When we think about solving the plastic pollution crisis, we often think about beach cleanups and recycling - and for those of us that come from more privileged backgrounds, we strive to fit all our plastic waste for the year into a mason jar. The overarching thread here is problematic for two major reasons: we are marketed to believe plastic pollution is OUR fault as consumers, and that everyday people must clean up the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. The culture of convenience may be at the root cause of the plastic pollution crisis, but who is behind creating and marketing a society hooked on plastic?
In the second episode of People Over Plastic, we zoomed into some core elements of environmental justice - like what it is and why it matters. Hear from Patrice Simms, an environmental attorney at EarthJustice who explains why it's critical to change the way decisions are made about individuals who are most impacted by them, especially Black communities who fall prey to industrial polluters. You’ll also hear from Filipino activist Froilan Grate of GAIA Asia Pacific who has a lot of experience exposing the failures behind the global recycling system and corporations’ double standards. Like Patrice, Froi raises the crucial perspective that people of color can create the space and seize the power that allows their voices to be heard.
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From EarthJustice: How Big Oil is Using Toxic Chemicals as a Lifeline – and How We Can Stop It
Break Free From Plastic's Brand Audit 2021 Report
<< record scratch >>
PATRICE SIMMS, SOUND BYTE [00:01]: Because every piece of plastic that we produce is ultimately a piece of plastic waste that has to be dealt with.
<< upbeat intro music >>
SHILPI CHHOTRAY - Host [00:17]: For this episode, we wanted to take a little bit of a segway by focusing on some core elements of environmental justice, like what it is and why it matters, and have this dialogue shaped by people that have been working on this issue for a really long time. The title for this episode is, “If you aren't at the table, you're on the menu.” We need to change the way important decisions are made about people who are most impacted by it. I'm your host, Shilpi Chhotray, and this is People over Plastic.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [00:51]: My first guest is Patrice Simms, who has a lot of experience with this analogy in his 23 year career as an accomplished environmental attorney and thought leader. From working under the Obama administration, to on-the-ground relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina, and even teaching law at the prestigious historically black Howard University. He is currently the Vice President of Litigation at EarthJustice.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [01:18]: Patrice, what does it mean to be at the table?
PATRICE SIMMS [01:23]: Being at the table means having people whose experience is directly connected to the community for whom the decisions will matter most,- having those people at the table, helping to craft not only the solutions, but helping to craft the questions that lead to the problem identification that ultimately lead to solutions. And of course what it means when we say, “if you're not at the table, you're on the menu” is - it means if you're not there doing it, if you're not coming up with the questions, identifying the problems and crafting the solutions, then your problems and your solutions are not going to be a part of what's happening. And your community will continue to be devoured. We see this playing out now, especially in the wake of the last couple of years and the incredible transformation that's happened as a product of the work of organizations like the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter. That the understanding and the willingness and the openness to transforming some of these places where decisions are happening is really starting to take root in a way that, you know, that is long, long overdue.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [02:37]: That’s such a powerful way to explain this metaphor. I’d love to know, what was YOUR invitation to the table?
PATRICE SIMMS [02:44]: First of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to be where I am. EarthJustice is a fantastic organization and one that's leading the way in many respects. It has been a really long path for me, and I feel really fortunate to have had all of the experiences I had. I spent some time in another large environmental nonprofit organization, and that's where I got my first exposure, really on-th- ground exposure to environmental justice issues. I took that job in the immediate wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
<< solemn music fades in, audio from news footage during Hurricane Katrina >>
NEWS CLIP 1, PERSON #1 [03:21]: You see how high it is?
NEWS CLIP 1, PERSON #2 BEING INTERVIEWED [03:22]: All these white people celebrating down here, and black people suffering on the other side of the tracks.
NEWS CLIP 1, PERSON #3 [03:27]: Ay, help us get off the roof, man.
NEWS CLIP 1, PERSON #4 [003:30]: You’re a real hero, boy!
NEWS CLIP 1, PERSON #2 BEING INTERVIEWED [03:31]: That's what's going on right now, so we still see that most of white America doesn't care about Katrina.
<< sound of wind blowing, music fades out >>
PATRICE SIMMS [03:41]: You know, I showed up at that job about two weeks after Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans. That was a tremendous learning experience for me, both in terms of having the opportunity to be right on the frontlines of an environmental justice catastrophe.
