We found Patient Zero: It’s the historical injustice of our waste system.
It’s hard to imagine that a year ago we were celebrating the announcement of the planned shut down of the Detroit Renewable Power facility, a 33-year old incinerator that has plagued the community living in its shadow with toxic air pollution for a generation. The community organized under the banner Breath Free Detroit fought hard to shut down the incinerator and won. Last week, I called KT Andresky, Breathe Free Detroit’s Campaign Organizer, after hearing that the Michigan Department of Health reported the breakdown of COVID-19 deaths by race to hear how people in her community are feeling right now. People are concerned. The report found that African-American or Black people account for 14% of the state population, but 41% of all COVID-19 related deaths in Michigan. Nearly 30% of all cases and just over a quarter of deaths from COVID-19 were in Detroit. Many in KT’s community suffer from asthma, hypertension, and diabetes — diseases that are more prevalent in environmental justice communities and can cause complications when suffering from COVID-19.
It will take some time before we get a full picture of what this all means, but the outlook isn’t good. COVID-19 has disrupted the lives of people around the world, but as we are seeing in Detroit, the danger that this virus poses will not be felt equally. The coronavirus has exposed a much more insidious, and long-spreading disease that has sickened our society for decades: racial, economic, environmental, and social injustice.
Environmental justice communities, primarily low-income communities and communities of color, often see their neighborhoods overrun by polluting industrial facilities and are continuously exposed to toxic pollutants that lead to asthma and other cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and many other health impacts, all of which make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. They face greater economic insecurity and poor access to health care, deepening their vulnerability to the virus. This is not the result of new exposure to a novel virus. It is the result of decades of policies driven by excess production and waste that have placed low-income, immigrant, and communities of color in the shadows of toxic facilities. Incinerators are some of the most polluting industrial facilities in the U.S., emitting thousands of tons of toxic air pollutants. Currently, 73 communities live near one and 79% of them are located in environmental justice communities.
While the pandemic has suddenly halted economic activity and cleared the air in cities across the country, incinerators have continued to burn our waste and workers have continued to pick up our trash. Sanitation workers, deemed essential workers, continue to pick up commercial, residential, and medical waste and recyclables and deliver them to incinerators, landfills, and recycling facilities. Like nurses and doctors, they face increased exposure to the virus and are in need of personal protective equipment and sick leave policies that enable a full recovery. Recent studies have shown that the virus can live on materials like cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastics for 2–3 days. For the workers picking up and sorting our trash, that means that every house and every plastic bag and bottle is an exposure point. They sit side by side in trucks for 8 to 10-hour shifts. That can amount to thousands of touchpoints per day for each worker who may not even know if she is exposed until 14 days later when she gets a fever, dry cough, or aches and pains, all the while risking exposure to other workers and their own families when they get home.
Like Breathe Free Detroit, sanitation workers are fighting to protect their health. In a conversation with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters last week, Chuck Stiles, Director of the union’s Waste and Recycling Division, reminded me of the “garbage juice” — a graphic visual of the liquid that drips from a garbage truck — after expressing concerns for his members’ health as they handle bags of waste. Workers in Pittsburgh recently refused to return to work until they are provided with personal protective equipment and hazard pay for putting their lives at risk. The Teamsters, which represent those workers in Pittsburgh, have created a list of best practices for safe work and are now working with the city to address the needs of their members. They have also sent a letter of request to the biggest waste management companies to develop safe work practices. While conversations continue with Waste Management and Waste Connections, Republic Services, the second-largest waste management company operating in the U.S., is refusing to meet with them to address their concerns. Instead of finding better ways to protect their workers, the company is suspending recycling programs and adding the waste crisis. With orders to stay at home, household waste has increased, but commercial waste pick up has dropped. Workers in New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts have already been furloughed because of service cuts at office buildings, shopping malls, and other commercial buildings.
Chuck also worries about worker exposure to COVID-19 waste and laundry from pickups at hospitals and health care facilities. Linens are often collected in open cardboard or plastic containers. While the amount of time the virus can live on fabrics is unknown, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests the SARS-CoV-2 virus can live on cardboard for up to 24 hours and on plastics for 2–3 hours. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers the personal protective equipment — mask, gloves, gowns, and face shields — to be non-hazardous waste that can be disposed of with other medical waste.
With PPE in short supply and patients overwhelming hospitals, the potential risks are certainly concerning, not just for the workers delivering the waste. Hospitals send waste to medical waste processing facilities for treatment before landfilling, potentially exposing workers there too. If the hospital’s waste management contract sends trash to an incinerator, environmental justice communities could be exposed to more emissions from the stack. If all of the waste was considered hazardous, according to CDC guidelines, thousands of pounds of personal protective equipment could be incinerated, worsening the vicious cycle of air emissions that are making communities more vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19. Hospitals are already exploring options to decontaminate and reuse PPE to protect patients and workers. As the pandemic exposes the shortfalls in the healthcare supply chain, the time to shift to healthier, more sustainable healthcare systems is now.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed much about the diseases of injustice embedded in our society. It has also revealed our ability to take collective action to protect the most vulnerable among us. While some of the public has responded by panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, we are also seeing incredible acts of generosity and solidarity. We take on these acts with joy and humility as we sing our favorite songs for 20 seconds while we wash our hands and stand 6 feet apart from each other to protect ourselves and the people around us. We are staying home for weeks, and some of us months on end, to protect ourselves and our loved ones and shopping only for what we need, leaving waste and excess on the shelves as we realize what we don’t need. We are making fewer trips to public places to #FlattenTheCurve while organizing systems of mutual aid support to help the most vulnerable members of our communities. We are shopping for elderly neighbors or sewing masks for the nurses and doctors who are putting their lives on the line to save who they can.
Decades of racial, economic, environmental, and social injustices have disproportionately impacted environmental justice communities. The legacy of the Detroit incinerator and the dozens still operating around the country will have a lasting impact on the health of millions for generations. COVID-19 has also highlighted how essential sanitation workers are to protecting our health and environment, and how all too often their service is taken for granted, and their rights not respected.
But, we have found the cure. Our cities can ensure that waste and recycling workers are protected by giving them fair wages, paid sick leave, and the equipment they need to keep them safe. And as a society, we can close polluting incinerators and cut the ties to excess and waste by creating zero waste plans through projects led by the people who are most impacted— as many cities are already doing— that focus on reducing waste, creating safe, green jobs, and enacting policies that encourage industries to redesign waste out of their business models. Everyone has a role to play. It is our collective action that will lead us out of this pandemic, and it will take sustained, collective action to dismantle the injustices of our society.