Zero Waste Promotes Social Justice
Recycling and reducing waste are proven strategies to decrease air and water pollution, which can help improve the health of low-income neighborhoods where polluting facilities such as landfills and oil refineries are most commonly located. Zero Waste strategies can also reduce inequities and social conflicts driven by resource consumption and thereby help protect the rights of indigenous and native peoples.
Reducing consumption and generating as little waste as possible was one of the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice adopted in 1991 by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.
Zero Waste Solutions Can Improve the Health and Safety of Marginalized Neighborhoods, Locally and Nationally
Communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, or otherwise marginalized communities unfairly bear the health and safety impacts of our consumption-driven economy. For example, these neighborhoods are much more likely to be near the toxic hazards of plastic production facilities. As a result, these marginalized neighborhoods often experience more air pollution than more privileged neighborhoods, even though these health risks are disproportionately caused by the consumption habits of wealthier, generally white, populations.
Race is the best predictor of whether you live near pollution. Source: The Nation
The location of waste disposal facilities is another substantial source of social injustices. Landfills, incinerators, and waste transfer stations in large cities tend to be clustered in low-income neighborhoods of color, and result in greater air and water pollution that increases health and safety risks to these neighborhoods. Eight out of 10 incinerators in the US are in communities that are either poorer or have fewer white people than the rest of the country, and residents living near them are exposed to toxic air pollution from the burning of waste.
Zero Waste strategies help address these injustices by replacing the “take-make-waste” consumption system that leads to more toxic production facilities, and by calling for a dramatic reduction in waste going to landfills and incinerators as well as the construction of new disposal facilities. In contrast, a Zero Waste system promotes new infrastructure to recover resources through cleaner, safer processes that create local green jobs.
Environmental justice victory: Breathe Free Detroit and Zero Waste Detroit hailed the closing of the Detroit incinerator as a victory for vulnerable communities. The facility was known as one of the oldest and most polluting in the US; the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center threatened to sue the incinerator for violating the Clean Air Act more than 600 times over five years and for not investing about $140 million in necessary repairs. Within one mile of the facility, 87% of residents were people of color and 60% were below the federal poverty line. Breathe Free Detroit and Zero Waste Detroit were instrumental in organizing grassroots opposition to the incinerator and highlighted how a transition to Zero Waste can guide the city away from polluting disposal methods.
Reducing Waste Can Support Social Goals, Decrease Inequities
The community benefits of Zero Waste programs to reduce food waste also address income inequalities and food insecurity. According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), up to 40% of food in the US is wasted, even as one in eight Americans struggles to put food on the table. A Zero Waste system seeks to address the root causes of food waste and reduce food waste from the start, and to promote edible food recovery and food rescue as the first choice before composting or disposal. The national organization Food Rescue US, which operates in 22 sites around the country, has diverted over 64 million pounds of fresh, usable food from landfills, delivering over 47 million meals to people in need since 2011. Organizations like this illustrate the intersection between Zero Waste and social justice goals.
Preventing food waste by diverting edible food to vulnerable populations could feed millions more residents across the United States. Source: NRDC
Zero Waste Supports Indigenous Rights
For decades, indigenous peoples around the world have lost their lands, their ecosystems, and their livelihoods because of corporations’ pursuit of timber, farmland, fossil fuels, or precious metals. The Sámi in Scandinavia, Maori in New Zealand, Haida in western Canada, and Udege in the Russian Far East are just some of the indigenous peoples struggling for their rights against the paper industry, for example.
Here in the US, our consumption and unsustainable resource extraction have contributed to the disrespect and endangerment of Native American people and communities throughout our history. Through the demands it places on energy, water, and natural resources, consumption has driven numerous infringements on Native American heritage, environmental resources, and livelihoods. While these issues often have local impacts, they arise from national and global demand for resources.
By reducing, reusing, and recycling, we help prioritize justice and the rights of indigenous and native people over the wasteful consumption of cheap materials.
Zero Waste Systems Reduce the Unsustainable Consumption That Fuels Global Conflict and Exploitation
Limited natural resources are increasingly recognized by countries around the world as a national and global security concern, further exacerbated by climate change.
As we run out of the natural resources that support us—like oil, minerals, and even fresh water—chances are we’ll end up fighting over the supplies we have left. At least 40% of global conflicts in the past sixty years had links to natural resources.
Many of the products we use every day contain precious metals that have been mined amidst armed conflicts and human rights violations. Source: Source Intelligence
What we buy, how it’s made, and how long we use it directly impacts many of the people suffering from these conflicts around the world. When we choose Zero Waste, we choose a more sustainable and peaceful future.
Here’s how Zero Waste helps: A Zero Waste system designs products and packaging to use fewer resources and to reuse those materials many times over. This means less mining, less logging, and less demand for raw materials. With less pressure on scarce supplies, there will be fewer resource-driven conflicts. Zero Waste is responsible stewardship for our generation and those to follow. By recycling, we are sharing resources with future generations so they’ll better be able to support themselves peacefully. Through composting, we are replenishing our soils so our children can grow healthy food.
What You Buy Really Does Make a Difference
Many of the products we use every day—cell phones, laptops, clothing, even toothpaste—contain materials that were mined, logged, or extracted in regions where human rights abuses and armed conflicts are occurring. The sale of raw materials—especially gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten—helps fund militias and dangerous regimes behind these deep social and environmental crises.
When we reuse and recycle our products instead, companies can reclaim minerals from our old products, thereby reducing the demand for these raw materials and the flow of money that supports these conflicts and abuses. By cutting off the funding through recycling and reuse, we can help cut off the problem.