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Video: Van Jones Speaks at TEDxGPGP on the Economic Injustice of Plastic Video: Van Jones Speaks at TEDxGPGP on the Economic Injustice of Plastic

Video: Van Jones Speaks at TEDxGPGP on the Economic Injustice of Plastic

by Ben Jervey
January 25, 2011


I'd plug Van Jones into a number of speaker slots for a great variety of environmental themes, but he probably wouldn't have been at the top of my mind to speak about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So it's a good thing that I wasn't programming the TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch event, because Jones gave a great talk, connecting the production, transportation, disposal, and even recycling of plastic to economic and health injustices.

I particularly appreciate this bit about why we shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back too much every time we drop a plastic bottle into the recycling bin. (From around 2:58):

Often, we think we're doing a good thing. You're in your office, and you're drinking your bottled water, or whatever it is, and you think to yourself, "Hey, 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. Maybe I'll forgive myself. Not you, but I feel this way. And so we kind of have this kind of 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, 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 say, "What would you like to do next?" The little bottle says, "I just don't know." But that's not actually what happens. That bottle winds up getting burned. 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, are all being harmed greatly by this addiction that we have to disposability.

As always, Jones manages to shine light on a dim reality, and gets some laughs along the way. Well worth your thirteen minutes.

Thumbnail photo (cc) by flickr user stevendepolo

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