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Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too


Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

Before I was born, Staten Island, New York was the home of the largest landfill in the world. It closed in 2001, but it was open for almost 70 years. It opened in 1947 as a temporary dump on a salt marsh and agricultural land - obviously, it became more than temporary, functioning as New York's main dumping grounds. Thyroid cancer rates on Staten Island are 67% higher than the other four NYC boroughs and 69% higher than New York State excluding NYC. Coincidence? Unlikely. The landfill has long since contributed to Staten Islander's sense of being the forgotten borough. This was only further confirmed by the slow official response to the devastation brought on by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Not to mention Eric Garner, strangled by a cop on Staten Island in 2014 for selling loose cigarettes. While the South Shore is where the landfill was located, the media has largely ignored Staten Island's other toxic sites - largely located on the North Shore. North Shore residents have the boroughs lowest household income, and 48 percent of its population are black or Hispanic. According to Beryl Thurman, president of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, "[the North Shore is] a low-income community of color...if Staten Island is the 'forgotten borough' then on the food chain, we're way down low." This is Staten Island, my home, and it is far from being free of environmental racism - or racism in general. And, as much as it pains me to say, the zero waste movement and environmental racism are definitely interlinked.


Environmental racism refers to the way in which minority group neighborhoods, predominately populated by BIPOC, are burdened with a higher number of hazards, including garbage dumps, toxic waste facilities, and other sources of environmental pollution. Ironically, the Staten Island landfill was located on the South Shore, which is where I live (it's predominately Italian American residents). I have no doubt this is one reason why it actually closed and is now being reopened as a park. You read that right - they're turning it into a park. However, it is much harder to see change occurring on the North Shore where more BIPOC communities are located. A visit to the North Shore shows an uneasy mix of residences and industry, along with less access to fresh food. For every supermarket in the North Shore, there are 28 bodegas. Compare that to the South Shore where I live: For every supermarket in the South Shore, there are 4 bodegas. This is not unique to Staten Island. Not by a long shot. But it is important to recognize environmental racism (and food injustice) happen right in our own backyards.

So how does all of this tie into the zero waste movement? Well, for starters, the zero waste movement is very privileged. We're hyper focused on the issue of plastic packaging and aesthetically pleasing swaps when we need to widen our lens and see there's way more to the picture. Environmental racism directly intersects with the zero waste movement when addressing access, or lack thereof, to fresh food, zero waste stores, clean drinking water, affordable sustainable clothing, etc. How can we expect BIPOC communities to participate in the zero waste movement if they don't even have access to clean water or fresh food? We need to reevaluate what the zero waste movement is - and what it needs to be - so it can be inclusive for everyone. If we want environmental justice, we must first recognize environmental racism when we see it and actively fight against it. We must work to make zero waste an inclusive movement and expand beyond talking about plastic bags and easy swaps. 


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    Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

    Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too


    What is environmental racism?


    We must first understand environmental racism in order to make a difference and change things for the better.

    Environmental racism is when people of color and low income communities are disproportionately affected by exposure to pollution from coal fired power plants, toxic waste dumps, landfills, power plants, etc. That's because these hazardous sites tend to be built and located in BIPOC communities. The reason? Well, the easy explanation is, it's easier.

    Corporate decision makers, local planning and zoning boards - they've all learned that it's easier to build such facilities in low income BIPOC communities than primarily white, middle to upper class communities. Why? Because BIPOC communities tend to lack the resources and connections to properly protect their interests.

    According to Coal Blooded, people who live within three miles of a coal power plant have an average per capita income of $18,400, which is lower than the U.S. average of $21,587. Think about that for a second. With a lower income, it's much harder to get into a good school - let alone a school at all - and make connections to people in power. This ultimately means it's much harder for people living in these low income communities to make a change in their community, or be able to move away from it.

    People of color and low income communities don't tend to have the same opportunity to 'vote with their feet' and escape unhealthy physical environments. Because of this, they're forced to stay in the same toxic communities.

    Due to the hazards these communities are faced with, they may not have access to clean water, clean air, or clean soil. An example of this is Flint, Michigan - they haven't had clean water since 2014. How can a community be expected to participate in something like the zero waste movement when they can't even get access to clean drinking and bathing water?

