The Relationship Between Trash and Race

 (Originally published on, Transracial/Transcultural Adoption, April 19th, 2010)Earth

Thursday, April 22 is Earth Day. I try my best to be a “green” citizen and parent, so this week, all of my posts focus on how important (and easy) it is to be green.

What, you may ask, does race have to do with trash and recycling?

Let’s start with the United States. You have probably never heard the term environmental racism. I know I hadn’t until a couple of years ago, when I read Green America’s newsletter. It turns out that landfills, incinerators, chemical plants, sewage treatment plants, and facilities for toxic waste “are much more likely to be located in areas based on race and class.” In an interview with Dr. Robert Bullard, Green America reports that race is the number one factor in locating these types of facilities. Even if there are areas of socioeconomic depression, if those areas are white, these facilities are still more likely to appear in areas of color.

When one toxic facility moves in, others follow. Neighborhoods become saturated. Kids are attending schools in heavily polluted areas. Health problems, such as asthma and even cancer, increase. Water supplies may become contaminated, which is exactly what happened in one town in Tennessee.

But at least there’s recycling, right? Mmm… not so much. Americans only recycle about 12% of our electronic waste – computers, monitors, and other obsolete or irreparable electronics. But 50-80% of what’s “recycled” is actually exported, mostly to China, India, and Pakistan. Once there, workers dismantle the electronics scavenging parts. These workers do not wear protective gear and make about $1.50 per day. Electronic waste contains several toxic components, including PVC, mercury, cadmium, and fire retardant chemicals, all of which can cause brain damage, cancer, birth defects, and other serious conditions.

And all those plastic bags from every supermarket and retailer? A lot of them are exported to Asia as well, where they’re burned, emitting carcinogenic dioxin. Yes, that happens even if you throw them in the recycle bin. We’re essentially poisoning our children’s birth families.

So, what can you do?

  1. BYOB – Bring Your Own BAG that is. It is so incredibly easy to find cloth shopping bags. Almost every major supermarket and retailer sells them for 99 cents. If you donate to charities, chances are you have a couple of tote bags. Maybe your kid’s backpack is too trashed for school, but could do a decent job of hauling home the milk. If you forget your bag, at least opt for paper, which is more likely to be actually recycled.
  2. Think before you buy electronics. I know a lot of people who must have the newest, neatest technological toys. First, if you really do need something, try to buy it from a retailer or manufacturer that supports actual recycling. (Green America is a good source for that information.) Second, instead of purchasing the cheapest something-or-other, go for a little more than you need right now, so you can go longer without upgrading. Third, if there is any life in your previous item, donate it. Battered women’s shelters often take cell phones, for example. Schools can often use computers for parts. You can also use Freecycle. Your 1999 iMac may be featured in somebody’s modern art final.
  3. Pay attention to local issues. When I lived in New Hampshire, what to do with our trash was on the ballot. A lot of people don’t pay attention to local elections, but those are often the most important to our day-to-day life. Open space, water treatment, bonds, allocation of funds – all of these are likely to be discussed in your city councils, appear on your ballots, and affect your lives.

Being a responsible global citizen helps all of us, and really can be effortless, with a little education.

Photo Credit.