“You really have to be quick crossing the street, or they’ll totally run you down,” a friend of mine laughed. “I’m actually really scared that someday they’ll catch me not paying attention.” He was right– even after dark last night, garbage trucks were still rumbling down Thames Street periodically, past his apartment and toward the Brooklyn Waste Transfer Facility, which neighbors are saying is a particularly devious garbage deposit. I was on my way to a community meeting that brought together activists, workers, residents, and local business owners– all of them concerned about waste inequity– inside La Luz, a storefront and pop-up venue space.
To get to the meeting, I had to cross directly in front of the garbage processing warehouse where, per usual, the massive doors were wide open (which activists and residents say is the case several times an hour), revealing voluminous mounds of stinky refuse. I picked up the pace, realizing suddenly that I was in the crosshairs of an enormous white trash truck and a frantic bulldozer– I felt the distinct possibility that I could be mistaken for a passing ant. Had it been summer, my friend assured me, this experience would have been a more nauseating one.
Garbage is an irrefutable fact of life in New York City. It’s the first thing newcomers notice and the last thing they see when they leave the city: trash is seemingly everywhere. It’s clustered on the sidewalks and often scattered all over the streets after a pickup night. Does recycling even actually happen? As groups like Transform Don’t Trash and Cleanup North Brooklyn (organizers of last night’s meeting) point out– no, recycling is actually only happening at a rate of about 20 percent, but worse perhaps is the fact that no, garbage isn’t really everywhere. In fact, trash is concentrated in just a few areas where privately-run waste transfer stations level an uneven burden on low-income New Yorkers and communities of color.
Jet Toomer, a community organizer with the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA) spoke at the community meeting last night. “It’s not a coincidence [that these facilities] are in communities of color,” she said. “This is a racial justice issue.” As Toomer explained, the coalition represented was fighting for “the health of all New Yorkers, not just those who have the luxury to live in certain zip codes.”
A study released this year by the Transform Don’t Trash coalition– which brings together the NYC-EJA, ALIGN (a workers advocacy organization), New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, and the New York City Teamsters labor council– found that this “clustering” of waste transfer facilities results in a system in which “regardless of where waste is generated in the city it is trucked to [these facilities that are] primarily concentrated in three overburdened communities.” This not only increases the inefficiency of the system as a whole, but puts nearby residents’ safety and health at risk from heavy truck traffic and poor air quality.
Bushwick is one of these overburdened communities. According to the coalition members who spoke last night, before being transported to incinerators, 40 percent of the city’s trash ends up at transfer stations in North Brooklyn. Three areas are rewarded with the vast majority of the city’s garbage: North Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, and the South Bronx.
While the problem of trash distribution has been developing over the last 30 years, when Mayor Koch set significant reforms in motion that would change the way the city handles its trash (and recycling, for that matter), the fight for waste equity is timelier and more urgent than ever. The problem is a multi-faceted one, and has taken on the quality of a three-headed monster: one that creates a host of environmental problems, inspires labor injustices, and reflects continuing racial inequality. As the Transform Don’t Trash coalition’s study concluded, “our chaotic, truck-intensive commercial waste system is not just problematic from a climate perspective – it also harms New Yorkers on a day-to-day basis and squanders important economic development opportunities.”
For many Bushwick residents, the Five Star Facility at the corner of Thames Street and Porter Avenue is a symbol of all that’s wrong with the current arrangement. “People who live here obviously don’t know how much this impacts us,” Luis Velasquez, a member of Cleanup North Brooklyn who has lived in Bushwick for 15 years told the audience at the meeting last night. Velasquez said that when he commutes home on the subway, he’ll often take an extra stop up the line just to avoid the smell.
Another nearby resident who introduced himself as Ron complained of the heavy truck traffic. Last week while hanging around on the steps of his building with some friends, he decided to count the garbage trucks that passed by on their way to what he referred to as the “Five Star toxic dump.” Between 4:30 pm and 5 pm Ron said he saw 39 trucks line up. “The stench is disgusting,” he complained. “If we moved this dump for one week next to the Armory in Manhattan, a million people would protest and that dump would be closed in a day.”
