Environmental Justice


Lately I've been thinking a lot about the zero waste movement's association with privilege. Recently I visited my old neighborhood and entered an old factory full of carcinogenic asbestos, stuffed to the rafters with trash. You have to climb a pile of garbage three stories high, with trees shooting up out of it, to even enter the building. One level was covered exclusively in e-waste, chemicals from which leached into the ground. Another housed treated wood, needles, and other biohazards. Sadly, illegal dumping wasn't limited to a single factory, threatening the nearby community's water supply and putting residents at risk for low level lead poisoning. Some were seriously injured stripping abandoned buildings of scrap metal and other materials for resale. The surrounding area appears post apocalyptic- bombed out-looking roads, homes with collapsing roofs and porches, deserted cars lining the block. A man slowly pushed a broken shopping cart full of aluminum cans down the street, picking up smashed ones rolling by. One lady shouted to be careful and make sure I didn't take my phone out around others.

The trash comes from affluent suburbs within the greater metropolitan area, and waste removal companies were allowed to dump as they pleased- but if local residents were caught tossing anything, they faced fines among other, often more severe, penalties. This is but one example of severe racial disparity in proximity to hazardous waste sites and enforced environmental laws. Cleaning up these sites is difficult because some of the owners are now in jail, or they owe back taxes, making them hard to track down. When you finally do reach them, liability provisions make owners unwilling to relinquish or assess contaminated land. Then there's the trouble of funding. Land use regulations limit prospective developers' flexibility. Discriminatory real estate, lending, and insurance practices put secure housing out of reach for most. Decaying urban areas with shrunken tax bases have no money for necessary municipal services like trash collection and disposal. Who wants to invest in an area literally overflowing with waste? How do you rezone a place like that? And how do you get residents to trust developers after decades of disinvestment, broken promises, and disappointment?

People talk a lot about how sustainable living is too expensive or impractical for the general population. But when I see people living like this- and there are a lot of illegal dumping sites and makeshift landfills in my area- it makes me think discarding trash and having it carted away is really a function of privilege. If I throw out packaging from a Daiya pumpkin spice cheesecake, I don't ever have to deal with it again. My trash gets shipped off to a lower income neighborhood, or a so-called developing country, where somebody my age, with probably the same aspirations and desires as me, literally gets buried alive in it. Their children will suffer from asthma and other low level chronic health threats caused by industrial chemicals I use and purchase- not mine (speaking hypothetically, I still don't want children). So it bothers me that the zero waste movement is associated with environmental racism, when garbage is so widely used as a tool of oppression.

I worked in sustainability for almost ten years, primarily with urban communities, and saw many ideas to improve living conditions shut down by bureaucracy or political barriers. Zero waste is the only professional arena where I actually saw concrete change, where people actually told me they felt healthier and happier, like their lives were better. Almost anyone, regardless of income, can say no to a plastic straw or a paper napkin. Everyone benefits when they buy primarily because they need something, not simply because they want something new. The underlying causes of environmental racism are systemic and deeply entrenched. They are not going to be fixed with a social media post. They're not even going to be fixed by government! I was at COP21. The throwaway mentality causing humans to view things- and people- as disposable is essentially a spiritual problem requiring a spiritual solution, and you can't legislate people's attitudes. But you can influence them.


When you vote, you're accountable for whatever that politician does, because you put them in office. Shopping is voting, and we're accountable for everything we put in the trash. Corporations frequently ignore governments, but they can't ignore consumers. Force their hand, and things happen. Raw materials are cheap right now, but the costs associated with recycling, repair, and biodegradable goods are high. Anyone can use social media to demand better materials, and more recycling and repair options. Anyone can stop buying unnecessary items. If those who have access to unpackaged products take advantage of it, or use their means to repair instead of buying new, we can lower the cost of raw materials and increase accessibility to durable goods. That's why I think zero waste is a real way to mitigate the environmental evils people face now. And I KNOW zero waste isn't just an elite concern.

Eight years ago I did a guerrilla gardening program with kids from an urban housing project. Recently, one of the girls, who at the time wasn't even a teenager and had already been shot and worse, told me she was upset I wrote here that some people are so poor, and struggling so much, that they can't afford to care about zero waste. That was the most disenfranchising thing I could have said, because, believe it or not, struggling people do think about things beyond mere survival. They imagine more beautiful, greener lives too, and assuming they can't do anything for the zero waste movement strips them of agency same as speculation and displacement. Historically a lot of urban programs fail when they focus only on housing, legislation, and zoning, but don't account for things like beauty and culture, which everyone- yes, even poor people and minorities- need. And zero waste is beauty and culture.