    Food injustice is also an issue in BIPOC communities. As I mentioned earlier, the North Shore of Staten Island where black and Hispanic families tend to reside, have less access to supermarkets. For every supermarket, there are 28 bodegas (aka convenience stores) that sell cheap processed foods wrapped in a ton of packaging waste. Not to mention there are only two farmers markets on Staten Island, opposed to the 21 farmers markets Manhattan has. I've seen it with my own eyes on Staten Island, and it's an outrage. Everyone deserves access to affordable fresh whole foods.

    But lets face it - food deserts keep BIPOC communities in a position of oppression. With nothing but bodegas and fast food chains, it's more like a food prison. These people cannot afford healthy food, nor can they access them because the nearest grocery store is located miles away. It's no wonder diabetes is 60% more common in black Americans than in white Americans.

    How can we expect BIPOC communities to participate in the zero waste movement when they cannot even afford fresh whole food, let alone a reusable water bottle? And, if they don't have access to fresh water, how can they properly use that reusable water bottle? It renders the reusable water bottle useless - and a waste of money.

    And what about the fact African Americans are three times more likely to die of asthma than white Americans? Or, despite lower tobacco exposure, black men are 50 percent more likely than white men to get lung cancer? This isn't a coincidence - it has to do with environmental racism. If you're in a toxic community with polluted water and air, like most black people are, how can we claim these health conditions aren't the direct result of environmental racism?

    Worse yet, it's even harder to fight for climate change and advocate for greener tomorrows when you have to also deal with the burden of racism in all forms. Not just environmental.

    Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

    What are some examples of environmental racism?


    There are too many. But I shall only name a few to give you a further idea of what I'm talking about, beyond my own hometown.

    Flint's water crisis: 100,000 residents have been poisoned with toxic water contaminated by high levels of lead. Why? The state was trying to save money. Flint is around 57% black with 40% of its population living in poverty. Residents protested the dirty water for over a year but were ignored. In fact, Flint still - to this day - does not have clean water.

    Cancer alley: Louisiana's "cancer alley" is an 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi river. There are over 200 petrochemical plants and a high rate of cancer, mainly among black and poor communities. And the air quality keeps getting worse as new plants are approved and built.

    Keystone XL pipeline: This pipeline would pump some of Canada's most dangerous oil products over nearly 1,200 miles of US land and indigenous territories largely for export to other countries. In 2015, the project was successfully rejected by the Obama administration. Unfortunately...it's back. In January, thanks to Trump's efforts to revive the project, TC Energy (the company behind the major oil delivery system) said they would begin preparing for construction as soon as possible.

    These examples of environmental racism are sadly only the beginning. There are so many more - and I'm sure there are several happening in your own backyard too.

    Minority communities have much less political clout so regulators can (and often do) ignore them. This explains why it's much easier for businesses and companies to build in BIPOC communities.

    I really encourage you to look into your own community. You might be surprised at what you find. As you can tell from my introduction, there are tons of environmental racism examples laden here on Staten Island.

    Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

    So how is environmental racism linked to the zero waste movement?



    Where does all this link together? In one word - privilege.

    Being able to practice zero waste at all indicates privilege - especially in the way we see online. Shiny new zero waste products, perfect mason jars, and completely plastic-free everything is not attainable for everyone. In fact, it's only attainable to able-bodied people with a high enough income.

    To be zero waste assumes you have access to fresh produce, bulk shops and thrift stores. It assumes you have the money to pay for expensive investments like a travel mug, reusable water bottle, and reusable period underwear.

    Unfortunately, not everyone has access to these things. And, not everyone has the money to shop at these stores, even if they do have access to them.

    For a low income family, buying a $42 period underwear is the equivalent of buying food that would feed them for approximately three weeks. If all you can afford is the convenience food in bodegas, $15 can buy you a week's worth of groceries. Let that sink in.

    So how do we open up discussions of waste with those who are struggling to afford the basics we take for granted? It's not that they don't care about the environment - people can worry about more than one thing at a time - it's that their environment sets them up for failure.

    We must realize that in this way, the zero waste movement has failed. It has failed to be inclusive and attainable.

    Another way zero waste and environmental racism is connected is where garbage goes when we do create it. For decades wealthy white countries have been dumping their waste in poorer countries where people of color live. Toxic wastelands of plastics from Europe and the US are dumped across Malaysia, philippines, indoensia, and vietnam all the time. So environmental racism is a global issue - not just a domestic one.

