If I leave my office in Central Harlem and forget to throw out a piece of garbage, I must tote it around until I can find a garbage can. Usually, I can’t. So, I put that brown paper bag or pile of receipts back in my purse to throw it out at home. . The lack of garbage cans in Harlem has led to mountains of trash and litter crowding the streets of this neighborhood. When it rains, a brown river of waste – plastic bags, food, old clothes – cuts through the gutters and subway entrances. Harlem is just one example of how trash has been taking over black neighborhoods – a perfect example of environmental racism.
A recent study in the Environmental Research Letters on environmental racism proves that the worst amounts of pollution in the U.S. pile up in “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.”
Professors Paul Mohai and Robin Saha, the study authors, wrote that POC neighborhoods are targeted for landfills or sanitation neglect because it’s believed they have “limited resources and political clout” to fend off this treatment.
Harlem’s garbage situation is an example of how municipal departments can “punish” neighborhoods environmentally. The Department of Sanitation of New York removed more than 200 garbage cans last year because they were overflowing with garbage. They took away garbage cans because there was too much garbage in them?!
Nationally, we have all watched how environmental racism deprived the people of Flint, Michigan of clean water for years as they battle bureaucratic and municipal forces. (Note: Flint is 59 percent black, Central Harlem is 64 percent black.)
Globally, the most polluted countries are the ones mostly populated by people of color in Asia and Africa and are still recovering from the diasporic poverty caused by colonialism—India, China, Ghana and Senegal are some of the worst affected countries.
“Trash islands,” literal clusters of industrial garbage, are growing on the shores of Central America and the Caribbean. Most of these places are used as landfills for industrial garbage that doesn’t even belong to the people.
Looking ahead, China is no longer by taking in American plastics and recyclables for their landfills, so local landfills will be looking a lot fuller in the United States. This will lead to poor people and people of color around the world living with and around more trash.
The most prevalent causes of death in neighborhoods of poor people and people of color include heart disease, cancer, pulmonary and respiratory disease. Irritants in the air—smoke, dust and the smell of garbage—are sending children to the hospitals in community-wide asthma epidemics. Garbage invites vermin and dirty standing water invites mosquitoes with viruses to spread. These are surface-level effects of environmental racism, which then start to affect quality of life—lack of fresh, affordable produce, lack of clean water, and general governmental neglect.
Environmental well-being is seen as a trendy, mainstream, white-washed cause, but black and brown communities will be the first to be sacrificed to the mounting waste on the earth. Whether it be a river of waste in Harlem, a trash island on the coast of the Honduras or the poisonous water from the taps of Flint, people of color have suffered at the depleting health of their neighborhoods while being used to help clean up other parts of the world.
Often with these neighborhoods poisoned by waste, the residents either put up with the neglect and try to make the area habitable, or sustainability efforts gentrify the area, clean it, and start over from scratch without the original residents. This is what happened in a Brooklyn seaside neighborhood that went from 68 percent black to 35 percent when a sustainability campaign cleaned up and turned the area into a tourist hotspot with tripled rents.
I don’t believe that people of color are helpless to being buried in pollution. With enough awareness, action and support of the community’s resources, it is possible to rebuild a strong, resistant environmental economy. But we cannot be silent.
After community nonprofits fought the Sanitation Department for months, Harlem got new garbage cans. It’s a small beacon of hope, but we can fight and save our communities.