The Unequal Distribution of Waste Processing Sites in the U.S.

Imagine being unable to walk your local streets without feeling a tightness building up in your chest. Imagine looking outside your window and seeing mountains of waste seemingly extending up to the clouds. And, finally, imagine being unable to escape the constant noise and exhaust of diesel trucks passing through your community to feed those ominous trash mountains.

These scenarios are just the tip of the iceberg for people living in countless minority communities across the United States, where waste processing facilities are disproportionately situated. Unbeknownst to many, this injustice must be addressed because it unduly diminishes the well being of citizens living in communities of color.

This massive injustice is taking place on a rather large scale in America’s most densely populated city, New York City. Alarmingly, 80 percent of New York City’s waste handling capacity is located within three of its poorest neighborhoods– the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens. While this injustice harms all three of these impoverished, predominately minority communities, the effect is most pronounced in the South Bronx. A home to many persons of color, the South Bronx has essentially become a dumping ground for New York City waste. It is estimated that nearly one-third of the city’s trash is processed at waste facilities in the South Bronx and that nearly 1,400 diesel truck trips are required to transport the 6,000 tons of waste that pass through the South Bronx each day.

Unfortunately, the situation in New York City is by no means an outlier; many low-income communities of color across the United States are endangered by excessive amounts of waste processing facilities. For example, high-minority communities in Massachusetts face a cumulative exposure rate to environmentally hazardous facilities and sites that is nearly nine times greater than that for low-minority communities. In a similar case, hazardous waste facilities disproportionality exist in the minority communities of Jefferson County, Texas. More specifically, the two major minority communities in Jefferson County, Beaumont and Port Arthur, have twenty-three hazardous waste facilities, while the two predominantly white communities in Jefferson County, Port Neches and Winnie, have only three hazardous waste facilities.

The disproportionate existence of waste processing facilities in minority communities across the United States means that minority communities are bearing the brunt of the country’s waste-related environmental issues. In fact, numerous studies have found that poor minority communities deal with the majority of the United States’ waste problems. One such study, conducted by the National Wildlife Federation in 1993, examined forty-five different environmental studies conducted across the United States between the 1960s and the 1990s and discovered that 87 percent of the studies found racial disparities in terms of exposure to environmental hazards.

As a result of this unjust disparity, the wellbeing of citizens living in communities of color is being greatly diminished. No matter the area, harmful waste processing techniques diminish food quality, air quality, and water quality. For instance, residents of the South Bronx struggle with high levels of air pollution and diminished living conditions because of their proximity to waste processing sites. This struggle is manifested in the fact that the South Bronx holds the highest age-adjusted asthma induced death rate among all counties in New York State and one of the highest in the country. The citizens of the South Bronx likely experience such high levels of asthma-induced deaths because they are constantly subjected to air pollution from diesel waste trucks and waste burning facilities. As William Whyte, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, explains, “Once environmental hazards are in the mediums that transmits them, the very life-sustaining functions that individuals must perform may put them at risk of exposure to life-threatening toxins.”

It is a shame that minority communities are forced to bear the brunt of waste-related issues. In a country where every citizen is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, waste-processing responsibilities should be equally dispersed across all communities. The harsh reality is that they are not.

While there is no easy solution to this complicated injustice, it is imperative to raise awareness about this issue on a state and national level. One way this can be achieved is to encourage citizens in minority communities to participate in studies attempting to highlight the extent of the environmental degradation in their communities. For instance, Sustainable South Bronx has launched an initiative to gather accurate air quality data by having citizens wear portable air quality monitors.

So next time you flick a piece of trash into a garbage can, consider the high likelihood that it will end up in a predominately minority community because of the disproportionate existence of waste-processing facilities there. Then, take the pledge to combat this injustice. Indeed, the majority of society will need to do so in order to start correcting it.