More and more environmentalists are reorienting their work towards environmental justice: we fight to shut down incinerators, petrochemical plants, and other polluting facilities with the knowledge that their impacts disproportionately harm Black communities. But the attack on Black lives extends far beyond environmental pollution — policing and prisons threaten the lives of Black people in America every day. Our waste management systems exist in close proximity to systems of policing and incarceration, not only where they physically intersect through legalized slave labor and the racialized siting of facilities, but also in the way that activists work towards solutions.
Exploiting incarcerated labor in recycling systems
Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis, Tennessee on the day he was shot — he had traveled there to support the city’s striking sanitation workers. Hundreds of mostly Black sanitation workers took to the streets holding signs that read “I AM A MAN” which became immortalized in now-iconic photos of that 1968 action. Dr. King asserted that “our society must come to respect the sanitation worker. He is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, disease is rampant.”
Over 50 years later, sanitation workers in New Orleans went on strike in early May to demand higher wages, hazard pay, and personal protective equipment to protect themselves from coronavirus, with many carrying signs that paid homage to the 1968 strikers. Metro Services Group, a private waste disposal company, replaced the essential workers who walked off the job in protest with incarcerated people from a local correctional facility, with the full knowledge and approval of city leadership. These incarcerated individuals were paid just $1.33 an hour to provide the city of New Orleans with an essential service during a pandemic. In other parts of the country, it is legal to pay incarcerated laborers pennies per hour for work that is largely not optional.
The use of severely underpaid inmates to cross the picket lines of striking sanitation workers isn’t the only way our waste systems exploit people who have been incarcerated. Uniformed prisoners picking up litter are a common sight on the sides of US highways. It’s normal for these litter removal inmate crews to earn as low as one dollar a day. A 15-minute phone call from prison to their families costs inmates an average of $5.61. UNICOR, a prison labor company owned by the U.S. Department of Justice maintains electronics recycling operations at three prisons — two in California and one in Pennsylvania — where they fail to implement adequate health and safety measures to protect prisoners who are dismantling electronics laden with toxic components. Incarcerated recycling workers earned UNICOR $4 billion in profits in 2017. Meanwhile, cities and counties across the country are using incarcerated people to work their recycling programs, including Franklin, TN; Limestone County, AL; Dalton, GA; Somerset County, NJ; Wicomico County, MD; Florence, AZ; Lackawanna County, PA; and Gainesville, GA, to name a few.
As Angela Davis explains in her 2003 book Are Prisons Obsolete?, many of the problems with modern-day policing and incarceration are rooted in its origins as a slave patrol: while the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it permitted involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime duly convicted.” Around the same time, several states created laws to regulate free Black people in ways similar to the restrictions prescribed under the Slave Codes. These laws included a range of actions including missing work, insulting gestures, and vagrancy that were only criminalized if the person charged was Black. While the laws on the books have changed, we’ve seen these practices on display in the videos of the murders of George Floyd and Eric Garner. In short, prison labor is the present-day incarnation of slavery. The discourse around prison labor often will focus the private sector, but cities, counties, and the federal government both condone and exploit this slavery to prop up a failing waste system. The environmental movement has been complicit in its silence.
Poisoning people who are forced to live in prisons with our waste
New York City’s Rikers island — infamous for its violence and human rights violations — is located on top of a decomposing landfill that is weakening its structure. Damaged water pipes during the coronavirus outbreak made it impossible for people held at Rikers to have enough running water and soap to protect themselves against the coronavirus. Prisoners exposed to methane gas from decomposing waste experience nausea and headaches. One woman incarcerated at Rikers told the press that “the smell alone would torture you.” In 2011, a handful of Rikers employees filed a lawsuit against the city because they had been diagnosed with cancers attributed to exposure to the landfill’s toxic fumes. Prisons across the country, including facilities in North Carolina, Missouri, and Pennsylvania are also located near landfills. We also see this pattern with incinerators: there are prisons located three or fewer miles away from all four of New Jersey’s toxic incinerators. However, when environmentalists discuss the cumulative impact of incineration, landfilling, and other environmental injustices on marginalized and exploited communities, we exclude the experiences of those who have been incarcerated, which reinforces their exclusion and marginalization.
Zero waste means zero prisons
Environmentalists and the zero waste movement are tasked with preventing waste — prisons are a waste of human life and joy.