    That doesn't mean we aren't dumping crap right in our own backyard, as you can see from the landfill that was in Staten Island, where I live. If we want to have a zero waste future, one that's inclusive and accessible for all, we have to stop dumping our crap in places people of color live and instead force businesses and industries to access the way things are packaged and think about the end of life of their products.

    Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

    How can the zero waste movement be more inclusive?


    I think there's a lot of room for improvement in the zero waste movement. I think it's time we look beyond "simple zero waste swaps" and dive a little deeper. While there will always be a place for zero waste swaps, we have to realize not everyone can make them for various reasons.

    If we talk swaps, we need to be inclusive. We need to provide a low budget option. But we need to avoid ending the conversation there.

    We need to become intersectional environmentalists, an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It helps bring injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront.

    Here are some ways we can improve the zero waste movement as a whole:


    • Listen to and amplify black environmentalists. What better way to make a movement more inclusive than listening to black voices? Diversifying your feed on Instagram right now is so important. This is the best way to ally ourselves with the black community. Here are 8 black environmentalists you need to follow on Instagram. There are several who are zero waste on that list, but it goes beyond just that too - they're all doing amazing things for the environment.

    • Let go of the aesthetics. Zero waste doesn't have to look so perfect all the time. Instagram and social media may tell you otherwise. While beautiful pictures certainly do motivate you, for some it can be a deterrent. Lets focus less on the instagrammable moments and instead think outside the box, like transforming a milk carton into a bird feeder, using toilet and paper towel rolls as seed starters, upcycling empty coconut oil or tomato sauce jars into food storage containers, etc. It doesn't have to be perfect or pretty - functional is always best. 

    • Share your platform. If you have an audience who will listen to you already, a large following on social media, a popular blog - be sure to talk about intersectional environmentalism, environmental racism, and environmental justice. Take the intersectional environmentalist pledge and learn how to pass the mic to BIPOC voices. If you want to be a true ally, and make the zero waste movement more inclusive, you will use your platform in a way that helps, instead of hurts, marginalized voices.

    • Use your privilege to make zero waste more accessible. Going zero waste can be extremely expensive. If you're in a financially stable place, why not use some of your privilege to help spread the zero waste love throughout your community? You can do this by buying and donating reusable menstrual products to homeless shelters, creating a free book library for people to share, having a buy nothing 'yard sale', starting a free pantry, or reclaiming abandoned lots to make community gardens. Using your privilege can greatly benefit your community, all while spreading the idea of a more circular economy.

    • Support your community. Your neighbors can't go zero waste, or fight climate change, if they're worried about where their next meal is coming from. Building a resilient community - one that shares and cares about one another - is one of the most zero waste things you could do. Consider learning about mutual aid, which is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government, but actually building new social relations that are more survivable. Big Door Brigade explains this more in-depthly, if you're curious. Other ways to support your community include donating to local food banks or homeless shelters, sharing your extra food with people, offering to mend or fix something broken, or cooking meals for others. Doing this will help your community flourish and make zero waste living a little more accessible. 

    Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

    What are some ways we can end environmental racism?


    This is definitely a loaded question. And it doesn't have an easy, simple answer. It won't take five seconds, or one purchase, to accomplish.

    But it's still worth doing. Ending environmental racism is the only way we will have environmental justice, thus fighting climate change.

    The longer we hold off addressing racism, the harder it will be to save the planet. A large part of this is because there are so many black activists out there already - but their energy and time are being drained due to racism.

    As Mikaela Loach so wisely said on her Instagram post, "we can’t talk about sustainability without taking into account privilege. We can’t talk about "zero waste" if we don’t address what communities this waste is being dumped on or the human rights abuses of the fossil fuel industry (see: Shell & Ogoni). We can’t talk about climate justice without addressing migrant justice and environmental racism."

    But, Mikaela also says, "anti-racism work isn't something that is done after 4 steps. It’s got a lot more nuance than that. It takes a lot more work than that. There is no quick-fix. This is a life-long commitment to working at this."

    So, the tips I suggest below are just the starting point. It's up to you to put the work in and continue to end racism when you see it.

