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Less is More

June 16, 2011

By Jennifer Chaky

Like most people, I get overwhelmed sometimes, thinking about all the little problems and ordeals in my life. But then something comes along that completely eclipses those petty issues and makes me realize that there are much bigger problems that need to be addressed. That’s how I felt when I recently heard Anna Baptiste from the Ironbound Community Corp.  speak about the big problems facing her neighborhood in nearby Newark, NJ and how people in my neighborhood were part of the cause (and thereby can be part of the solution).

Like most inner cities, Newark’s Ironbound is an Environmental Injustice community—meaning it is a low-income neighborhood that bears more than its share of environmental burdens. To paint a picture: the Ironbound district is an area that covers approximately four square miles and is home to only 50,000 people and more 10 grade schools. It also contains the state’s largest incinerator, sewage treatment plant, four garbage transfer stations, 10 scrap metal yards, five recycling facilities, three demolition recycling facilities, one waste yard, and one food waste facility. Anna came to my neighborhood to talk about the incinerator, because this is where the trash from 22 towns in Essex County (including mine), New York City (where many in my community commute to and leave trash behind), and 11 trash transfer stations goes.

Three to four hundred diesel trucks line up idling their engines every day, 24 hours a day, six days a week in front of people’s homes and children’s schools, waiting to dump tons of trash from the surrounding areas right in this small community’s front yard. Along with the pollution from these hundreds of trucks, the burning of the trash puts out tons of ash with particulates, dioxins, hydrochloric acid, mercury, cadmium, and lead all spewing into the air that is directly breathed by the closest residents—and eventually breathed by anyone downwind.

Now, I used to suffer horribly from allergies. I felt tired, itchy, moody, and miserable a good deal of the time. Maybe that is why the idea of having such polluting nightmares so close to where children are learning and playing enrages me so much. I know what it feels like to have to go to school feeling physically awful or being groggy from medication. And growing up in a community that is deemed a dumping ground has to have more than just a physical effect on these young people in the Ironbound District. Where there is a higher than average rate of asthma, autism, ADD, cancer, and obesity it only makes sense that there is a higher than average rate of low school performance, poverty, and violence. And to think that one of the root causes of this is the burning of my trash makes me not want to throw away so much as a gum wrapper.

But of course, sometimes I do have a gum wrapper to throw away—and kitty litter, and broken furniture, and …  it’s pretty inevitable that as a human being I am going to create waste. But I decided to focus on creating rather than beating myself up for every bit that I create.  I really don’t want to be a supporter of a giant incinerator that makes a ton of money only for a few, but harms so many, and if I were to put barrels and barrels of trash on my curb every week, that is what I would be doing. I want to support life and communities and happy healthy children. This is why I refuse disposable cups, utensils, and tableware, never buy overly-packaged items, I recycle every bit I can, compost all of my food waste, fix what breaks instead of chucking, and buy second-hand to keep things from going to the incinerator. I put my garbage can on the curb about once a month from my household of two. It really feels good to know that I am doing the best I can for people living not so far from me.

And what problems this can solve? Less garbage means fewer trucks, less pollution, less illness, eventually more room for green space which can lead to revitalized communities and better health, better school performance, less poverty, less violence, and in my community, less tax dollars going to the business of burning trash, less money spent on health care programs for the poor, and less crime. To name just a few.

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