How do social businesses address environmental injustice caused by plastic pollution?

November 30, 2021

Businesses, particularly social businesses, play an important role in promoting environmental justice. As producers and consumers of plastics, as well as creators of social values, social businesses will be at the vanguard of a shift away from plastics while protecting human rights. Vulnerable communities bear a disproportionate brunt of the environmental deterioration caused by the plastics crisis, and therefore urgent social business action is needed.

How does plastic pollution cause environmental injustice?

In general, environmental justice considers all disparities in the world, looking at the environmental and social problems, as well as the systems that generate them, and advocating for solutions that benefit both the earth and the people who live on it.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Environmental Justice Non-governmental Organization (Azul) report “Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Pollution,” plastic pollution disproportionately affects vulnerable groups and communities who live near plastic production and disposal sites, leading to environmental injustice. Plastic pollution not only jeopardizes the livelihoods of individuals who depend on marine resources, but it also creates a slew of health problems for people who ingest toxic micro and nano plastics-infested seafood. Women are at a higher risk of plastic-related toxicity since they’re exposed to more plastic reception and even in feminine care products. Gender, social roles, and political power differences in regulating plastic use and health standards put women at elevated risk of miscarriage and cancer, aggravating gender inequality. Plastic trash, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has become a serious contributor to the worldwide pollution catastrophe, alongside biodiversity loss and global climate change, resulting in a triple emergency from a global viewpoint.

From Vietnam’s perspectives, since China banned the import of plastic waste in 2018, many Southeast Asian countries, notably Vietnam, have become dumping grounds for polluted and illegal plastic that would have previously been handled by China. The consequences of China’s imported plastic ban, in particular, have had a significant influence on the informal sector. While informal waste collectors are the frontline heroes in the battle against plastic pollution, they are typically parts of vulnerable communities who are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and lack access to basic needs such as housing, healthcare, and education, according to a report “Exploring Solutions to Ocean Plastics: Supporting Southeast Asia’s Informal Waste Sector”. They are often members of a “closed group” – a particular ethnic, religious, or other community whose jobs are deemed shameful. In an in-depth study implemented by Evergreen Labs and UNDP Accelerator Lab, while the informal waste sector makes a substantial contribution to Danang’s overall objective of obtaining a 15% waste recycling rate by 2025, this contribution is not always recognized in current policies.

In addition to promoting a circular economy and improving waste management, social businesses may use a few practices to increase business responsibility and contribute to tackling above-mentioned environmental injustice problems.

#1 Improve lives and livelihoods of the most affected

Communities and stakeholders most impacted by environmental impacts can earn money by participating in environmental occupations, such as circular jobs. For example, Waste pickers earn a fair income for all sorts of waste collected for ReForm Plastic, an Evergreen Lab’s  social business which transforms orphan plastic debris into new tradable products. This includes low-valued plastic waste that was previously worthless to collect and hence dumped in the environment. ReForm Plastic also employs informal workers providing them with safe, secure jobs with benefits such as social and health insurance.  These opportunities give the informal workers who are often stigmatized a greater sense of how appreciated their work is in the community, as well as enhancing their skills, confidence, and work experience.

#2 Increase access to learning and raise awareness

Solving environmental problems is not enough; social businesses must also share the responsibility of spreading knowledge and raising awareness so that more individuals adopt an environmental justice perspective and affect their communities. At Evergreen Labs, we place knowledge co-learning and co-sharing at the center of our activities. We are dedicated to sharing knowledge about entrepreneurship, innovation, social & environmental causes, and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurial minds in Vietnam. To date, we have mentored over 25 startup teams, invested in 16 startups, participated or co-organized 12 events relating to startup and entrepreneurship, and successfully supported 7 charity organizations.

#3 Collaborate to scale up impact

To address the climate crisis, a social business ecosystem should be built, as well as collaboration with others across industries and specialist stakeholders. As a social venture, we work with a wide range of partners to help them apply sustainable and circular business models which reach the triple bottom line. Another social business of ours – Glassia offers a local, affordable, reusable glass bottled water product to an otherwise market of centrally produced, single-use PET or expensive imported single-use glass. Glassia is now growing its collaboration with other local businesses to not only alleviate the burden of plastic waste but also to improve the local economy and to establish an ecosystem of ethical businesses willing to fight for environmental injustice in the locality. Notably, ReForm Plastic is also continuing to expand its operations outside of Vietnam, with 2 factories operating in Myanmar since 2020 and factory partners planning their ReForm Plastic factories in Malaysia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Mozambique.

In COP26, Pham Minh Chinh, Prime Minister of Vietnam, has made a call for fairness and justice in climate change challenges, urging all nations to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining equality and justice in the response. “Science must take the lead, and financial resources must be used to leverage the transition to a green, circular economy, with all activities based on the environment and people-centered, leaving no one behind,” he said. The call may serve as a motivator for social businesses to collaborate in the fight for environmental justice not only in Vietnam but globally.