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Other Worlds and GAIA

Cultivating Climate Justice: A Tale of Two Cities

Members of the Zero Waste project in Detroit who came together with the mission of "advocating curbside recycling, a materials recovery system which will bring new jobs and economic development to the city, and an end to waste incineration." (Photo: via GAIA)

Note: This is part 3 of a four-part article series “Cultivating Climate Justice” which tells the stories of community groups on the frontlines of the pollution, waste and climate crises, working together for systems change. United across six continents, these grassroots groups are defending community rights to clean air, clean water, zero waste, environmental justice, and good jobs. They are all members of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a network of over 800 organizations from 90+ countries.

This series is produced by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Other Worlds.

This is a tale of two U.S. cities building solutions to the climate crisis from the bottom up.

We start in the Northeast of the country, with Cooperative Energy, Recycling and Organics (CERO), a newly formed worker-owned cooperative in Boston, Massachusetts. While providing family-supporting jobs for the community, CERO works with businesses on separating out materials that can be recovered. They then collect this waste in a truck and bring it to facilities where it can either be recycled or returned to the soil as compost. (See this video on CERO.)

CERO’s board members and employees are people like Guadalupe Gonzalez and Josefina Luna, who have been recycling informally for years or decades. Guadalupe Gonzalez used to do backbreaking work, cleaning commercial buildings during the day while picking bottles from the trash at night. She was one of the thousands of underrated recycling workers, earning precious extra money to support her family. Josefina Luna explains that, at CERO, “Now we can earn a living while protecting the environment.”

CERO’s first truck hit the road this past October, 2014. Lor Holmes, one of CERO’s worker-owners and business managers, says that the coop is currently diverting four  tons of organic waste per week from being buried or burned. Within a year, CERO expects to divert 1,000 tons of organic food waste and return it to the soil. It will be working closely with its customers to help separate as much organic materials, like food waste, from garbage as possible.

Boston only recycles about 30% of the its waste, which means that 70% is sent to incinerators and landfills in surrounding communities, polluting the air and contributing to climate change. Creative, bottom-up solutions like CERO eliminate the need to burn and dump waste by returning it to a closed-loop system instead.


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Boston is not the only US city where zero waste activists have been making clear the links between climate, waste, and justice, and building solutions. This fall, residents of Detroit earned a hard-won victory: curbside recycling across the entire city.

Infamous for its shrinking manufacturing base and severe budget problems, Detroit is also a city plagued by cumulative impacts, which means a range of environmental pollution sources and other social and economic stressors. Cumulative impacts are a reality lived in many low-income communities and communities of color. Detroit is home to dozens of highly toxic and polluting facilities—including one of the the world’s largest municipal solid waste incinerators.  

The  Zero Waste Detroit coalition came together with the mission of “advocating curbside recycling, a materials recovery system which will bring new jobs and economic development to the city, and an end to waste incineration,” according to the group’s statement.

For twenty years, recycling efforts in Detroit have been blocked by a “put or pay” contract with the city’s  incinerator. In other words, if the city did not send enough trash to be burned and reduced or recycled it instead, they would actually have to pay the incinerator company for income lost. In 2009—the very year that contract ended—curbside recycling started with three pilot programs. And last month, in October 2014, that was expanded across the city. There is still much work to be done to make curbside recycling a reality and ensure that recycling workers rights are respected, but it’s a major step. 

For many of us, taking out the recycling is something we do because we know it’s good, but it’s not something whose impact we can immediately feel. For the folks of CERO in Boston and Zero Waste Detroit who are making city-wide recycling programs work, the impacts are clear. They are keeping trash out of landfills and incinerators, doing away with health-hazardous toxic smoke, and creating worker-owner jobs.

This is what democracy looks like!

Antonia Bruno

Antonia Bruno is the Communications and Development Coordinator at the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).  She has been a fellow at Citizen Engagement Lab, a consultant at the Story of Stuff Project, and the President of the Binghamton University Chapter of Democracy Matters.  She is the co-author of a children's book about taking action on climate change, Josie and the Fourth Grade Bike Brigade.

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