Trash Talk November: Recycling and Environmental Justice

What does recycling have to do with environmental justice? Turns out, a lot! This month, we decided to explore the intersections between recycling and waste, environmental racism, and justice. Read on to find out what we learned.

Part 1: Landfills and Plastic Production Plants

How are recycling and waste connected to environmental justice? Part 1: Landfills and Plastic Production Plants
How are recycling and waste connected to environmental justice? Part 1: Landfills and Plastic Production Plants
When we throw something in the trash, it goes to a landfill or incinerator.

Landfills release methane, the most potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.
Unlike landfills, waste-to-energy incinerators burn the waste for energy, thereby reducing emissions.

Similar to landfills, however, incinerators still have negative impacts on the environment and human health.
Landfills and incinerators are disproportionately located in low income and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, and have negative public health impacts on these communities.
Plastic Production Plants: Plastic production plants are petrochemical facilities that use fossil fuels and emit toxic chemicals into the air, soil, and water.
Both surrounding residents and workers at these plants are at high risk of contracting respiratory disease, cancer, or other illness.

Like landfills and incinerators, plastic production plants are disproportionately located in low-income and BIPOC communities.
Waste reduction and recycling are forms of environmental justice.

Reduce the amount of waste we send to landfills and incinerators by making smart purchasing decisions that avoid trash items, and even better: refuse to buy into the waste system all together and say no to plastic.

Part 2: Recycling Workers

How are recycling and waste connected to environmental justice? Part 2: Recycling Workers
Recycling is a glamorous topic in the world of sustainability, but we don’t often think about the dirty underbelly. When we throw something away, it doesn’t just go “poof” and disappear. It goes somewhere, and from landfills to sorting facilities, there is someone on the other end of our waste!
When contaminants end up in the recycling bin, they can get caught in the machinery at the sorting facility, shutting it down, costing money, and posing a safety hazard to the workers who sort them out at the conveyer belt. Such contaminants include wires, hoses, and any soft plastics such as grocery bags.
Additionally, placing sharp items into the recycling bin can pose a hazard to custodial staff, who are not expecting it when handling the bags.
What does this mean for us? For the safety of our recycling and waste workers, who are often members of the communities that we advocate for, avoid contaminating the recycling stream. Know your local recycling rules, and when in doubt about whether something can be recycled, throw it out!

Part 3: Where does Trash from Tufts Go?

Part 3: Where does Trash from Tufts go?
Proximity to waste facilities increases the vulnerability of communities. We decided to learn more about the people and places near where trash from Tufts goes.
The majority of Tufts’ trash goes to the Covanta Haverfill Facility, a waste-to-energy facility.

Waste-to-energy facilities burn waste for energy and are preferable to landfills. Covanta Haverfull is committed to sustainable waste management.

Still, the incineration process pollutes nearby communities with toxins that diminish health.
In the area surrounding the facility:
44% of residents identify as a racial minority
34% of residents are low-income
17% of adults have less than a high school education
17% of households are linguistically isolated
Reducing waste and choosing to recycle your recyclable items lessens the impact Tufts has on these communities.

What will you do to reduce waste, starting today?

Part 4: Massachusetts Landfills and their Communities

Recycling and Environmental Justice Part 4: Massachusetts Landfills and their communities
Graphic depicts the locations of active landfills in Massachusetts, Environmental Justice communities in Massachusetts, and the geographical relation between the two.
Graphic depicts a close-up of the destinations of Tufts’ trash and their relation to Environmental Justice communities.
As defined by MassGIS, EJ communities meet one or all of the following conditions:
-Greater than 25% minority population (M)
-Median income less than or equal to 65% of state median income (I)
-greater than 25% of the population is English-isolated, meaning no person over the age of 14 speaks English “very well” in a household (E)

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