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Toying Around with Earth Day

photograph of Funko headquarters

Funko – creators of, among other things, the prolific Pop! vinyl figures clogging up toy aisles – made headlines last month when it announced that it would be sending $30 million of its products to the landfill. Such an announcement isn’t hugely surprising. Corporate greed – and complete disregard for the environment – are nothing new. What’s curious, however, is that just two weeks later, Funko announced its exclusive Earth Day “I Care Bear.” For Funko, this is an annual tradition: commemorating Earth Day with an exclusive figure packaged in recycled cardboard. According to the description for this year’s figure, the “I Care Bear” shows “unwavering commitment to protecting the planet” and “bears a friendly reminder that we all need to do our part in caring for Earth.”

There’s a certain audacity in this figure being released by a company that – only weeks earlier – announced its intention to dump tons of plastic toys into the ground. It’s a paradigm case of “greenwashing” – the exaggeration of a company’s environmental credentials purely for the purposes of marketing.

But Funko isn’t alone in attempting to put a more environmentally friendly veneer on toy production. MGA has followed Funko’s lead and released an Earth Day edition L.O.L. Surprise! Doll in paper packaging. In MGA’s case, however, this item marks a concerted move towards plastic-free packaging for a line whose central gimmick is based upon the opening of a sequence of surprise elements – each of which was previously wrapped in a gratuitous amount of plastic. Even Hasbro – one of the largest and oldest toy companies – is now introducing plastic-free packaging across its lines of Star Wars, Marvel, G.I. Joe, and Transformers figures.

These developments give rise to an important moral question: Is there any value in reducing plastic packaging when the product being sold is, itself, made from plastic?

The answer here, it seems, is “yes.” It’s true that all plastic production comes at an environmental cost. The industry is enormously energy intensive and – as a result – high-emission, with annual plastic production adding more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere every year. That’s the same emissions produced by around 200 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants. By 2030, the annual emissions cost of the plastic industry is estimated to almost double to 1,340 million metric tons per year.

But it also matters what we do with this plastic once it’s produced. Arguably, there’s an important difference between a plastic product (like an action figure) that we plan to keep indefinitely, and the disposable packaging that will almost immediately be discarded.

Around two-fifths of all plastic produced is used as packaging – meaning that it goes through this environmentally-costly production process only to be thrown away. While around 13% of that plastic is recycled, the rest isn’t – instead finding its way into landfills (where it doesn’t decompose), being incinerated (at a cost of around 5.9 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per year) or finding its way into the oceans as microplastics. That’s why states like California have banned “single-use plastic” items including bags, cups, straws, bottles, and plates.

What this means is that – even if we were to keep buying the same plastic items – having those products delivered in entirely plastic-free packaging would manage to reduce our plastic consumption by a whopping 40%.

Which brings us to a second moral question: if any reduction in plastic consumption is a good thing, should we praise companies like Funko for at least doing something to make a difference?

There are certainly good consequentialist reasons for thinking so. Even if a company like Funko produces only one toy in recycled or plastic-free packaging every year, that’s still one less item’s worth of plastic waste entering the environment. And isn’t that better than no change at all? It’s the same kind of reasoning that motivates us, as individuals, to make any environmental improvements we can to our lifestyles – especially when it comes to things like reducing our carbon footprint.

But other moral analyses – like Kantianism, for example – look beyond the consequences of our actions and focus instead on our reasons for acting. And that’s where the real problem lies when it comes to the likes of Funko. While items like the “I Care Bear” might pay lip-service to environmental concerns, their other actions (like dumping tons of figures into a landfill, and continuing to use non-recycled single-use plastic packaging across the roughly 230 Pop! figures they release each year) belie their true intentions.

There is a right way in which a company can make positive environmental changes and use those changes to garner the goodwill of consumers. LEGO, for example, is making a move towards delivering its bricks in 100% sustainable packaging by the end of 2025. This, however, comes after several years of concerted efforts to make its entire manufacturing process more environmentally friendly, with over 90% of their waste already being recycled, and their production facilities now entirely balanced by renewable energy.

Funko, however, has made no similar moves. This makes the Earth Day “I Care Bear” – at best – a cynical marketing exercise and – at worst – an attempt to actively deceive shoppers regarding the company’s true attitude towards our environment.

