Frontline communities of color fighting for environmental justice won’t wait on Biden much longer

OPINION: The plastics industry thrives on the backs of predominantly Black and brown communities, but the U.S. government stands as the primary obstacle to a strong, binding plastics treaty that could stop the loss of our lives.

The Denka, formerly DuPont, factory in Reserve, Louisiana, on August 12, 2021. Welcome to "Cancer Alley." Industrial pollution on this ribbon of land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge puts the mostly African-American residents at nearly 50 times the risk of developing cancer than the national average, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Photo by EMILY KASK/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

There are new headlines every few days highlighting the health effects of microplastics, those insidious fragments of debris that infiltrate our food, our organs and even our breastmilk. In policy report after report we are presented with facts and figures — Did you know Americans consume a “staggering amount” of microplastics? But for communities like mine in Louisiana, nestled in the heart of the petrochemical corridor known as “Cancer Alley,” microplastics aren’t abstract statistics. They’re deadly carcinogens.

With a fourth round of negotiations for a global plastics treaty recently concluded at the United Nations Environmental Program, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address this systemic injustice and end the sacrifice of frontline communities for the sake of Big Plastic’s corporate profits.

A strong treaty must go beyond surface-level solutions and confront the root of the problem: production. We need to shut down poisonous plastic at the source.

At every step of the supply chain — from extraction and manufacturing to transport and disposal — plastic poisons communities like mine.

The plastics industry thrives on the backs of the frontlines, and the predominantly Black and brown communities that have been transformed into sacrifice zones. Living and dying in the shadow of petrochemical plants, we bear the brunt of an industry that has transformed our landscape from a plantation economy into a plastics and petrochemical economy. Recycling schemes and industry-sponsored bandaids won’t suffice. We cannot recycle our way out of this crisis. Concrete action to reduce production is imperative to protect communities like mine from further harm.

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Some may argue that plastic is indispensable, citing its role in sanitation and medical supplies. I challenge these people to visit our communities and witness the pain and trauma inflicted on us for the sake of cheap plastics. Policies won’t heal the sickness caused by toxic air and contaminated water.

Biden has uttered the words, “Cancer Alley.” He’s made commitments to environmental justice communities and to Black Americans, but the promises our “climate president” made to us have proven empty. The U.S. government now stands as the primary obstacle to a strong, binding plastics treaty that could stop the loss of our lives in exchange for plastic production and the almighty dollar.

We are expected to sacrifice the well-being of our health and our environment, and Biden expects Black folks across the South to turn out and deliver him another term in office. We won’t bend over backwards for an administration that’s complicit in our death.

We need allies who will make good on their commitments and who will stand with us on the frontlines. We have no need for another toothless climate accord that’s worth as much as the paper it’s written on. The United Nations has mandated a treaty that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics—from fossil fuel extraction to disposal. If the US government fails to acknowledge this reality, they betray not only their credibility but also perpetuate human rights violations in communities like mine.

As a descendant of enslaved people, I refuse to accept the continuation of this exploitation under the guise of progress. The time for action is now. We demand justice, accountability, and a future free from the toxic grip of the plastics industry. Whether we realize that future will depend on President Biden and the U.S. hovernment choosing to prioritize the safety and survival of their people — in particular, frontline communities like mine – over the interests of international petrochemical corporations. Touted as our “climate president,” Biden must consider his legacy. We will all be judged by history. President Biden: stand with the frontlines, or stand aside.

Jo Banner is the co-founder and co-director of the Descendants Project, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of the communities of color in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley.