The Covanta incinerator in Camden (Photo by Angel Perez )
In today’s society, mass production and rampant consumerism have fostered a culture of disposability, where products are discarded when they are no longer perceived as useful or valuable.
With fast fashion, speedy delivery services, and a constant urge to acquire new items, we are collectively faced with an abundance of waste. But this waste doesn’t just magically disappear simply because it’s been thrown away. Across the Garden State, outdated waste infrastructure silently underscores a pressing environmental injustice that requires urgent attention.
New Jersey’s current waste infrastructure inequalities are painfully evident in environmental justice (EJ) communities. The health impacts associated with living close to waste incinerators, landfills, transfer stations, chemical recycling facilities, sewage treatment plants, and other such facilities tend to cluster in EJ neighborhoods, disproportionately impacting low-income and BIPOC communities.
Waste injustice is a matter of social and racial equity because these false solutions to waste problems affect our most marginalized and vulnerable populations. Incineration is one of the methods used to tackle this growing waste problem, and New Jersey is host to three incinerators. While burning trash might seem like a quick fix, incineration produces harmful emissions that can harm the health of nearby residents. These facilities are often located in low-income neighborhoods, further exacerbating environmental injustices.
A Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives report revealed that Covanta Essex incinerates 89.2 percent of all plastic discards in Newark. Plastic is incredibly difficult to recycle, unlike aluminum, cardboard, and glass. Less than 6% of all plastic in the United States is actually recycled, underscoring the inefficacy of our current waste infrastructure. The arbitrary recycling symbols often found on plastic products serve as a marketing gimmick created by the plastics industry itself. These symbols mislead consumers into thinking that recycling plastic is as simple as tossing it into a blue bin. However, only a few plastic types are recyclable but often get downcycled into clothing or carpeting.
Moreover, recycling can be expensive, and contaminated materials, such as non-recyclable waste, food waste, broken glass, and more, often end up mixed with good recyclables. Municipalities face constraints when it comes to recycling, highlighting the need for systemic change in our waste infrastructure practices. For example, only ten states in the US have bottle bills, and New Jersey isn’t one of them. Bottle bills incentivize recycling and generate income for the state and the informal waste sector. These individuals are often overlooked but are crucial in addressing our waste crisis. They collect and recycle materials that, without them, might end up in landfills or incinerators. Despite their contributions, they are heavily underpaid and often rely on small deposit returns outlined in bottle laws that have yet to be updated in decades, some excluding non-carbonated containers like lemonade, iced tea, liquor, and wine, despite being derived from the same recyclable materials.
Waste justice encompasses far more than just recycling and disposal. Local New Jersey organizations are working to bring about waste justice in New Jersey. The New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance recently hosted its third annual Waste Justice Assembly, a convening for environmental justice advocates, organizers, and community members focused on addressing the challenges and opportunities to advance waste justice throughout the state.
Ensuring that the burden of waste does not fall on the most vulnerable members of society is a matter of equity, accountability, and responsibility that affects everyone. Collectively, we must rethink our approach to waste management to redesign our existing waste infrastructure, hold culpable industries accountable, and encourage consumers to make more mindful choices to guarantee that our most marginalized communities are not our most disposable.
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