Mexico City’s Tampon Ban

collection of feminine hygeine products

On February 9, tampons disappeared from store shelves across Mexico City. The decision to ban tampons was borne out of a larger crusade to eliminate single-use plastics across the city, which since January 1, has abolished plastic bags, straws, and cutlery. Mexico City’s strategy to eliminate tampons is due to the single-use plastic applicators included in the most popular brands. The city decided not to gradually phase tampons out, but instead to impose a ban on sale practically overnight. Though government officials claim this ban was announced far in advance, that did not ease the tension felt by many when they awoke to find the city devoid of tampons.

Was it ethical for Mexico City to ban single-use plastic tampons? Do people who menstruate have an obligation to prioritize reusable products? How can we weigh environmental issues against health and autonomy?

Though evidence of single-use tampons has been documented since at least 3,000 BCE, it was not until 1920’s that the first single-use tampons and pads were mass produced. These single-use tampons first began using plastic in the 1970’s, which some argued made application easier than the cardboard alternatives. The preference for plastic tampons is reflected in North America and Europe, but in many other parts of the world, tampons are devoid of plastic. The advent of accessible menstruation products marked an increase in women’s health and autonomy. Relative access to menstruation health management has been linked to women’s health outcomes and general well-being.

Many criticisms of Mexico City’s tampon ban come largely due to its implementation. For many who menstruate, the convenience of stopping to pick up products when caught off guard is a necessity. As roughly 26% of the world population experiences menstruation regularly, menstrual hygiene has been recognized as a critical human rights issue by prominent human rights organizations such as the Human Rights Watch and UNICEF. Though menstruation is often painted as a women’s rights issue, it is also fundamentally an issue of health. Lack of access to feminine hygiene products has been linked to an increased risk of reproductive and urinary tract infections and urogenital diseases. In many countries in the world, menstruation is still highly stigmatized despite access to products. Additionally, very few countries in the world subsidize menstruation products, instead placing the financial burden on menstruating individuals to cover the cost. With all of these challenges already faced by individuals who menstruate, Mexico City’s decision to eliminate affordable menstrual products stands to exacerbate existing class and sex inequities.

One defense of Mexico City’s ban is the fact that in the long-term, reusable menstrual products are cheaper in addition to being better for the environment. Alternatives such as menstrual cups or even reusable pads save menstruating individuals from having to buy new products every month. However, while these products may be cheaper in the long term for many poor individuals the one-time cost of these products is simply too high as it demands an ability to financially invest in the long term. Those barely able to afford the cheaper disposable products month to month, living paycheck to paycheck or worse, simply do not have the bandwidth to buy these reusable products. The pandemic has also taken a toll on the financial well-being of Mexicans, a country with roughly 10 million people in poverty. Additionally, reusable products are not simply a financial investment in the product itself, but also demand an investment in terms of clean water and cleaning products to properly sanitize these products during usage. The role of clean water in reusable menstruation products becomes even more important when realizing that more than 260,000 homes in Mexico City lack running water. For these reasons, it is not practical nor ethical to obligate menstruating individuals with very little disposal income or access to clean water to switch to reusable hygiene products.

However, putting aside class-based concerns, are those who are capable obligated to switch to reusable menstrual hygiene products? As people had been menstruating hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of single-use plastics, it is clearly possible to menstruate without these products. Depending on one’s access to alternatives, it is arguable that switching to more sustainable menstrual products is part of one’s larger obligation to cut down on plastic consumption generally, especially considering the growing current plastic pollution crisis. However, choosing which menstrual product to use is arguably more than a simple consumer choice. Menstruation is fundamentally a matter of health, and how one approaches it can be deeply personal. There is also something to be said about comfort and preference. Every menstruating individual has a different preference and different products might not be comfortable or feasible depending on their body. With this in mind, menstruation health management is a matter of bodily autonomy. Limiting the types of menstruation products available also restricts an individual’s ability to choose which product works best for them. For this reason alone, some might argue that Mexico City’s decision to outright ban tampons was unethical, as it robbed millions of individuals the right to choose a menstruation tool often relied upon.

The continued stigmatization of menstruation only further demands sensitivity when determining an individual’s obligations in relation to it. While it might be difficult to determine whether reusable menstruation products are obligatory, it might be fair to say that single-use plastics products should be avoided if possible, considering the growing environmental crisis. In many parts of the world, tampons without plastic applicators are widely used. Reusable products have also taken off, and are lauded by many women, reflected in both reviews and in their growing market share. Notwithstanding health and class-based concerns, individuals should explore ways to decrease their consumption impact generally, and one’s choice of menstrual products represents one way to do so.