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The impact on the predominantly black community in the lower Ninth Ward and other places in the Gulf was a product of long-standing historical racism. It was very much a man-made environmental justice catastrophe, though it was connected to and instigated by the natural disaster of a hurricane.
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And that really opened my eyes in a way that made me rethink what I was doing and the impact that my work, my career, and my life could have. I was about 10 years into my career, and I began to realize that I had been doing this for a while, and I could probably count on one hand the number of people of color who had been in the- around the table as critical decisions are being made over the course of my entire career. And that was unacceptable to me. It was a brutal realization on my part.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [05:05]: There's one piece of Patrice’s career that really stuck out to me, and it was his public denouncement of Justice Brett Kavanaugh being given a seat at the table. In 2018, Kavanaugh was in the spotlight for sexual assault allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Stanford University.
<< audio of protestors chanting “Kava-no” >>
PATRICE SIMMS, GIVING SPEECH [05:25]: Today, President Trump nominated Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And I say again, it is not a good day. Indeed, I feel sadness, sad for this president who has made it clear that he prioritizes corporate profits over people. And this is our country.
<< cheers from crowd >>
Our country, our court! Our country, our court! Our country, our court!
<< chants gradually fade out >>
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [05:56]: I asked Patrice why it was important for him to be publicly vocal against Kavanaugh's confirmation for the U.S. Supreme Court, which is perhaps atypical of someone working for an environmental advocacy organization.
PATRICE SIMMS [06:09]: Well, really, this is about the courts, and the courts play such an important role. And the Supreme Court, of course, plays an oversized role in determining what the law is, determining who will be able to get in the doors to the courthouse in the first place, right? And then determining what kinds of remedies are going to be available to people even if they can't get in the door. The power of the law is tremendous. And if you just think about how do we get things done, how do we accomplish change in this country, and if you look back over some of the most important things that have happened in this country of in terms of radical change - you know, you think of issues like school desegregation, right? Well, there was huge political force behind that. It was a ongoing political dialogue for decades, if not centuries, but for decades in a really serious way, right? But what ultimately forced the- the reckoning of that in a way that- that was, in some ways, transformative, and that was a court case: Brown v. Board of Education.
NEWS CLIP 2 [07:23]: This girl here was the first Negro, apparently, of high school age to show up at Central High School the day that federal court ordered it integrated. She was followed in front of the school by an angry crowd, many of them shouting epithets at her.
NEWS CLIP 2, LIVE REPORTER [07:40]: Just got a report here. This just in. The students are in.
NEWS CLIP 2, REPORTER INTERVIEW [07:46]: Do you feel it's worth it going through this?
NEWS CLIP 2, PERSON BEING INTERVIEWED [07:480]: Yes, I do.
<< background music >>
NEWS CLIP 3 [07:51]: In May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest tribunal in the land, carried this American ideal of public education another step forward. In a unanimous decision, the nine Supreme Court justices ruled racial segregation in publicly supported schools to be unconstitutional, declaring that it denied equal opportunity.
PATRICE SIMMS [08:18]: When politics can't do it right, when politics fail, there's often the power of the courts and the power of the law to make things happen.
<< background music >>
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [08:38]: Speaking of the power of the law and taking this back to how plastic is produced, let's talk about petrochemicals, the raw material which is used to make plastic.
PATRICE SIMMS [08:48]: When we think about plastics, what we're really talking about is oil and gas extraction going to a petrochemical plant, being refined or processed into the building blocks of plastics and other chemical products. And as the oil and gas industry is losing its grip on power production, right, the generation of electricity. It's therefore losing a huge market that has been - that it has relied upon forever as a place to offload these extractive products of oil and gas.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [09:25]: So would it be safe to say, Patrice, it's fossil fuels trying to find a new home with the societal shift to renewables?
PATRICE SIMMS [09:33]: The transformation to clean energy is inevitable, right? And as that transformation occurs, that marketplace for oil and gas for those, for the fossil fuel industry is drying up. And they have to find another place, right, to turn those products into cash, right? And the petrochemical industry, which really is the backbone of plastics production, is where they're making their bet.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [10:03]: In episode one, we talk to retired special ed teacher and community organizer Miss Sharon Lavigne from St. James Parish, Louisiana. Miss Sharon lives only 2.5 miles away from petrochemical facilities that are keeping her sick and literally killing her loved ones.
