The Trash We Make & the Air We Breath: Air Pollution & the Social Inequality of Waste Incineration

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

By Eve Boyd 

Air pollution is not just a public health concern, nor is it simply a climate problem. It is also an environmental justice issue, and in no instance is this more apparent than in the case of waste incineration.

Air pollution causes a staggering seven million premature deaths worldwide every year and 91% of the world’s population breathes dirty air that exceeds WHO’s air quality guideline limits. What’s even more disturbing is that this burden is not shared equally. According to the American Lung Association, poorer countries and communities of color consistently suffer from higher exposure to air pollutants. In fact, people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live in an area with unhealthy air quality than white people. In many low-income and communities of color, waste incineration is the single largest source of this air pollution. In fact, 79% of all municipal solid waste incinerators in the United States are located within three miles of these communities and often violate air pollution regulations. The Detroit incinerator, for example, had exceeded air quality standards more than a staggering 750 times just in the last five years, before it was shut down in the spring of 2019. 

And although most of our polluted air comes from burning fossil fuels, the types of emissions produced by waste incineration facilities may be more of a concern healthwise. Research suggests that burning waste could be even more dangerous than burning fossil fuels, as it releases toxic chemicals such as dioxin, lead, and mercury into the surrounding atmosphere.

If there’s one silver lining of the pandemic, it’s that it has brought our collective attention to the air we breathe — something that’s never been more important, as air pollution can cause a range of serious health issues. According to a recent press release from the American Lung Association, research shows that long-term exposure to poor air quality can make someone 8% more likely to die from respiratory diseases like COVID-19. This data is reflected in the communities that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, with Black and Hispanic people experiencing significantly higher hospitalization and death rates than white or Asian people. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the Duke University School of Medicine found that Black and Hispanic people made up 58% of all patients hospitalized for COVID-19 and 53% of in-hospital deaths.

Incinerators certainly deserve a failing grade based on both their environmental and human health demerits, yet many continue to operate due to state and federal lawmakers labeling the practice of trash burning as “renewable”. Across the country, a staggering 23 states allow energy generated from burning garbage to be classified as “renewable”. This undeserving classification allows incinerators to be eligible for renewable energy subsidies from the state. A recent Politico article reported that waste incinerators in New Jersey collected millions of dollars in renewable energy credits even after violating air quality standards that should have denied them the state subsidy. New Jersey incinerators have consistently broken air quality laws, including the Clean Air Act, every year since 2004. And yet, the incinerators continue to operate and low-income communities of color continue to bear the brunt of the social cost of air pollution. 

Waste incinerators cannot be allowed to violate air quality standards, rack up millions of dollars by selling RECs — all while making the communities in which they operate sick. These facilities need to have much stricter environmental regulations and mechanisms such as mandatory environmental justice assessments must be put in place if this blatant example of environmental racism is ever going to be remedied.  

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