Sunday I went to an urban garden in an adjacent neighborhood. My sister and I rototilled that land, which was once an abandoned lot, and neighborhood kids took ownership of it. Now, seven years later, they have fresh berries and currants and lettuce and the most delicious ugly carrots and tomatoes in what was once a food desert. My friend Stacie, who started speaking to classes in inner city schools about racism after her son's friend was shot to death by a white police officer in 2014, met me there. She pointed out the upcycled bird feeder her son made out of plastic bottles, the rain barrel kids painted, and compost they turned themselves. She also introduced me to four boys sitting on a bench laughing. She caught one trying to break into her car and literally dragged him by the ear to pull weeds. "They weren't up to any good, so I gave them something good to do," she explained. "If anyone thinks zero waste is equivalent to victimization, tell them to come to Forest Hills and see real victimization. Put that in your blog post."

For every person that says zero waste is only for the privileged, the white, and the affluent, I have an email from someone who associates the behavior with cheapskates, ascetism, or Depression-era thinking. I mentioned this to a friend who suffered extreme racism growing up (she did not grow up in the US). At one point, as a direct result of prejudice and exclusionary legal practices, she scavenged streets for spare change just to afford enough for a single meal. To this day she saves every little scrap and wastes nothing. She thinks it's funny zero waste is perceived as an elitist trend, because, as she put it, "I was zero waste before blogging was even a thing, only we didn't call it that. It was called desperation then." I've mentioned my elderly neighbor in the 7eme before, who is wealthy and white and reused little confiture and yogurt jars and produced maybe one tiny bag of trash per month. I told her I had an objectif zero dechet, because of a French woman named Bea Johnson. She said she had one too, because of the Nazis. She was a child when they occupied Paris, and she's Jewish, so she learned to save and reuse everything back then, when she was suffering. 

The point of this all is, dismissing zero waste as a marker of affluence won't contribute to environmental justice. And drawing dividing lines between the privileged and not (who's the judge of that anyway? I once called a coworker privileged but she'd worked in Atlanta inner city schools for fifteen years and did amazing things- I felt so stupid) won't help, either. Based on case studies and my (admittedly limited) working knowledge of sustainability in urban communities, here are some things that can bring about workable solutions now:
  1. Follow the money. To tackle deeply entrenched problems, I'm sorry, but you have to move rich people, if success stories like Dudley Street are any indicator. Show investors brownfields and abandoned industrial sites aren't liabilities, they're assets. Get them to see these places, not as health threatening eyesores, but as potential playgrounds and parks and spaces for homes and businesses. You can do this by eliciting stories from local residents and being strategic about use of media. Overcoming legal hurdles heavily depends on gaining clout with officials, and they're not going to do anything unless they think it'll benefit business and wealthy people, so highlighting inspirational stories from the local community can help them see reinvestment as a benefit to cultural and institutional arrangements.
  2. Organize massive cleanups. It has to be extreme- my mistake in the past has been planning small scale cleanups when in reality you have to tow away tons of cars, scrap a bunch of shopping carts, literally strain rivers of cigarettes and plastic bottles, etc. Like decluttering or dieting, little steps won't help much, because it's just enough to make you feel deprived, but not enough for immediate gratification, i.e. visible results. Social media is a good way of mobilizing people- especially youth- to take part, but for long term sustainability, you need to get people off social media and away from their phones so they can actually work and help.
  3. Involve everyone. Planning committees, trustee boards, and community leadership must equally, not proportionally, represent all races and income levels to prevent infighting. Plus if you want tackle problems like absentee landlords or unfair zoning, if you want government to delegate eminent domain to low income communities, if you want development without displacement, you need all the lawyers and developers with all the cultural inputs and sensitivity you can get.  When building and institutionalizing civic capacity, it's especially important to get youth involved- in the long term, this ensures a well-developed economic base so longtime residents, not just incoming hipsters, benefit equally. This is why places like the Flats in Cleveland failed in the past. If the businesses and housing are too expensive for the existing community, you have gangs coming back, and it's going to go downhill again, same as it did when I was a kid, and again when my mom was younger... but places like Fairmont Creamery or businesses like Dave's Supermarket and Perfectly Imperfect, which reinvest in the community and provide fresh produce and healthy food to people in food deserts, will sustain growth in the long run.
  4. Enable low income residents. This might mean teaching kids to propagate their own plants from clippings, food scraps, and donated seeds; or establishing free classes and counseling on everything from zero waste to finance assembly (which a lot of zero wasters are already doing). Prospective homebuyers, and hopefully future zero wasters (I don't really like that term but whatever), need confidence, skills, and knowledge to overcome long-established obstacles.
  5. Landscape open space. A garden can fix any problem, be it societal or environmental, and it's a proven way to stabilize a community, restore unbuildable (is that a word?) land, and contain hazardous waste. A lot about a half acre large, depending on what you plant, can remediate lead-containing soil so it's clean enough to grow crops in as little as three years. Eventually these plots can be redeveloped for food production or value added food enterprises. In the meantime, urban gardens mitigate pollution and allow residents to affirm cultural identities. Public art (see The Heidelberg Project, House Poem) is similarly helpful in that it nurtures culture and fosters creativity, which is a hallmark of successful initiatives that transformed unlivable areas into vibrant ones.
  6. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't. I know not everyone can afford fancy jars or has the luxury of driving all over the place to bulk shops. I've been there. Not everyone even has access to real fruits and vegetables- this summer I gave a toddler his first raspberry and it broke my heart. He'd never had a piece of fruit that hadn't come in a can or plastic cup before. But everyone can say no to some disposables. Most people can use, say, knotted t-shirts or pillowcases instead of plastic bags. Use a rag instead of paper towel, or collect dishwater to flush the toilet, or turn the water off while brushing teeth, or use baking soda and bar soap instead of packaged toiletries. Everyone can make personal choices to consume as little of earth's resources and produce as little waste as possible according to their unique circumstances, and challenge their lifestyle to ensure future sustainability.