While an individual may hold an obligation to decrease their waste and consumption, it is another step to justify the government’s decision to outright ban hygiene products without subsidized alternatives. As I have discussed in a previous article, there is a strong argument that governments and corporations bear the brunt of responsibility in addressing the plastic crisis. From this angle, Mexico City’s decision might be viewed as a progressive and necessary step in eliminating its plastic pollution. However, the decision to ban these products without comparably convenient or affordable alternatives could be said to be an injustice in itself, as it greatly impacts the health and autonomy of millions of people who menstruate in Mexico City. And perhaps this tradeoff is not necessary. Those leading the charge against plastic tampons have also largely pushed for government responsibility to provide alternatives.

In what some may see as a great irony, the government officials who led the charge to ban tampons — Mexico City’s mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, and the director general for environmental regulation, Lilian Guigue —  are both women. In a statement to the Financial Times, Guigue tried to justify the decision by explaining that she had attempted to negotiate with tampon producers to develop alternatives. However, the decision to immediately ban tampons is a reflection of her belief the crisis demanded immediate action.

Environmental issues from climate change to plastic pollution will undoubtedly demand radical consumption changes. Governments around the world, including that of Mexico City, should be aware that a commitment to rapid changes devoid of socioeconomic considerations will unquestionably lead to negative consequences for already marginalized people.

Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility

Photograph of two iced Starbucks drinks with a wrapped straw in between them

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In 2015 a video of a sea turtle took the internet by storm and set into action the public outrage over pollution caused by plastic straws. Since then, videos and articles including facts about plastic waste in the world’s oceans have been circulating the internet, and plastic pollution has been the topic of more than a few TED Talks. Many anti-plastic advocates made moral appeals to consumers to cut down on their straw usage, and these appeals have steadily grown into an anti-straw environmental movement. On July 9th, coffee mogul Starbucks announced they would be phasing out plastic straws in their cafes nationwide, eliminating plastic straws completely by 2020. However, it did not take long for the blowback to come. New videos and articles began circling social media, this time depicting people with disabilities explaining how the plastic straw ban in businesses, and cities like Seattle and San Francisco makes them feel unwelcome. Is banning plastic straws, like Starbucks did, really an ethical environmental choice? Should the responsibility be on companies or consumers to reduce plastic usage? And do appeals to morality through social media campaigns and public outrage truly effectuate positive change? Continue reading “Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility”

When It Comes to the Environment, is Education Morally Obligatory?

Image of plastic bottles floating in the ocean

In April of this year, scientists from the Alfred Wegener Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research reported finding record amounts of plastic particles in the Arctic sea. Ice core samples were taken from five regions in the area. Up to 12,000 pieces of micro-plastic particles per liter of ice were found in the samples.  Scientists believe that much of the plastic, cigarettes butts, and other debris came from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of floating waste occupying 600,000 square miles between Hawaii and California.

Plastics in the sea pose substantial dangers for ecosystems and marine life. As evidence of this fact, earlier this year, a dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Spain. Scientists concluded that it was death by garbage—64 pounds of plastics and other waste were found in the young whale’s stomach.

Continue reading “When It Comes to the Environment, is Education Morally Obligatory?”

Earth Day, Lettuce Shortages, and Future Food Crises


This year’s Earth Day fell on a Sunday, and thousands of families across the United States celebrated the planet by participating in local festivals or visiting state parks. 2018’s Earth Day theme was End Plastic Pollution and highlighted the current plastic crisis in the world’s oceans. Numerous events fell in line with this year’s theme, ranging from horrific to hopeful. Weeks before Earth Day, a sperm whale washed up on a beach in Spain. The whale died from ingesting over 64 pounds of ocean plastic. Then, closer to Earth Day, scientists stumbled across a strain of bacteria that attacks and ingests a type of plastic used in most plastic consumer items, a bacteria that The Guardian has called a hopeful “ally against plastic.” This year’s Earth Day was overall a success and hopefully jump-started local campaigns across the country to end plastic waste. Continue reading “Earth Day, Lettuce Shortages, and Future Food Crises”

Banning Furs and Plastics: Vital Progress or Unjust Restriction of Liberty?

photo of animal pelts on a table.

It is easy to forget that our choices as consumers have significant consequences beyond satisfying our material needs or desires.  Many of us make purchasing choices with little regard for how those choices affect other people, non-human animals, or the environment.  In many cases, the stakes are tragically high. One proposal worth consideration, then, is that certain purchasing options should simply be off the table or should, at a minimum, be highly regulated.  

Continue reading “Banning Furs and Plastics: Vital Progress or Unjust Restriction of Liberty?”