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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Green is the new black: How we’ve demoted sustainability to a passing trend

Capitalist trends that label themselves as sustainability efforts are harmful to the environmental movement.


Plastic straws are pictured.

Do you own a metal straw? Maybe you do and maybe you take it everywhere with you. Maybe you do but you’ve forgotten about it and it’s lying somewhere unused, collecting dust.  Can you remember why you bought it? For the planet, right? That’s what one would expect. As is commonly known, plastic straws are bad for marine ecosystems. But why did you truly buy the metal straw? Was it really to reduce your plastic consumption for the sake of turtles, or was it to participate in the larger trend that gave merit to this concept of “saving the turtles?”

The optimist in me may argue that it doesn’t matter, that regardless of whether your motivation to do so had intrinsic or extrinsic origins, the impact is still a net positive for the planet. Maybe that’s right, but on the other side of this argument, the trends we adopt are potentially fuelling a fire that is undermining the effectiveness of the sustainability movement.

The capitalist craze of the “Save the Turtles” movement brought to attention a very important environmental issue: the endangerment of marine ecosystems and their organisms due to the careless consumption of plastics. As a result, companies were publicly pressured into pledging to reduce the plastics they made available, for instance, Starbucks aimed to eliminate the provision of single-use plastic straws by 2020. Starbucks wanted to stay trendy, so they adapted to stay relevant to the increasingly “woke” community in the U.S. and adopted a save-the-turtles style environmental mantra as their daily anthem. Common sense would suggest that this helped to reduce the issue of turtles dying from plastic disposal and consumption, but why do studies show that plastic waste is washing into the ocean at an ever-increasing rate? A 2020 study by Oceana found that 88% of the sea turtles and marine mammals killed in U.S. waters by plastic ingestion, drowning or strangulation were threatened or endangered species. Things like chewing gum, microplastics, ropes and bottle caps have also caused the untimely death of these creatures. Plastic straws aren’t the only threat to endangered ocean life, they are just the easiest to capitalize on and find a trendy enough replacement for.

People are judged for using plastic straws, but when have you seen someone being considered unthoughtful for chewing gum? Gum is made with a rubber-like substance, which makes it very hard to decompose. It’s terrible for the environment because 80–90% of gum is incorrectly disposed of. Gum can become stuck to the ground, get into drainage systems or find its way into a landfill. Eventually, gum can end up in waterways that lead to the ocean.

Discarded gum can pose a danger to fish, birds and other animals. They mistakenly ingest the plastic as food and choke on them. The gum could also get stuck in their digestive system, causing them to die of starvation. However, organizations haven’t been as successful in advertising plastic-free gum. The public just hasn’t caught on because it hasn’t been established as a trend, so we’ve given less credence to it as an environmental issue.

While I’m not trying to convert people to start eating Simply Gum as opposed to the more accessible options like Orbit, Juicy Fruit or Wrigley’s, I am calling for more people to recognize the power that trends have over us and the harm they pose in undermining environmental problems that aren’t labeled “trendy.”

Furthermore, this opens the discussion to an issue we all know has existed since before we were born, but one we only address and recognize when we see it trending on our “For You” pages on TikTok, our feeds on Instagram or the headlines of the newspapers we read. The climate crisis is arguably the most pressing issue of our time. While climate change may affect different communities unequally, climate change itself doesn’t discriminate against race, gender, sex, sexual preference or religion, yet we seem to dismiss its urgency when something else occupies the headlines. This isn’t to invalidate any other cause. It is just to state that global warming is something that affects us all. Despite this, most of us only consider it when it comes to the burning Amazon rainforest or when New York’s skies turn yellow, heavy with air pollution. We wear rose-colored glasses when we read dystopian fiction that glamorizes these landscapes, but we remain ignorant of the dystopian reality in which we are living.

Why do we wait for something to become a trend, an aesthetic, for us to reflect on our lifestyle and consider a more sustainable way of living? Will we wait for turtles to start choking on gum before we decide to make plastic-free gum trendy? Who knows? If the climate crisis movement is promoted as the theme of next year’s Met Gala, maybe we aren’t doomed after all.