

Speaking about fundraising for disaster relief, researcher Paul Slovnic said: "The more who die, the less we care." The report clarifies:

The bigger the scale of what you're communicating, the smaller the impact on your audience. Do not overwhelm people with numbers and statistics. They shift people into an analytical frame of mind, which disconnects them from the emotion of an individual story.

Tons and tons of plastic in the ocean is more than we can handle, emotionally or cognitively. But that one straw handed to you along with your lunch beverage? That is something that you can see and act on.

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The United Nation's World Environment Day's theme for 2018 goes big, with "beating plastic pollution." Their tagline, "If you can't reuse it, refuse it," narrows that down for action by individuals on single-use products.

Getting rid of plastic straws and spoons won't end plastic pollution. But using those up-close-and-personal items as the starting point for education and action is a strategically wise choice.

The "small, not big" lesson is one that I struggle to remember and apply. Especially when we're dealing with climate change, those global statistics are easier to name than a touching story about a single individual.

As we strategize for change in our churches and communities, let's try to remember the need for small and emotionally engaging entry points. Starting with drinking straws can be the way to build action on all kinds of plastic pollution.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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