Environmental racism and the zero waste movement

When I look at my community, I see a lot of great things. The guy down the street constantly doing work on his house. The mom and her kids walking to and from school. The nice lady across the street who offered her basement if a tornado ever headed our way.

What you may not see if you don’t take a left is the looming factory that toils endlessly, producing aerospace and automobile engines and other heavy industrial products. What you don’t necessarily see is the median household income barely pushing $40,000/year. You begin to see the 15% poverty rate when the free produce in my yard disappears faster than I expected and in the constantly rotating tenants in the apartment just across the street.

I see my day-to-day and often try to reconcile it with what I see of the zero waste movement online. While I’m privileged to be white, able-bodied, and financially stable, many of my neighbors aren’t.

How drawn would they be to the online version I show of myself?

Zero waste has a long way to go. We’ve become hyper-focused on the issue of packaging and easy swaps when we need to widen the lens to see the very real impact our privilege has on other communities, particularly low-income communities with a majority BIPOC population.

“Not in my backyard” becomes the illegal dump site next to a playground in a historically Black neighborhood. It becomes factory farms processing your meat near a heavily Latinx community. As always, zero waste is far more than a plastic bag.

In fact, that plastic bag is probably the very insignificant tip of a massive iceberg.

When we begin to look at the systemic issues affecting sustainability, the problem of privilege becomes even more clear. Environmental racism and the zero waste movement are inextricably linked. And if we fail to address the deeper issues, we fail as a movement.

Let’s dive into the facts of environmental racism and the zero waste movement, as well as some ways that we (those with privilege) can act and fight in solidarity with activists already doing the work.

Environmental racism and the zero waste movement

What is environmental racism?

Environmental racism refers to environmental policy, practice, or directive that deferentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color. (Dr. Robert D. Bullard)

Environmental racism directly intersects with the zero waste movement when we talk about access (or lack thereof) to affordable fresh food, safe soil to use, air to breath, and water to drink. If you think the fact that “race – even more than class – is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in this country” has nothing to do with zero waste, you need to rethink your philosophy. (source)

So in its most basic form, zero waste is just a different way to say environmental justice. Per the EPA, environmental justice is “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

That being said, you may be shocked (sarcasm, friends) to find that environmental racism exists despite being codified as something that should not happen by most governments.

Want to look at privilege beyond the sustainability movement? I highly recommend Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy workbook.

can you give me an example of environmental racism?

Where to begin? Here are a few notable examples, although it exists everywhere. (Please note I’m only speaking to US-based situations in this post, although this is a global issue and a holistic look at environmental racism should be global.)

  • The Warren County PCB Landfill. Notable as this case is the basis of a coherent, named environmental justice movement. A landfill was created to bury contaminated, toxic soil in a Black community in North Carolina – something the EPA should never have approved. It was “the single largest civil disobedience protest since the Civil Rights era. Over 500 citizens were placed in jail for protesting the land filling operations.” (source)
  • Hurricane Katrina. You can read the full, damning, tragic report here, but racist zoning practices left Black communities in the most at-risk areas for environmental catastrophe. The ensuing rescue missions also highlighted a systemic disregard for Black lives.
  • The former Kelly Air Force Base. Placed near majority Latinx communities in Texas, the base destroyed the local environment. The area is a suspected cancer cluster, 75-90% of the community suffered from ear, nose, and throat issues, and the groundwater was contaminated by illegal toxic waste dumping in the 60s and 70s. (source)

But look into your own community, too. Locate landfills, heavy industry, or factory farms. Then use census data to see what populations are living closest. (Spoiler alert: it’s BIPOC.)

The zero waste movement and privilege

Being able to practice zero waste (well, you know – zero isn’t zero) is inherently privileged. It assumes you have the ability to get to bulk shops and fresh produce. It assumes you’re able-bodied enough to deal with lots of fiddly glass and stainless steel, and avoid convenience. It assumes you have enough money to make an up-front investment in swaps like zero waste menstrual products.

I highly recommend you read through Representation Matters, a dialogue between two Black environmentalists, for a deeper discussion on the issue.

Actionable ways the zero waste movement can fight environmental racism

All of the quotes in this section have been pulled from Environmental Racism and Classism edited by Anne Cunningham. I’ve used them as a jumping-off point to provide you a required reading (a deep-dive book), a required follow (an Instagram account doing great work), and an action item to fight environmental racism.

“No one wants a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus garage for a neighbor. But corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies, and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities. Poor communities and communities of color usually lacked connections to decision makers on zoning boards or city councils that could protect their interests… … and in the case of Latino communities, important information in English-only documents was out of reach for affected residents who spoke only Spanish.” – Environmental Racism and Classism, Renee Skelton and Vernice Miller

The systemic disenfranchisement of BIPOC is not up for argument. The real goal of the zero waste movement – in my opinion – goes well beyond plastic packaging and instead lies in how we amplify traditionally marginalized voices. Only by breaking down the white, capitalist hegemony can we move forward into reimagining a more equitable society.

Required reading: Transforming Communities: How People Like You are Healing Their Neighborhoods by Sandhya Rani Jha

Required follow: @misstej, a strategist for Earth Justice and a writer with a must-read backlog of work.

Action item
  • Be the connection to decision makers – not the voice. Rather than speaking for communities fighting against racist legislation, use your privilege to amplify their voices instead. If you have the time, resources, or connections to introduce grassroots activists to city officials, do it. Arrange for transportation to a city council meeting for activists who want to make public comments. Introduce them to someone who can help them draft letters to newspapers, public officials, and other key players. Donate money to help fund any upcoming projects or campaigns.

Environmental racism and the zero waste movement - Green Indy Blog

“Housing discrimination contributes to the physical decay of inner-city neighborhoods and denies a substantial segment of African Americans and other people of color a basic form of wealth accumulation and investment through home ownership. Eight out of every ten African Americans live in neighborhoods where they are in the majority… no matter what their educational or occupational achievement or income level, [African Americans] are exposed to higher crime rates, less effective educational systems, high mortality risks, more dilapidated surroundings, and greater environmental threats because of their race.” – Strategies to Fight Environmental Injustice at Home and Abroad, Robert Bullard

Perhaps most succinctly, Bullard states: “People of color and whites do not have the same opportunities to ‘vote with their feet’ and escape undesirable physical environments.” Systemic injustice has robbed many BIPOC the opportunity to accumulate wealth through generations like their white counterparts.

This difference is most keenly felt when looking at housing. The US still remains remarkably segregated – and it’s no mistake. So segregated, in fact, that a 2010 study found that in 70/100 of the US’s largest cities, more than 50% of black or white residents would have to move in order to integrate the city.

Required reading: Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity (Urban and Industrial Environments) by Robert D. Bullard

Required follow: @seedingsovereignty, indigenous led resistance speaking on decolonizing, unity, solidarity, justice + respect.

Action items
  • Divest from banks with known racism problems. “SunTrust, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America have in recent years settled with the Justice Department (for $21 million, and $175 million, and $335 million respectively) for pushing black homebuyers into subprime mortgage deals, overcharging them for home loans, and other breaches.” (source) Local credit unions are a good bet; while they may not be perfect, it’s much easier to trace exactly what’s going on.
  • Learn about your local zoning laws. Sound like weird advice? Creating more relaxed zoning laws is one of the most effective ways to fight segregation and inequality in housing. Why?  Because zoning laws that only allow more expensive, low-density housing (ie. big single-family homes) causes prices to go up and doesn’t allow for smaller, more affordable homes or apartment buildings. Local governments all have a space on their website dedicated to zoning and their planning commission. Follow along to hear about upcoming zoning decisions and get involved with either supporting or going against the changes.

