Zero Waste (EP01): The Dung Crisis

Ding-dong! A pile of DUNG has arrived in your backyard.

Imagine a hill of human manure piling up in your backyard. You just flushed your smelly poop down the toilet, but proud products of bowel movements made by your neighbor and even a random neighbor from another state happen to be just outside your window. You shut down the glass window with an angry snap of your wrist. Still, the stench penetrates the glass shield and gently wraps around your nostril hairs. Ughhh, the smell — it’s incommensurable with the odor of any other. 

Some of you might laugh at this inane scenario, yet my bitter laughter only imagines how nice it would be if the above was a mere joke. Though potty-trained since 18-months-old to be responsible for our own bodily wastes, our consideration falls short to include solely those biological ones that pass through our anus and not the more bulky ones that pass through our hands: the trash. This type of waste is not disposed of through an intricate facility like the “toilet.” You merely toss them in containers named “trash bins” and no one cares about the art of mold and fetor that would be created once the food, paper, and plastic wastes are lumped together in harmony. As a Green Advisor who has to sift through these magnificent artworks for two hours every week, I occasionally fall into poignant ruminations of all the rubbish that must have been once cherished items. However, the real tragedy unfolds when they arrive at “soil remediation facilities,” more widely recognized as incinerators. 

Unlike feces, waste burned at the incinerator emits not only ominous smells but also insidious air substances including PM2.5, NOx, lead, dioxins, and mercury, which lead to serious health issues such as asthma and cancer, not to mention detriments on the daily well-being of residents near the facility. An example resides not far away from the Swarthmore campus. In the city of Chester resides Covanta, the largest incinerator in the nation burning mountains of trash consisting of only 2% from the locality and the rest 98% from Delaware County, Philadelphia, New York City, and New Jersey. Releasing farts while burning trash, the Covanta incinerator has achieved a truly remarkable feat in plummeting Chester’s property value and, most importantly, increasing the children’s asthma rates more than five times the national average. Simply put, Chester residents are paying for their neighbors’ dung with their lives.

The smelly poop analogy might even be an accurate description of Chester’s reality considering DELCORA, the sewage incineration facility. Yet, the relentless plopping of polluting industries does not stop here; Chester City is being targeted for a toxic liquified natural gas (LNG) facility. In their article, “Swarthmore’s Connection to Environmental (In)Justice in Chester,” Christopher Folk ’24 details the atrocity of those polluters and calls the readers to join the fight against them with Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living (CRCQL), a grassroots organization in Chester led by Ms. Zulene Mayfield, and Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C4), a student club at Swarthmore College that leverages campus resources to support CRCQL. The two groups have been amplifying the voices of Chester residents to “Ban the Burn.” The indignation inside me is already parading along with CRCQL’s Environmental Justice Day march, but some questions keep bothering me: what comes after Ban the Burn? How should we deal with waste without incinerators?

“Questions go upstream!” — Environmental Studies Professor Giovanna Di Chiro would answer with the magical intonation of a fairy godmother in her Environmental Justice class. The burden of those questions shouldn’t be imposed on Chester residents. Instead, we should question the root of the cause: why is there so much trash in the first place? Large-scale explanations such as capitalistic compulsion for endless consumption, or relatively small-scale explanations such as indiscriminate garbage disposal habits, can account for the gargantuan volume of modern waste. Albeit hard to pinpoint a single specific cause to come up with a targeted solution, there seems to be a unanimous agreement on the point that something has to be done about it. So, what? What can we do? This is where “Zero Waste” initiatives kick in. Zero waste is a stylish and mighty culture that individuals can participate in to divert waste from going into Chester and ultimately, stop the incineration. 

According to the Zero Waste International Alliance, zero waste is “the conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment of human health.” Official statements tend to provide overly complicated definitions, but, to borrow the tri-bin system at Swarthmore College, zero waste simply means getting rid of black trash bins and minimizing the waste going into green compost and blue recycling bins. By prioritizing the reduction of consumption and litter first and foremost, while building sustainable platforms to reuse belongings as well as diverting waste through composting or recycling rather than burying in landfills or burning in incinerators, zero waste goals aim to shift the current linear model of the economy into a circular one. The former follows a take-make-waste process, in which infinite resources are extracted from the natural environment, just to end up in infinite disposal of waste. On the other hand, the latter connects the last stage to the first, ending the destructive exploitation of raw materials and re-creating values from waste in lieu of natural resources. In a future imagined by zero waste culture, we are finally able to laugh at ease at the (hypothetical) dung crisis. 

Individual actions matter. After all, it is you who poops your bodily waste and it is also you who dumps the waste that goes into Chester. It is indeed true that the abysmal situation of the status quo sheds doubt on the sprouting seeds of change. As Folk eloquently put in their article, the Covanta incinerator burns “3,510 tons a day,” and “Swarthmore College produces less than 1000 tons of waste a year,” making it seem like there would be no difference “even if the college were to divert 100% of its waste from the incinerator.” Nevertheless, Chris seems to have been less eloquent when they concluded that “[zero waste initiatives] would not slow Covanta down in the least” because by each of us doing our best, we are leading through examples that would eventually snowball into slowing Covanta down in the most. 

Interdependence is the idea that every living and nonliving entity in the world is profoundly interconnected: no one is truly dependent or independent, but rather, we all are constantly interacting with one another. Placing our actions within a broader social context and organizing to fight for structural changes is important. What is equally important is individual action powered by interdependence. It doesn’t take much to support CRCQL. Investing your precious time into reading this article, dumping leftover Singaporean noodles in a compost bin and its container in a recycling bin, using personal water bottles instead of dispensable cups — the benign intentions behind the actions and choices you make influence the person beside you, the person beside the person beside you, and so on. Small change in action. That is how you change yourself, the people around you, the whole community, and the entire world. Along the way, you’ll see that you have already defeated the thought-to-be formidable Covanta incinerator. If joining the fight seems like something too big for you, start by “minding your dung business.”
Through a series of follow-up articles, I’m planning to share some cool facts about zero waste. If you feel overly excited to just sit and wait for the next episode, sign up for the Waste Characterization Study happening on Sept. 29, host a Zero Waste Education for your club, or check out this Waste Disposal Guide.

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