Community-Based for Zero Waste

By Dave Ciplet

Incinerators and landfills are major contributors to global warming and industrial pollution - yet they are falsely being promoted as safe and environmentally friendly waste and energy solutions.

Waste disposal industries have a long history of being highly unpopular, toxic, economically disastrous, and disproportionately burdensome to people of color and low-income communities.  By repackaging incinerators and landfills as "green," these industries are working to expand existing disposal projects and to site a new fleet of pollution-ridden incinerators and landfills in communities.  This would erode community efforts to protect health, reduce waste and combat global warming, and reverse decades of progress achieved by the environmental justice and health movements.

Disposal of valuable natural resources in incinerators and landfills is not inevitable.  The vast majority of the materials that we dispose of are reusable.  Rather than fund polluting waste industries, we can choose to invest in community-based solutions such Zero Waste as a vehicle for environmental, health and economic renewal.

What is Zero Waste?  Zero Waste means investing in the workforce, infrastructure and local strategies needed to reduce what we trash in incinerators and landfills to zero by a given year.  It means stopping even another dime of taxpayer money from subsidizing waste disposal projects that contaminate environments and the people who live there.  

Cities like Oakland, CA and Seattle, WA are already well on their way to achieving Zero Waste by building state-of-art recycling and composting parks, implementing innovative collection systems, requiring products to be made in ways that are safe for people on the planet, and creating locally-based green-collar jobs.  These cities have plans to invest in sound economic development and jobs that will benefit their residents, rather than pouring money into harmful waste disposal projects.

In Hartford, CT and Detroit, MI, community activists who are working to shut down their local waste incinerators are advocating for viable alternatives like Zero Waste to provide strong economic benefits for residents in their cities.  As Dr. Mark Mitchell, Hartford resident and Director of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice explains, "The question is, can we make our central location as a waste site into an economic benefit for the city.  We believe that Zero Waste can help to get us there by providing jobs at all skill levels."

The economic benefits of Zero Waste are numerous.  Closing an incinerator can mean freeing up significant amounts of taxpayer money to be put to services that benefit the public good.  Speaking to this issue, Donele Wilkins, Detroit resident and Executive Director of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice explains, "By shutting down the Detroit incinerator, I think that the burden of cost would be greatly reduced.  As the most expensive thing that the city is obligated to maintain, we would immediately see economic benefits that the city needs, a reduction in pollution, and an immediate increase in the environmental quality of life."  By July of 2009, the Detroit incinerator will have cost its city a billion dollars in its 20 years of operation.  Detroit could have saved over $55 million in just one year if it had never built the incinerator.

Zero Waste also provides needed jobs.  Recycling collection and sorting creates ten times the number of jobs that incinerators and landfills do.  Additionally, recycling-based manufacturing jobs offer twenty-five times the number of jobs as waste disposal.  Regions that have made commitments to increased recycling are bringing tangible benefits to their local economies.  By requiring the recycling and reuse of 50 percent of the state's garbage, California is expected to create about 45,000 jobs.  According to a 2007 Detroit City Council report, a 50 percent recycling rate in Detroit would likely result in creating more than 1,000 new jobs in the city.

All told, the recycling sector in the U.S. provides well over a million jobs and generates an annual payroll of $37 billion-and, the recycling industry is nowhere near reaching its potential.  Roughly half of the paper, paperboard and aluminum beverage containers, and two-thirds of plastic and glass containers, are not recycled in the U.S.  For the economic and environmental well being of communities, we can and must do much better.

Stopping polluting waste industries, and implementing Zero Waste also provides community health benefits.  Incinerators release harmful emissions that contaminate the air that residents breathe with known carcinogens like dioxin and heavy metals like lead, mercury and cadmium.  With 16 percent of Americans lacking health coverage, economically strapped people in this country simply can't afford to pay high medical bills to treat cancer and other diseases linked to industrial pollution.  As Wilkins explains about Detroit, "The highest concentration of lead-poisoned children live in the neighborhood of the incinerator.  There are also very high asthma rates.  I see that there is a strong connection between the incinerator and these health issues." 

Zero Waste is also critical for combating climate change.  Incineration and landfilling of materials like paper and plastic bottles causes a wasteful cycle that is warming our planet.  For every item that is incinerated or landfilled, a new one must be created from raw resources rather than reused materials.  This requires a constant flow of resources to be pulled out of the earth, processed in factories, shipped around the world, and burned or buried in our communities.  The impact of this wasteful cycle reaches far beyond local disposal projects, causing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution thousands of miles away.

Let's take the case of paper.  Paper is one of the easiest materials to recycle or compost. Yet it accounts for more than one-quarter of all materials disposed of in the U.S.  Because so much paper is disposed of instead of recycled, the pulp and paper industry alone causes 9 percent of all manufacturing carbon dioxide emissions, making it the 4th largest emitter of greenhouse gases among manufacturing industries.   This doesn't even account for the full impact of forest degradation that occurs to create paper.  In fact, deforestation accounts for as much as 30 percent of global carbon emissions, rivaling emissions from the global transportation sector . 

Key to the success of Zero Waste and other community-based economic and environmental solutions is meaningful involvement in the process for community members.  As Dr. Mitchell explains, "As a community that is put upon by waste, power is having a say in how things are done in a way that benefits your community.   I think that that is what Environmental Justice is all about.  It is fair treatment and meaningful involvement."

Indeed, environmental justice and health in historically polluted communities demands that residents have the right to close down and prevent the construction of incinerators, landfills and other harmful toxic projects in favor of local solutions like Zero Waste that bring real environmental and economic benefits.

David Ciplet coordinates GAIA's U.S. network and campaigns based in San Francisco, CA.  See their campaign Zero Waste for Zero Warming at <>.

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