One of the women I mentioned just used a menstrual cup for the first time, and it was lifechanging for her, but she never had enough money at one time to invest in one- it was gifted. Right now, because everyone automatically assumes durable goods are too expensive without actually thinking about it, there's limited demand for loans for circular economy solutions. The infrastructure necessary for extended producer responsibility, recollection, and recycling can change business classification to include waste management, bringing a host of requirements and regulations many companies can't afford to take on until more consumers demand them. 

Instead of writing off the zero waste movement entirely, why don't we take practical steps to get reusables into the hands of people who could not otherwise afford them? I already know women who are using the money they've saved by going zero waste (or the money they've made from blogging about it) to donate to womens' shelters, or provide reusable feminine hygiene products, or purchase seeds for inner city school gardens. There's a lot of sacrifice and hard work going on behind the scenes that people aren't seeing on social media. If you have an idea- a concrete, specific idea, not just an abstraction- about how the zero waste community can help victims of environmental racism, tell me! I want to hear if there's a school or an organization you know of that needs reusables or a garden or a business that needs crowdfunding or something. I want to know how to do better. But don't just say zero waste is too expensive or unrealistic. I'm sick of hearing that from people who haven't tried it or who are too prejudiced to really look at the movement closely. And while I'm ranting, people can stop trying to guess my ethnicity too. You'll never get it right! I'm every color of the rainbow. I'm basically a Doug character!

25 comments:

  1. This is amazing. It's exciting every time I see you post, because it's always fantastic and inspiring.

    Okay, I need some help with my hair. I tried a lot of shampoo alternatives, and rye flour was the best result, except it doesn't take away the dead skin cells off my scalp and I get lots of flakes. Washing with regular shampoo gets rid of those flakes. Any ideas?

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    1. Unfortunately it'll take a lot of scrubbing and the only way to remove them is mechanically, then dusting the flakes away with a comb, brush or fingers. The chemicals in shampoo dissolve flakes basically so they rinse away, but without chemicals you need to scrub away. Weirdly I think air conditioning might be connected to flakes somehow

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    2. I had a huge dandruff problem which after loads (and often frustrating bouts) of experimenting, I realized that I have a rather sensitive scalp-not sure if it's the same for you. Essentially, conventional shampoo was making it worse because of the SLS/SLES. I switched to bar shampoo with fully natural ingredients and it did wonders. It can get expensive though, depending on where you buy it from, so I've been making my own- using half an egg, some green tea, and rice water- so far so good. It takes about 2 minutes to prepare and no dandruff yet. Hopefully, my resolve to use this stuff holds.

