Earth Talk

Dear EarthTalk
How is it that African-Americans are said to suffer the most in the U.S. from pollution and other environmental ills? — Jon Stein, Novato, CA

While conducting research upon completion of his sociology Ph.D. in Houston in 1979, Dr. Robert Bullard noticed that all the city’s garbage dumps were located in and around neighborhoods inhabited primarily by African-Americans, even though blacks only accounted for a quarter of the city’s population. Bullard hypothesized that such discriminatory siting was no coincidence, especially since Houston had no zoning laws to regulate land use. At the time, his findings helped a middle class African American community in the city prevent the building of a new dump facility in their neighborhood.

Fearful that the Houston situation was no anomaly, Bullard cast his net wider to find more examples of what he called “environmental racism.” Indeed, he found not only dumps, but also polluting factories and other industrial blemishes throughout the American Southeast — from West Virginia to Alabama to Texas to Louisiana to Florida — located where poor and sometimes middle class African Americans lived. While discriminatory decision-making was no doubt a factor, Bullard also theorized that such communities’ lack of political experience also contributed to their predicament. Such realizations gave birth to an entirely new political movement, and today thousands of activists in the U.S. and elsewhere monitor policy making, lobby for new laws and fight City Hall in the struggle for “environmental justice.”

In his seminal 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Dr. Bullard emphasizes that the kinds of problems he uncovered in black communities in the Southeast are not limited to a particular region or ethnicity. “People of color in all regions of the country bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s environmental problems,” he said. The book, now in its third edition, highlights some of the cases Bullard considered over two decades, and makes a compelling case for taking into account issues of fairness when it comes to the siting and remediation of hazardous facilities of any type.

Bullard’s pioneering work also helped shatter the myth that minority communities didn't care about the environment. With financial help from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Bullard convened the first National People of Color Environmental Summit held in October 1991, and a year later published the first version of the People of Color Environmental Groups Directory with listings for more than 300 different groups in the U.S. alone. An expanded version of the directory released in 2000 is available free online from the website of Bullard's Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

These days Bullard is marshalling all the resources he can to monitor the “mother of all clean-ups” in post-Katrina New Orleans, and has been highly critical of the slow pace of federal and state efforts. Acknowledging that funds are limited, Bullard wonders, “which neighborhoods will get cleaned up and which ones will be left contaminated.” No doubt, though, residents are glad to have Dr. Bullard and the thousands of environmental justice activists he inspired on their side this time around.

CONTACTS: Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University,; People of Color Environmental Groups Directory,

Dear EarthTalk
Can you explain the “Zero Waste” movement in Europe, Australia and elsewhere that goes beyond recycling to reduce waste? How can we make it happen here in the U.S.? —Neil Weiss, Methuen, MA

In essence, “Zero Waste” is a design principle writ large, whereby products are conceived, produced, packaged, distributed and retired with their long-term environmental impacts in mind. According to the non-profit GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), “Zero waste maximizes recycling, minimizes waste, reduces consumption and ensures that products are made to be reused, repaired or recycled back into nature or the marketplace.” GRRN is calling on companies to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products and packaging, and on governments to not subsidize non-recyclable waste processing.

“Waste is the result of bad design,” says Eric Lombardi of EcoCycle, a recycler in Boulder, Colorado. “The concept of zero waste leads upstream to the designer’s desk, where waste needs to be designed out.” Lombardi, a leading light in the fledgling U.S. zero waste movement, lays out four basic principles for achieving zero waste: (1) Make producers responsible for the waste their products create; (2) invest in infrastructure rather than in more landfills and incinerators; (3) end taxpayer subsidies for wasteful and polluting industries; (4) and create jobs and new businesses around the re-use of discards.

While the concept has been slow to catch on here, it has been standard practice in parts of Europe and elsewhere for over a decade. In fact, some 25 countries require companies to take back their packaging, and some have gone so far as to mandate “Extended Producer Responsibility” laws, whereby companies must pay for the waste generated in the production, packaging and distribution of their products.