    Here's how we can begin to end environmental racism:


    • Look for environmental racism in your neighborhood. Take a walk or drive around your neighborhood, especially where there are BIPOC communities. What do you see? Are there any power plants, fracking, or mines? How about factories or industrial buildings? How bad is the pollution and liter? Are there any grocery stores, farmers markets, bulk food stores? Who tends to live in the areas you deem 'worse' as opposed to the areas you deem 'better'? Observe everything you can and also try to research your community's history and infrastructure. Spoiler alert: You'll likely find more people of color living in the "worse" off neighborhoods surrounded by pollution and industrialization. This is environmental racism in action.

    • Make a goal to fight the environmental racism you see. You can do this by showing up to city council meetings where these decisions are being made and talking about your concerns. You might even want to do a citizens filibuster until the meeting runs out of time so they can't vote on the opening of new industrial plants (or whatever it is you're trying to protect your community from). When activists face hostile government agencies or hearings that exclude the public, this relatively low-risk tactic can really help accomplish things. Also, make sure you vote in local elections - and be sure to vote for people who hold your values! Having local officials in office who don't want to build more industrial, polluting factories, buildings and companies in marginalized communities is always the best option.

    • Donate money to the right places. The most efficient ways to help are to look and see what local projects and grassroots organizations are in your area you can donate to. Is there a nonprofit near you advocating for clean water, or food justice? Be sure to donate to them! Some environmental justice organizations to consider donating to are @earthjustice, @gotgreenseattle, @labuckets, @energy_justice, and @movementgeneration

    • Write your local representatives. Tell them why environmental justice is important to you. You can write them a letter, which equals 1,000 voices, or give them a phone call, which is 100 voices. This is a great resource for writing letters to elected officials. The more specific you can get, the better. So for example: Do you see factories, landfills, or power plants you'd like removed? Talk about them!

    • Sign and start petitions. There are so many amazing petititions to get involved with. Change.org has so many petitions circulating so be sure to check those out. Consider starting your own too! Even better if it's about a local environmental racism issue you would like to see solved.

    Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

    So, where do we go from here?


    There's no easy answer to ending environmental racism. And, there's no one way to make the zero waste movement more inclusive. But one thing is for sure - we have to put the work in. And we have to start somewhere.

    I challenge you to diversify your feed on Instagram. I'm sure you're probably following a lot of white female zero wasters already. Nothing wrong with that, but add in some people of color too! Here are 8 black environmentalists to follow on Instagram.

    But don't stop there, keep listening to black voices! Keep learning and amplifying marginalized voices. Look at your own community and find examples of environmental racism you can help fight. Get creative and find ways to make zero waste more accessible to everyone - not just white, middle class to upper class females.

    We can't expect to save the planet, or to reduce waste, without first riding the world of environmental racism - and racism in general.

    Until we can end environmental racism, there will still be pollution, and it will negatively affect BIPOC communities the most. It's up to all of us to stop this and advocate for environmental justice. And, we can start by changing the way we look at the zero waste movement. We can change it for the better and make it more inclusive, more accessible.


    Sign up + get my free ebook, "10 Ways to Reduce Trash"

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      Environmental Racism is a Zero Waste Issue Too

      How are you making zero waste more accessible? What are some ways you're taking action to end environmental racism?

      For more ways to help the black community right now, check out these 8 black environmentalists you need to follow on Instagram.

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      4 comments

      1. This was excellent. I've been looking into this topic for a few days, and this is the most detailed and in depth information I've found yet. I really appreciate the extra resources on Environmental Racism. Google really doesn't provide a whole lot to read on this topic. Thank you for sharing!

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        1. Thank you so much Katy! It makes me so happy to hear you got something from my writing. I totally agree with you - this isn't a topic that's covered enough! I definitely want to talk more about it, as well as food injustice too! ^_^ If you aren't subscribed to my email newsletter, it would mean so much to me if you did. That way you can see when I post new content!

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      2. Hi Ariana, What a tremendous contribution you have made by raising awareness of environmental racism. You have included critical action items. This is an invaluable resource. I am pinning and sharing this!

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        1. Hi Deborah,

          Thank you so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I made sure to put a lot of research and thought into it! It's such an important topic, and there are so many articles on the topic that DON'T offer action items. Thank you so so much for wanting to share and repin this! ^_^ Definitely need to spread the word. I also want to write more on this topic in the future, as well as food injustice! If you haven't already, be sure to sign up for my email newsletter so you can get notified whenever I write a new post! :)

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