Patrice, you talk a lot about the power of the courts. And I want to know, is it even legal to be building toxic plastics facilities in people's backyards?
PATRICE SIMMS [10:28]: The observation you make, and I think you know, you had a really important conversation with Sharon. You know, she sort of stands in the shoes of many others that are in very similar situations, in communities under assault, might be a dream for the petrochemical industry, but it would be a nightmare for many people across the country and around the world. It would come at a huge cost and it would come at a toxic cost.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [10:54]: So I guess my million dollar question is with all of these legal tools, why is a community like Sharon still facing 200 petrochemical facilities in her community?
PATRICE SIMMS [11:09]: One of the problems with how our environmental regulatory system works is it looks almost exclusively only at the impact of the individual facility that's being permitted.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [11:23]: We don't see these petrochemical facilities in white suburbs. One plant or 200, we don't see any. So there's obviously a link to keeping these black communities in a vulnerable cycle, in a vulnerable and vicious cycle.
PATRICE SIMMS [11:41]: I will respond to that statement with an observation that Sharon herself made. She said at one point in response to the Formosa facility, that Formosa Plastic had chosen St. James because we are poor, because we are black, and because no one would speak up. How the reality of new big polluting facilities works: they and the permitting authorities associated with approving them recognize the risk of trying to locate in places where they will meet resistance, and they inherently look for places where they think there will be less resistance. And that's often locations that are already highly industrialized, and it's often locations that are in close proximity to black communities, other communities of color, and poor communities.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [12:41]: I want to know one last piece on Sharon, Patrice, is how do we revitalize vulnerable communities like Miss Sharon’s with a focus on environmental, health and economic justice and equal rights going back to the discussion on civil liberties.
PATRICE SIMMS [12:58]: I think there's a lot of work to do. We have some clear starting points, right? We have to fix the part of our environmental, the system of environmental protection in this country that has failed, right? We've got to fix that. We need a system that addresses, acknowledges and addresses the impact of cumulative exposures in a real way. We need a system that ensures that proper monitoring is in place so that we understand the real impact that people are living with. One of the things that we realize is that many industries are chronically underreporting the actual emissions that are coming from their facilities.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [13:42]: I want to go back to something you said that was powerful early on. You said when politics fail, we go to policies and the power of the courts. What happens when this part of it fails, these legal actions, these legal tools that should be keeping communities safe from harm? Where do we go from that? I mean, is it organizing power? Is it community-led? Is that where the NGOs and the advocates step in?
PATRICE SIMMS [14:12]: That is absolutely right on the money, right? When the laws fail to accomplish their goals and fail to create the tools that allow for members of the community for for folks who are harmed to go into court and force action - when the law has failed to do that, it is then the voice of the people, it is the voice of the advocates, it is the power of organizing. That's what creates the initial change that allows the laws to change that then give the tools to people to ensure that it's happening on the ground. And now is the moment to have that upswell again and say, we have to deal with this. We have to fix what's broken.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [14:57]: What are some paths young people, in your opinion, can choose to fight this? You've had such a dynamic career and you are in this unique position where you really understand the power of the courts. What would you tell the younger audiences listening to this?
PATRICE SIMMS [15:14]: There is an incredibly important movement happening now that is transforming almost every facet of our society and for the better. Your voices are important in that. Do not exercise your right to remain silent. This is the moment to be vocal. This is the moment to engage. I see a lot of tremendously important black activism and activism of people of color, the black community across the country. It's having an impact, right? It's transformational. And don't think for a second that your voice doesn't matter.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [16:01]: Knowing where plastic comes from, I wanted our listeners to hear where it ends up - on the other side of the world. My friends, like Froilan Grate in Manila, Philippines, are no strangers to plastics’ end of life, largely due to the failures and racism behind the recycling system. We often think we're saving the world by placing plastic in the blue bin and that it magically disappears. But the international recycling business sees this as a profitable venture, which takes advantage of a market with no rules.
FROILAN GRATE [16:34]: It relates to me very personally, you know, like, as an island boy, swimming was something that is natural to me. It's something that I crave for, you know. And before, my first instinct was, when you see a water, you want to jump in the water, you want to swim in the water. But the memory was that, the first time I saw Manila Bay, it was like, I would never in my entire life ever swim in this water.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [17:11]: Froi arrived in the city of Manila when he was just 17 years old. After growing up on an island in the central part of the Philippines, this is what he recalls from his childhood.