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  2. Yes. Having lived and worked in the high-poverty food deserts of Indianapolis for the last two years, I really feel all of this. (And earning just above the SNAP assistance line, even though I'm 1000% a privileged white girl.)

    Because I work with high-risk kids, the biggest thing I've seen that can make a difference is to give them options. Our center created a community garden and you bet those kids were out there patrolling for weeds and laying down the law on people who were abusing the area.

    It's heartening to see someone thinking about this - especially someone else in the Midwest. Change is coming - slowly - and I'm excited to see what kind of great things community organizing can bring to the marginalized parts of the zero waste movement.

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    1. That's what you do? I knew I loved you for a reason. What an awesome career.

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  3. Here's the problem. Asians in America do not suffer from the same racism as black people. There's a reason the word is "Caucasian"- you're pretty much white. You will never earn less because of your race, or face dating discrimination because of the color of your skin. You will never experience police brutality or institutionalized aggression like we have. I had to laugh at some of the things you've complained about on here. Your perception of injustice would likely be different if you were a black zero waste blogger and not whatever "mixed race" you conveniently purport to be.

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  4. Great article. Have noticed it's usually privileged people who slam the zero waste movement as elitist. Not sure what 'Annonymous' (so brave) saw you complaining about on a personal level here. This read to me as an honest account of the struggles of many different people, whose disparate life experiences don't preclude them from caring about the same things.

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    1. She's writing this from a place of privilege and fails to acknowledge it.

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    2. Beautifully put, better than I could have said

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  5. “Anonymous”, I work in the US public school system and Asians most certainly do experience bias, prejudice, and racism. I see it frequently and can attest to it. Also, Ariana mentions regularly about her own subjectivities and privilege. She is clearly aware of her privilege, can you say the same?

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  6. GREAT POST and very inspiring...
    This afternoon cleaning close to the Canal Saint Martin: Cleaners from la ville de Paris are doing it everyday, but it's great that people feel it's their responsibility, their choice, and show it. Zero waste is really about empowerment.

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    1. Oh I miss seeing all the stuff they pull out of the canal... I can't wait for the day when I can swim in the Seine!

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  7. Wow, love this!!! Thanks for the kick in the arse :-)

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  8. You always make me think so much! What is a good way to use the tiny scraps of soup once the bar starts to fall apart?

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    1. We grew up only using bar soap in India. When the bar thins out, you wet it and stick it to the new big bar. Sometimes, we would save them and use it to make hot soap water to use for laundry/soak stubborn dishes/scrub patios.

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    2. Thanks Archana! I did this last night - such an easy solution.

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  9. Ariana, your relentless passion for the cause is contagious. I see the news and want to give up. And your blog posts pull me back up to the surface. Thank you for all the effort you put towards the cause.

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  10. Hi Ariana,
    You have inspired me to go public and speak to others about the issue of waste and solutions. This article particularly provides a solve for environmental destruction and some of the more oppressive and invisible instruments of racism facing the world today.
    I work with a group of people who make their voices heard on Capitol Hill daily regarding these issues and I think/hope that they would be happy to experience a change and success closer to home.
    I have also personally heard....that I am "basically white" or that I "pass" and I have also experienced extreme forms of prejudice and hatred from both individuals and a system designed for the success of a narrow group of people. Thank you for sharing your experience.
    three cheers!

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  11. I thought this was a really inspiring blog post. Honestly, one of the most empowering posts I've read in ages.
    In the UK, there have been a few stories in the news over the past few weeks about young girls missing out on school because they (and / or their families) can't afford sanitary products, or having to use socks in place of pads. I'm interested to find out, and am going to do some research now, if there are any charities providing these girls with reusable options.

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  12. You know what I love about this post? Not once did you mention the skin color of any of your friends.' Zero waste is not a black issue, it's not a white issue, it's a human issue. We are all affected by the garbage problem. Many are disproportionately affected, but working together will bring about change, not breaking off into various factions.

    Also, this goes without saying but girl. You can write. A wonderful read. Your blog never disappoints.

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