Abolitionists argue that no level of reform can solve a system that is inherently violent and racist, and that the only solution is to divest from policing and redirect funds towards generative solutions that stop violence before it starts. Similarly, the zero-waste movement argues that no level of recycling (or waste-to-energy incineration, or chemical recycling) can solve the plastics crisis that arises from a system that is inherently extractive and harmful, and that the only real solution is to stop the generation of waste before it’s ever created and invest in reuse, refill, and repair. It’s no coincidence that our systems of policing, incarceration, and waste management result in the enslavement, poisoning, and murder of Black people. They are integrated systems developed to serve a larger economic and political system that is — and has always been — designed to benefit and enrich white people at the expense of non-white people. Therefore in order to support Black lives, we must reject the extractive economy and in order to reject the economy, we must support Black lives.
More and more people are coming to the understanding that the safest communities aren’t the ones with the most police — they’re the ones with the most resources. The NYPD has a $6 billion budget, which is more than the city allocated to health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined. A look at municipal budgets nationwide reveals a consistent pattern: funds allocated for policing far exceed the amount allocated to nearly every other category of spending. Divesting from policing would allow cities to invest their budgets in programs and services that actually make communities safer and healthier. Cities and counties may be using prison labor in their recycling programs to cut corners in operating a program that is costly to run, especially after China stopped accepting the world’s recycled waste in 2018. Municipalities lack the budgets for these programs because the corporations creating the problem are not held financially responsible for their wasteful practices. We need to implement a form of financial producer responsibility that takes the cost burden of waste management off municipal budgets while ensuring the dignity and stable, fair livelihood of all sanitation workers and the residents of the community.
GAIA and others in the zero waste movement explain that zero waste is both a goal and a practical plan of action. This mirrors how activists frame abolition: Critical Resistance, a grassroots movement-building organization working to dismantle the prison industrial complex, says that “abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal”. We know that we can’t just shut down incinerators and landfills immediately without having zero waste infrastructure and policies in place to reduce and sustainably manage waste. Likewise, abolitionists aren’t aiming to shut down prisons and shutter police departments without implementing social programs that address the root causes of crime and establishing pathways for restorative justice that repair, not punish, harm. Activist and organizer Mariame Kaba describes her practice of abolition as “trying to create the necessary conditions to ensure the possibility of a world without prisons”. That means defunding the police and prisons, and investing in public health, affordable housing, education, and local economies. The systems that create prisons and pollution may seem so calcified in society that dismantling them feels unthinkable, but both zero waste and abolition are also about growing the presence of better systems that make their harmful predecessors obsolete. Kaba asserts that “hope is a discipline”, and as Angela Davis instructs, “you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Solidarity and anti-racism: the path forward
Environmental advocates proclaim the creation of good, green jobs as a primary co-benefit of sustainability. However, prison labor is legalized slavery, and the environmental movement must vocally reject its use and support its abolition if we are to remain consistent in our words and values. Many environmental activists and organizations are speaking up now (which is great!), but practicing staunch anti-racism and solidarity matters just as much, if not more, when the nation’s no longer in the streets and the hashtags are no longer trending. Note the distinction between not being racist and being anti-racist — anti-racism involves introspection, unlearning, and actively working to dismantle structural and institutional racism. To reproduce or excuse systems of injustice in our work or fail to demonstrate active, continuous solidarity with those fighting for Black lives is to be complicit, and it alienates a lot of people that we need to be joining hands with.
The police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade have galvanized a movement to defund policing and abolish prisons that is grounded in decades of Black women’s organizing. Minneapolis’s public schools and parks boards have just voted to sever ties to the Minneapolis Police Department, and the Minneapolis City Council has formally announced their commitment to take steps to end policing and create “a new transformative model for cultivating safety” in the city. These are huge gains. We’re also seeing that communities around the country and world are building out zero waste solutions and holding polluters accountable through grassroots action. Another world is possible, but to change everything, we need everyone. Through confronting the ways we have been complicit with the racist structures of incarceration and policing, demonstrating solidarity with Black-led organizations (like Black Youth Project 100, Black Visions Collective, and Survived & Punished), and taking prefigurative action, we can build a world where no people and no resources are treated as disposable.
Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Marime Kaba (@prisonculture on Twitter), and K Agbebiyi (@sheabutterfemme on Twitter) are just some of the Black women and Black nonbinary people leading the way in writing, educating, and organizing around the abolition of prisons and policing.
This piece was written by Aditi Varshneya (@aditivarshneya), Zero Waste Communities Coordinator at GAIA US Canada (@GAIAUS_Can), with contributions from Vivian Breckenridge and Denise Patel (@denisepatel).