FROILAN GRATE [17:25]: Typically, weekends are spent going to the beach or going to the mountains, or just really enjoying the place where I am. Arriving at the port in Manila, you see Manila Bay. Compared to clear blue waters in the island where I grew up, I see just black water, you know. And instead of fissures or corals or white sand, what I saw were waste, mostly plastic waste. But at that very moment, you know, I had this realization that the same thing that happened to the island where I grew up, if we don't do anything about it, the same things that we are doing in the capital in Manila would be allowed to happen in the island as well.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [18:19]: Froi and I talk a lot about the growing catastrophe of plastic packaging that cannot be recycled. In fact, the global recycling rate is less than nine percent and one of the packaging types we see the most in communities and waterways in Asia are called sachets. Sachets are made up of different materials that cannot be recycled, and because they're super lightweight, they're literally found everywhere. Imagine getting a ketchup packet for everyday household items like rice, sugar, cream and even toothpaste. That's sort of a short textbook version of sachet. But here's Froi's perspective.
FROILAN GRATE [19:01]: Sachet for me is really about putting a stupid solution in a non-existent problem in the first place. What corporations tell us is that we are too poor to afford their products and the only way for us to afford their products is if you buy it in small quantities, typically packaged in sachet. Companies are saying, continue to buy our products, but we're not responsible for its end of life. It's basically saying, we will earn from you, but we don't care what you do with it after. Because sachets is a manifestation of corporations’ desire to sell more without being accountable for what they produce. We were never part of the decision-making in terms of how sachets were produced. We were never part of the decision-making in terms of how sachet is going to be rolled out and managed and disposed. And the worst part is for all of this, we are blamed for it.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [20:06]: That's such an important piece of why it's critical for community to be not only at the table but creating the table. So there's a huge double standard here in that Asia keeps getting a finger pointed at in terms of blame, like you said. But the companies creating this shit are headquartered in the global north. Talk to me about those corporations and some of the interactions. I mean, you've been in the room in Washington, DC with industry heads.
FROILAN GRATE [20:35]: That, Shilpi, is the most frustrating part of this advocacy. You know, I had the privilege over the past few years of being in the room. But in many instances, you know, there is always a question in my head: Am I the token brown person in the room? Like, am I here because they need someone brown to be present, or because they're genuinely interested to hear in what I have to say? It is already a burden, you know, to represent all the voices of the voiceless in this communities. But it is even more frustrating to represent those voices in a manner that is tokenistic. What I realize is that the people who are making the decisions that impacts people the most, especially in our part of the world, are people who are so detached from reality. They would put forward solutions that people on the ground would know by common sense by lived experience that it's not going to work. So for me, that's the biggest realization.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [21:51]: There's still so much blame pointed to certain areas of the world. And what people don't realize is that countries that are wealthier, such as the U.S., countries in Europe, Australia, and Canada, are outsourcing the waste problem. In many countries, they've banned it, but there continues to be waste dumping and open burning in various parts of the world, including the global south. So I would love to know from you, Froi, how Filipinos are thinking about it and what is the responsibility of not just corporations in this, but governments?
FROILAN GRATE [22:29]: For us, it is a reflection of the global inequality, but most importantly, it's a reflection of how we are viewed in the world stage. The moment you send your waste here - and this is both about governments that are sending it, the companies that are behind this transactions, but also even ordinary folks that are in good intentions, you might be putting your waste in recycling bin thinking that you're doing good, but what actually happens is that all of this quote-unquote recycling is just waste being sent into Third World countries. So for us, it is a reflection of what you think of us, that we are less valuable, that we have less dignity. Because if people view us in an equal sense, you know, like how could you imagine sending your waste to another place?
