The 'silent emergency' of the plastic trifecta
Beyond Plastics founder campaigns for end use of single-use plastics
Judith Enck’s first experience with an environmental catastrophe was at Love Canal.
She came to Niagara Falls with a sociology class her junior year of college to learn about the toxic disaster. The mayor of Niagara Falls told the class Love Canal wasn’t a problem, simply fabrication from “hysterical housewives.”
Enck visited the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on Thursday to discuss Beyond Plastics, a project launched at Bennington College to “work with college students and community leaders around the country to reduce plastic pollution.” She also discussed the “silent emergency” of single-use plastic pollution. Roughly 150 community members attended the lecture, which was followed by a roughly 20-minute question-and-answer period.
Enck, a visiting professor at Bennington College and a former Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator under the Obama administration, founded Beyond Plastics and began her environmental advocacy after the mayor of Niagara Falls dismissed public concern about Love Canal.
Enck said she “will never forget” meeting the mayor of Niagara Falls and that she “actually thought he was joking” at first.
“He did not understand why we didn’t go see the falls first and why we were listening to the ‘hysterical housewives’ at Love Canal,” Enck said. “Hearing an elected official scold us for focusing on Love Canal was transformative for me and it taught me that not all people in government are out there protecting the public interest.”
She discussed the “plastic trifecta” –– plastic bags, straws and polystyrene –– which was a phrase Enck and Bennington students came up with.
Enck said reducing use of the “plastic trifecta” will help decrease the environmental impacts of individual consumers, but she also discussed the irony in placing blame on consumer choices.
“There’s this conscious shift,” Enck said. “If the problem is us, it’s not the petrochemical companies that are producing so much plastic.”
She said state legislature is helping to cut back on this use and cited Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plastic bag ban, as she said the EPA is currently headed by coal and oil lobbyists.
“I think we all need to bow and have a moment of silence for federal environmental agencies who are no longer allowed to enforce environmental laws,” Enck said. “All of you are so important because we’re going to lift up solutions from the local level and hopefully put the federal environmental programs back together again.”
Enck said “we all have a role to play in protecting our environment” and said “we need a mass mobilization” of students to get involved in local environmental groups.
Sydney Schaus, a senior environmental studies major, said Enck “affirmed” for her that she can have a career that aligns with her environmental morality. She said Enck’s presentation “gave her hope” that she can be involved with environmental groups post-graduation.
“What she said made me think other people do it,” Schaus said. “Other people can get out there and not have to have a 9-to-5 that pays them great and sacrifices their morals. … I can still make the same amount of change, I just have to have the same amount of vigor and passion.”
Alexis Marshall, a Buffalo-area high school senior, said she felt it was important to come to the event to learn about plastic pollution.
“So many of us want to do something but if we don’t have access to events like these and we don’t actually learn what to do, we don’t actually reach out and try to change anything.”
Alexandra Moyen and Jacklyn Walters are editors and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org