In Germany, a 1991 ordinance seeking to address packaging waste was a huge success. By 2000, the agencies charged with collecting and recycling such materials were recovering over 90 percent of the plastics and glass used in German packaging. (In the U.S. we reclaim 5.3 and 26 percent respectively.) Another success story comes from Australia, where its capital city, Canberra, embarked on a “No Waste by 2010” campaign in 1996. By 2001 the city had reduced waste sent to landfills by 40 percent and more than doubled the garbage it captured for reuse. The city also began fueling two of its power stations with re-captured methane gas from its landfills, which is plentiful enough to power 3,000 homes for 30 years.

In the U.S., industry has continually put up roadblocks to any serious consideration of adopting such initiatives at the federal level. But, according to the Zero Waste International Alliance, at least 18 local communities have taken it upon themselves to adopt their own strategies for achieving zero waste. These include a dozen California cities and towns; Boulder and Summit counties in Colorado; Carrboro, North Carolina; the Central Vermont Waste Management District; and the cities of Seattle and New York.

“Zero waste is about challenging the ruling paradigm that says we can manage waste safely in landfills and incinerators,” says GRRN's national coordinator, Bill Sheehan. GRRN helps coordinate efforts to implement zero waste campaigns in the U.S., and offers a wealth of free resources on its website.

CONTACTS: GrassRoots Recycling Network,; EcoCycle,; Zero Waste International Alliance,


Dear EarthTalk
How could there ever be a “water scarcity?” Isn't water the most plentiful thing on Earth? — Chris Carroll, Austin, TX

Ocean water may cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, but thirsty humans rely on finite supplies of freshwater to stay alive. And with exploding human population growth, especially in poor countries, these finite supplies get quickly spoken for. Further, in places without proper sanitation, water can become tainted with any number of diseases and parasites.

According to the World Bank, as many as two billion people lack adequate sanitation facilities to protect them from water-borne disease, while a billion lack access to clean water altogether. According to the United Nations, which has declared 2005-2015 the “Water for Life” decade, 95 percent of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their water supplies. Thus it should come as no surprise to know that 80 percent of all the health maladies in developing countries can be traced back to unsanitary water.

Sandra Postel, author of the 1998 book, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, predicts big water availability problems as populations of so-called “water-stressed” countries jump perhaps six fold over the next 30 years. “It raises tons of issues about water and agriculture, growing enough food, providing for all the material needs that people demand as incomes increase, and providing drinking water,” says Postel.

Developed countries aren't immune to freshwater problems either. Researchers found a six-fold increase in water use for only a two-fold increase in population size in the United States since 1900. Such a trend reflects the connection between higher living standards and increased water usage, and underscores the need for more sustainable management and use of water supplies even in more developed societies.

With world population expected to pass nine billion by mid-century, solutions to water scarcity problems are not going to come easy. Some have suggested that technology — such as large-scale saltwater desalination plants — could generate more freshwater for the world to use. But environmentalists argue that depleting ocean water is no answer and will only create other big problems. In any case, research and development into improving desalination technologies is ongoing, especially in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Japan. And already an estimated 11,000 desalination plants exist in some 120 countries around the world.

Others believe that applying market principles to water would facilitate a more efficient distribution of supply everywhere. Analysts at the Harvard Middle East Water Project, for example, advocate assigning a monetary value to freshwater, rather than considering it a free natural commodity. They say such an approach could help mitigate the political and security tensions caused by water scarcity.

As individuals, we can all reign in our own water use to help conserve what is becoming an ever more precious resource. We can hold off on watering our lawns in times of drought. And when it does rain, we can gather gutter water in barrels to feed garden hoses and sprinklers. We can turn off the faucet while we brush our teeth or shave, and take shorter showers. As Sandra Postel concludes, “Doing more with less is the first and easiest step along the path toward water security.”

CONTACT: United Nations Water For Life Decade,

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