Environmental racism and the zero waste movement - Green Indy Blog

“In the short term, we know what to do about the water crisis: Distribute bottled water, and change the water source. But once those most immediate problems are addressed, we’re left with the same system that helped create the problem.” – Flint’s Water Crisis Fits a Pattern of Environmental Injustice, Jean Ross

Required reading: What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City by Mona Hanna-Attisha

Required follow: @littemissflint, the unbearably cute change-maker already planning her 2044 presidency.

The Flint situation was a shocking one simply because the anti-Black, anti-poverty systems in place are usually better hidden. Thanks to the tireless efforts of local residents, community organizers, and journalists working together, the water crisis was brought to light. (For those uninformed, the residents of Flint, Michigan have gone without clean drinking water since 2014 when the city switched where they got water from and lead leached from the lead water pipes into the drinking water.)

Unfortunately, as we can see by the continuing poor water quality in Flint (and a privatized action by Elon Musk being the most significant development in years), the systems are still firmly entrenched even when brought to light.

Action items
  • Donate to the Flint Water Fund. Residents of Flint still don’t have reliable access to water. Donate to on-the-ground groups working to make sure residents are able to get the help they need as a real solution is worked towards.
  • Learn about similar injustices in other communities. Latinx farm workers in California work heavily-watered fields while living in company towns without safe running water. Nearly 40% of Navajo don’t have running water in their homes. Access to water is a right – begin looking for other marginalized communities and learn what activists are asking for.
  • Read the seven systemic recommendations set forth by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Here’s the full report – the recommendations begin on page 117. If you are from Michigan or have significant sway in policy making there, direct action can be taken. If not, it may be helpful to remember these recommendations and see how you can frame them toward local issues. (For example “the Commission will relocate scheduled meetings to affected communities when appropriate” is a critical goal for any inclusive local government.)

Environmental racism and the zero waste movement - Green Indy Blog (pin)

“When they hear about industrial pollution, people often think about factories with billowing smokestacks. However, the food industry, with its factory farms and slaughterhouses, can also be considered a major contributor of pollution that affects the health of communities of color and low-income communities, because more often than not they locate their facilities in the areas where these people live… Residents who live near these factory farms often complain of irritation to their eyes, noses, and throats, along with a decline in the quality of life and increased incidents of depression, tension, anger, confusion, and fatigue.” – The Food Industry is Complicit with Environmental Racism , Food Empowerment Project

Required reading: Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms by Nicolette Hahn Niman

Required follow: @foodempowermentproject,  a vegan food justice organization.

It’s true. When I think of toxic factories, I think of the heavy machinery building of the factory down my street, not a massive, faceless farm – to the advantage of the CAFOs, clearly. Particularly living in the Midwest, where agriculture is becoming more and more concentrated, these massive farms are incredibly dangerous to the local ecology. My county alone has 7 CAFOs (1000 cattle or equivalent, 2500 hogs or sheep, 100,000 fowl) and 25+ CAOs (300 cattle, 600 hogs or sheep, 30,000 fowl).

I talked more extensively about the issues these highly concentrated, inhumane farms cause in a previous post about your water footprint.

Action items
  • Reject factory farm meat. Whether you choose to go plant-based or buy from a local farmer, avoiding factory-farmed meat is a powerful step. While this isn’t an option for everyone (many are limited in a food desert or by a tiny budget) people with significant privilege have the ability to do so. Small steps in your personal life can be the start to a broader, systemic shift. (Need some extra motivation? Watch Food, Inc.)
  • Get involved with a local group monitoring and fighting factory farm pollution. Many have volunteer training programs that will teach you the most effective ways to advocate locally (usually by attending events or lobbying lawmakers). Following along on social media also usually gives you easy action tips for ongoing legal or legislative battles. (In Indiana? Check out the Hoosier Environmental Council.)

To the (white) zero waste movement: we have a lot to do. Get reading, start learning, and become active in your fight against environmental racism.

Polly Barks Green Indy

Welcome to Green Indy! I’m Polly, and I’m here to show you that zero waste can be more accessible than you think. Ready to get started? Head this way.