Eighteen, twenty years ago, one of the first actions that I joined was a protest petition addressed to McDonald's. What we did was we went to their headquarters in Manila. We gave a petition letter for them for very simple things, for them to stop using polystyrene and straws in their restaurants. McDonald's didn't even have the decency to face us to talk to us. No, what they did was they sent their security guards to receive the petition. Right. So that for me was already a clear example of the power play in here. That we, even as we come together, there's hundreds of us there, we still aren't enough to be heard. Their response was that they cannot make this decisions because those decisions would have to come from their global headquarters in the U.S.. In fact, in the U.S., in many places, McDonald's have already decided not to use polystyrene and in some cases, plastic drinking cups and straws. So for me, that was really insulting. Like we are here come together to say that, the consumers here are saying, we don't want this, and you're telling us that you can’t make the decision because those decisions would come from white folks in their plush offices in the U.S.. And those white folks have already made the decision that those same things that we have been demanding is okay to be implemented in some other markets, but not to us.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [26:33]: Thanks for that, Froi. I mean, it's just so frustrating to hear about the double standards and people that don't look like you making decisions about your life and your communities. This is a great segway into a solution, something that is super innovative around addressing these double standards, and it's called the brand audit. The brand audit is essentially taking coastal cleanups to the next level by not only looking at the types of plastic being collected but the brands, and it can be done anywhere in the world, not just the coasts.
FROILAN GRATE [26:15]: We want to give a face to the real culprits behind this. We are done. We are tired of taking the blame for all of this when in fact we know we should be responsible, but then we don't have the numbers. We know back in the back of our heads, it's Nestlé, it's McDonald's, it's Coca-Cola, it's Unilever, it's Procter & Gamble. But we don't have the numbers. And that is where the idea of the brand audits started. We finally have the numbers to say that these are the people producing the waste in the first place. I've conducted over 100 waste and brand audits in my life, and I could tell you it's not a pleasant experience. It's really a manual labor. It’s very much a labor of love because we know that we can’t do cleanups forever. We can’t take the responsibility of cleaning up after the corporates forever.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [27:11]: And we're now in our fifth year of brand audits happening all over the world, not just Philippines or Global South. But nearly every country on this planet is part of this community effort, feeding into a global dataset that turns into an annual report. It's been highly successful. Froi, I would love to hear what corporate responses have been to our brand audits.
FROILAN GRATE [27:35]: There are some token efforts of resistance. We- we've known of some companies that have requested local groups in the Philippines to not release the results of the brand audit, especially in the first year. We've known some companies who have used it to engage with us, to talk, whether they were coming at it from a genuine perspective to do something or not. But ultimately, I think the, one of the benefits of the brand audit is that it is a very powerful tool in terms of changing the narrative. For the longest time, it's about blaming people in the Global South, blaming people in Asia. But with the brand audits, we're saying that, yes, we as individuals, we as consumers, we have a role to play. But the bigger source of the problem are these companies who are producing this in the first place.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [28:34]: It's been 20 years since you left your your island town. You're back on your island during the pandemic right now. What has changed in terms of the amount of plastic that you're seeing, where you're from?
FROILAN GRATE [28:48]: I'm really sad to say that, in fact, my biggest fears are turning out to be true. We're not encouraging people to drink soda for health reasons. But I’ll use this as an example. Twenty years ago, if you visit a store in the island, sodas would come in refillable glass bottles, right? There's a, there's a working logistics that allows for Coca-Cola to sell products in glass bottles, and people throwing it, and it gets refilled, and it's a working logistics then. Right now, it's almost impossible to see Coca-Cola products in glass bottles. Everything now is in plastic bottles, you know? And I think that is reflective of the way Coke has been pushing for their products here in the island and in many other places. Sachets is now more prevalent. There is a shift towards packaged food instead of of locally produced goods.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [29:57]: What is your message to other community leaders fighting for systemic change in the face of racism, corruption and corporate greed?
FROILAN GRATE [30:06]: Don't wait for an invite into the room. Don't wait for a space to be created for us, especially for most of us that have been so used to being marginalized that we are sometimes tempted to just welcome any opportunity to speak. I think we need to be reminded sometimes that when we work together, we can create the spaces for us and we can create the power that allows our voices to be heard as well. Despite all the limitations that are being put forward for us, despite all the stumbling blocks that are being thrown our way, I think we can make the spaces and we can make our voices free.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [31:02]: Patrice’s deep faith in the courts, has inspired me to mention a few major policy wins when it comes to the state of plastics in the U.S. Perhaps the most notable being the northernmost state of Maine passing a law that forces plastic manufacturers to pay for the cost of recycling and disposal instead of cities and towns. This also means manufacturers will be incentivized to use less plastic that isn't recyclable, like the sachets that Froi describes. In policy terms, this paradigm-shifting legislation is called Extended Producer Responsibility.
END OF EPISODE
Season and episode cover artwork by Greg Dubois @marvelgd