By Claire Arkin 

This piece was originally published on the Goldman Environmental Prize website

Do you know where your waste goes? While we’d like to think that most of it gets recycled into a new product, in reality the U.S. recycles only 25.8% of waste and 12.8% gets burned in incinerators.

Incinerators are one of the most toxic, expensive, dangerous, and polluting industries in the U.S. They emit 68% more greenhouse gases per unit of energy than coal plants. The cost of running incinerators is two times higher than solar energy and three times that of wind power, and the industry has sapped millions in taxpayer dollars—sometimes leading cities to bankruptcy.

If that weren’t bad enough, incinerators are known to emit such pollutants as carbon monoxide, mercury, lead, and particulate matter, which even in trace amounts can significantly affect human health. These impacts are not shared equally amongst the population: A new report from the Tishman Environment and Design Center found that approximately 8 out of 10 incinerators are located in lower-income communities and/or communities of color, making environmental justice an issue at the center of this industry. These communities also tend to be in over-industrialized areas where pollution is a significant concern from multiple sources, and emissions from incinerators worsen an already dangerous situation.

Not only do these waste-burning plants pollute, waste money, and exacerbate environmental injustice, but they also undermine real solutions to our waste problems. Incinerator facilities require high volumes and constant flows of waste to remain profitable, thereby discouraging local efforts to reduce waste.

The good news is that our country is blessed with courageous, smart, fearless activists who have been working hard to put an end to this polluting, outmoded industry.

headshot Destiny Watford curtis bay baltimore

Destiny Watford, courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

In 2016, when she was still in high school, Destiny Watford won the Goldman Environmental Prize for organizing her community of Curtis Bay in Baltimore, Maryland, to stop construction of what would have been the country’s largest incinerator. Now she and fellow community members have set their sights on taking down the city’s notorious Goliath—the Bresco incinerator.

Built in 1985, Bresco is Baltimore’s single largest source of air pollution and, according to a recent report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, costs Maryland $55 million in health care expenses annually. As Destiny tells it, “My family, friends, and everyone who lives in Curtis Bay can expect to have an entire decade shaved off of where we live. I’m more likely to die of lung cancer, respiratory disease, and to suffer from asthma.”

However, thanks to the efforts of Destiny and her fellow community members, Bresco incinerator’s days may be numbered. This past February, activists succeeded in getting unanimous approval of a Clean Air Act in the Baltimore City Council, which will tighten emissions limits from the incinerator. Additionally, Destiny and her community are working hard to “starve the beast”—increasing community composting and other waste reduction strategies that would leave the incinerator with nothing left to burn. Bresco is definitely feeling the heat. The company filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block the enforcement of the new Clean Air Act, which they say will force the facility to close. Bresco is also suing the city to the tune of over $32 million for not providing enough waste to burn, essentially punishing the city for successfully reducing waste!

Destiny and her community are not backing down. They’re working with their elected officials on developing a zero waste plan that would make the incinerator obsolete. “Our community has been disinvested in, ignored, and neglected for generations,” Destiny explains, “and now we are leading the way toward a sustainable future.”

mark! Lopez, courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, the grassroots organization led by Goldman Prize winner mark! Lopez is taking on its own polluting incinerator. mark!, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice (EYCEJ), won the Prize in 2017 for getting the state of California to clean up the pollution from an old battery smelter that was responsible for emitting lead into his community and the surrounding environment.

Today, EYCEJ’s Whitney Amaya is battling for the right to breathe clean air instead of the pollution from burning trash in Long Beach, California. Living under the shadow of the Long Beach incinerator her whole life, Whitney notes that “it’s unfair that incinerators are touted as environmentally-friendly and environmentally-sound when they’re spewing out benzene, mercury, and lead—toxins that are harming the health of our communities. Why do low-income, communities of color have to breathe in trash from cities like Beverly Hills or Santa Monica?”

The incinerator run by the city of Long Beach is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in the region. Combined with pollution from the local port and oil refineries, the air quality is at dangerous levels—asthma, cancer, and other health effects are commonplace for the majority Latinx population. Fortunately, incinerators across the country, including Long Beach’s, are reaching the end of their lifespans, and cities have a choice to make: either spend millions to prop up a dying industry or transition to a zero waste system that safeguards the environment, social justice, and human health.

Just last year, the nearby city of Commerce, California, decided to pull the plug on its incinerator, and Whitney and other community members are pushing Long Beach to adopt a zero waste plan that would retire its incinerator for good. As Whitney explains, “our communities are resilient and will continue to fight for systems and solutions, like zero waste and zero emissions, that place people and our homes first, not profit.”

GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), a nominating organization of the Goldman Environmental Prize, is a worldwide alliance of more than 800 grassroots groups, non-governmental organizations, and individuals in over 90 countries whose ultimate vision is a just, toxic-free world without incineration. GAIA actively collaborates with and supports several past Prize winners around their work on various initiatives.

Claire Arkin is the Communications Coordinator at GAIA. Her work has been featured in such outlets as The GuardianResource-Recycling, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She has previously worked as an organizer for the Colorado Democratic Party and the New York City Department of Education. Claire became involved in the environmental justice movement through co-organizing the Food Justice Contingent of the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.