Other speakers pointed to health concerns that they say are exacerbated by fumes from the high number of trucks and pollution from chemicals used at the facility. Carlos Mora from Make the Road brought his kid with him when he approached the microphone to speak. “I have to carry a pump in order to breathe,” Carlos told the audience through a translator, describing his asthma issues. Diesel fumes are known to exacerbate asthma symptoms and studies show that Bushwick has one of the highest asthma rates in the city.
One major theme of last night’s meeting was the alleged mistreatment of workers and “code violations” at the Five Star Facility, which activists say they would like to see shut down. (See Cleanup North Brooklyn’s video for more details.) A man named Sydney, a former employee at the waste transfer station, held up his hand to the audience, revealing a partially amputated finger. “I almost lost my finger,” he said, an accident he attributed to a lack of training. Furthermore, he felt that Five Star failed to handle his workplace injury correctly. An activist on hand at the meeting last night, Jen, pointed out that workers received “no safety training for one of the most dangerous jobs in the city.” (We’ve left a message with Five Star requesting comment.)
Despite the activists’ conviction that Five Star should straighten up or close, they argued that trash jobs are a major economic opportunity for the city. Instead of pushing for short-term solutions such as simply moving trash facilities out of the neighborhood, Transform Don’t Trash advocates for a comprehensive set of policies that includes increasing recycling jobs, putting cleaner trucks on the road, setting up an “exclusive franchise system” (a policy recently enacted in LA) in which the city would be divided up into zones and trash collectors would compete for exclusive control of them, and raising wage and labor standards through greater public oversight.
Capital New York covered the City Council hearing earlier this year in which Five Star workers shared their experiences of working for the company. “I feel as if I’m a slave,” one employee Michael Bush testified. Another worker, Carlton Darden, said he was earning minimum wage for working 60 hours a week in harsh conditions. “I feel like I am being taken advantage of,” he said. (According to Gothamist, these same two employees were fired immediately after testifying and “promptly rehired” by Five Star. Later on the company’s owners met with Michael Bush who said they promised to improve conditions for the workers.)
Late last year elected officials introduced a bill known as Intro 495 that if passed could help reduce the current arrangement of a high concentration of waste facilities in a few overburdened communities and put a cap on the number of facilities that can be located in any given area. Sponsors of the bill include City Council members from many of the affected areas, including Stephen Levin of Williamsburg, Annabel Palma and Maria Del Carmen Arroyo of the South Bronx, and Antonio Reynoso of Bushwick.
CM Reynoso, who is also Chair of the City Council’s Sanitation Committee and has spearheaded cleanup efforts in his district before, spoke last night about the need to redistribute these waste transfer facilities, a product of “bad planning” that proceeded when industrial areas were rezoned for residential. “We need to be spreading the love, not spreading the trash,” he said. “I do believe this is a result of environmental injustice and racial injustice.” Reynoso conceded that getting other neighborhoods to take on a greater share of the city’s waste “is not easy to do in the city of New York for a very simple reason– nobody wants trash in their neighborhood.”
In the meantime, Reynoso argued, no one should have to deal with places like Five Star, which he called “the worst of the worst.” Suddenly there was a commotion coming from the back of the room. “That’s not true!” a man yelled out.
The disembodied voice continued to protest while audience members intermittently booed. Reynoso urged the man to come up and speak to the crowd. Finally, a man in a camelhair coat with a cane emerged at the microphone and a struggle ensued. “We are going to make sure that you are held responsible,” Reynoso countered to resounding applause. The man became aggressive with one of the female organizers, each of them refusing to step away from one another, until he was basically yelled out of the room. (A video of the encounter can be seen here.) Afterwards, no one seemed to know exactly who the man in the camelhair coat was.
Despite the brief interruption, it seemed that despite their differences people were generally willing to hear one another out. Equal respect was given to each of the speakers– a landlord and mother, activists, a minimum wage worker, immigrants, and longtime residents.
As El Puente’s Luis Garden Acosta, who founded the community organization back in 1982 “to stop Mayor Koch from building a major incinerator” in Williamsburg, recalled, the fight didn’t gain traction because of individual activists. It wasn’t until they realized something he called “the bridge,” or a partnership between disparate communities, that residents were able to have their voices heard. Acosta argued that his neighborhood was chosen as the site for the incinerator, because city officials knew “the Latino community and the Hasidic community were at each other’s throats.” The neighbors were only triumphant in rolling back plans for a “55-story monument to garbage” when they came together, he explained. “We need partnerships, or we’re not going to be successful.”