Reflections on 4th of July Weekend: From the British Empire to Slavery to Plastic Pollution

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The 4th of July has always represented many things to many people. As we celebrated, reflecting on the holiday’s history and its evolving significance in our nation was important. Holidays like this have developed multiple meanings, from American liberation to slavery liberation. In addition to the historical and cultural implications, these celebrations also presented a unique opportunity to reduce our use of harmful plastics that endanger our communities.

In recent years, the meaning of the holiday was enriched by the recognition of Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday in 2021. Early Juneteenth celebrations included church services, baseball, fishing, rodeos, public readings, and the singing of traditional spirituals. Today, Juneteenth also integrates African-American memories within the dominant ‘American story,’ creating a more inclusive narrative of freedom and independence.

The 4th of July also epitomized a celebration of pride, highlighted by the Annual Essence Festival of Culture – the largest African-American culture and music event on the planet. Over 250,000 people attend the festivities, bringing an economic impact of over $300,000,000. This event was more than just a party; it was a celebration with a purpose, upholding a massive responsibility to Black America. The festival, which attracted a diverse crowd, celebrated the essence of Black culture through music, art, and community engagement. Over the years, headline performers included Aretha Franklin, Prince, and Beyoncé. Vice President Kamala Harris and Oprah Winfrey have also graced the “experience stage” as empowerment speakers.

All of this rich culture and celebration of freedom are put at risk by Big Oil and Big Plastic – the corporations responsible for driving the climate crisis, polluting our air and water, and disproportionately harming Black communities and Black bodies. From the base of the Essence Festival in New Orleans along the Mississippi to Baton Rouge, there are over 200 industrial facilities. Cancer rates in the top 5% of the U.S. have led to the moniker “Cancer Alley” or “Death Alley.” Ethylene oxide emissions and other pollutants have also been linked to reproductive harm like lower birth weights and miscarriages. In a cruel irony, the present-day factories lie atop former slave plantations, with historical redlining institutionalizing this environmental racism. Residents have created community groups like RISE St. James and Concerned Citizens of St. John to stop additional pollution from new and expanded facilities, ensure that existing industries are held accountable, and fight for our lives.

For instance, Formosa Plastics planned to build an estimated $12 billion petrochemical facility that would take up the space of 1,818 football fields and disturb the graves of enslaved ancestors in St. James. This project – dubbed the ‘Sunshine Project’ – was set to darken the skies with 800 tons of toxic air pollution and 13.6 million tons of additional greenhouse gas pollution in order to make products like the single-use plastics used at Essence Festival and purveyed by their main sponsor, Coca-Cola.

Plastic never disappears—it piles up in nature, spoils groundwater, poisons the food chain, and affects human health. Consumers also experience the health effects of plastic pollution through everyday products, from bottled water to carpeting. Microplastics are increasingly found in the environment and throughout human bodies, including in our reproductive organs. With over 16,000 chemicals used in plastics – many of them known to be hazardous to human health – continuing the production and use of single-use plastic is jeopardizing the health of nearly every person on Earth. South Louisiana, renowned for its food and festivals, is uniquely positioned to lead the charge toward a plastic-free world by switching to reusable and refillable products at festivals and events.

Here are five ways to make 4th of July and cultural celebrations more eco-friendly:
1. Use reusable tableware and decorations made from natural materials like wood, bamboo, stainless steel, and glass. Avoid balloons and consider using paper lanterns instead.
2. Compost your food scraps in a backyard bin to reduce landfill methane emissions.
3. Carpool or use public transportation to reduce your carbon footprint.
4. Look for products that are made from natural materials and are PFAS, BPA/S, and PVC-free. Ask for plastic-free packaging. Better yet, shop second-hand or join a buy-nothing group.
5. Talk to your guests about supporting international efforts like the Global Plastics Treaty, as well as national, state, and local legislation to curb plastic pollution, like the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act and the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.

As we celebrated the 4th of July weekend and the Essence Festival of Culture, we also considered ways to educate the public at large and jumpstart conversations about reducing plastic use and waste. By adopting responsible practices and exploring alternative plastics, we can create a healthier planet and a lasting legacy of mindful living for future generations. Let’s use the spirit of independence to drive positive change and environmental justice for all.

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