Waste Tracking as a Form of Environmental Justice

By Dr. Evelyn Alvarez, Pooja Bhattacharya, Ana Hernandez, Emmanuel Sanchez-Ramos, and Sheila Seno

In the Summer of 2021, a few of my students and I embarked on a quest to track waste in our respective communities. It was a tricky time in all of our lives – the COVID-19 pandemic was in full gear and masks and other PPE were washing up on many of our Los Angeles beaches and streets. I knew that when I started my new assistant professorship in 2019 at Cal State LA, part of my research agenda would be to include underrepresented narratives in environmental health dialogues. In the height of the pandemic, as I looked at how much of our single use PPE was ending up in our visible environment, I had the idea to quantify this waste. I learned about a free citizen science app by National Geographic, the Marine Debris Tracker. After setting up standing data collection meetings with my students, we made a plan and started tracking waste in our communities during the pandemic. For myself, as a Chicanx professor and researcher, the most valuable part of this experience was observing the common theme of empowerment in our student narratives. We thank Girl + Environment for giving us a forum to share our narratives and we hope this encourages others to use citizen science apps to track waste in their communities. Here are our narratives:

Pooja Bhattacharya: Through this project, I learned a lot about waste and its management process, and how to decrease my carbon footprint. During this pandemic, I tracked so many facial masks and plastic hazardous waste. I witnessed piles of uncollected trash, especially under freeways. I also witnessed homeless encampments not getting regular cleanups. Generally, people prefer single-use masks and it seems they are throwing them anywhere after use, forgetting that these are potential carriers of the virus. People need to be aware that when they dump a single-use mask, they are not just dumping paper; it is made of polypropylene, the same plastics used in drinking straws. Tackling the spread of COVID-19 eclipsed an opportunity to discuss the environment, and thus, this matter has been overlooked by the government. Most of this waste ends up in landfills or in our oceans taking hundreds of years to decompose, which is dangerous in the case of PPE waste and other plastics.

I learned a lot during my journey in waste tracking; I also read different articles about potential risks associated with household hazardous wastes. It impacted me so much that I now handle the garbage in my household very cautiously, as improper disposal of these wastes can pollute the environment and threaten human health. Now, I always read the product labels for disposal directions to reduce the risk of products exploding, igniting, leaking, mixing with other chemicals, or posing other hazards to a disposal facility. I also reduced the purchase of products that contain hazardous ingredients and started using alternative methods or products. For example, instead of buying insect pest control, now I use natural products or search online for simple recipes I can use to create my own. I am excited as this is the first time, I am doing something related to research work.

Ana Hernandez: During the hours I tracked debris in my neighborhood and on various popular hiking trails in Highland Park & at Elysian Park, I found significant amounts of plastic, metal, and even many clothing items that people had carelessly disposed of in these public areas.

In my neighborhood, a small Los Angeles area known as University Park, I was overwhelmed by the amount of trash I encountered. This problem may be less visible if one travels by car in this area. However, this issue is hard to miss when walking along streets intersecting with 23rd street. I noticed that the amount of trash I encountered was not the only problem. There was an evident lack of trash cans and signage discouraging the public from the unattractive behavior of littering.

At the hiking trails, I got the impression that many pet owners felt it was appropriate to let their furry friends do their business and not pick up after them. I saw the same problem in my neighborhood. Even when pet owners were responsible and brought doggy bags, they felt it was okay to pick up the waste, bag it, and then leave it on the trails. It is also important to mention the significant amount of PPE that was discarded on the streets. I saw a variety of face masks and latex gloves both in my neighborhood and on the trails.

Emmanuel Sanchez-Ramos: Last year, three new coffee shops opened down the street from my house, locals love them, and the neighborhood seems livelier. The downside is that to-go coffee only increases an ongoing problem: plastic pollution. Most of the items I found when waste tracking were plastic items, and although I expected to see a lot, I was astounded at the number of plastic items that belonged to local coffee shops. So, I decided to research how many coffee shops are located within a 1-mile radius of my home. To my surprise, more than twenty-five coffee shops surround my house within a 1-mile radius, and that only means thousands of disposable cups/lids/plastic cutlery each day. Although coffee shops have become exponentially more popular over the last few years, coffee lovers' favorite drink is causing irreversible damage to the environment.

Some coffee shops have adopted solutions that include biodegradable and recyclable plastic containers, but that doesn't solve the problem of plastic contamination in the streets. Through waste tracking, I was able to see how plastic and other non-biodegradable materials end up in our environment after being discarded. The time I spent waste tracking was eye-opening, and it forced me to be more self-conscious of the amount of trash everyone produces daily. For a month, three times a week for one hour, I ventured into the streets of my neighborhood to track waste each day; I took a different route with the hopes that one area would be less polluted than the others. But that was not the case; the deeper I looked, the more waste I found; it was gut-wrenching seeing how much trash surrounded by neighborhood. At times, I felt saddened that we have let this problem get out of hand; the amount of waste we are producing, and the increase in coffee shop trash has become a problem for sustainability.

I'm a coffee lover, and like millions of people, I've tried to be part of the solution by properly disposing of trash, but many of those disposable cups and lids that don't end in landfills, will end up in the street. Therefore, next time you go for your favorite cup of joe, remember to dispose of your trash properly, or bring a reusable cup, so that I don't have to add it to my waste tracking log.

Sheila Seno: Consumers’ attitudes and behaviors have contributed to rising levels of waste, posing greater waste management and recycling challenges. For example, the Marine Debris Tracker is a tool that captures and tracks data on wastes in your neighborhood. After using it to track trash, I became aghast at how much garbage I observed and soon realized that many people living in Los Angeles have a hard time disposing of their old, unwanted pieces of furniture. This garbage, which I often see abandoned on the curb, ultimately ends up in landfills, contributing to the cycle of pollution. In Los Angeles, it is illegal to discard large household items such as old sofas, refrigerators, and mattresses on the curb outside of homes and apartment buildings. Illegal dumping, then, presents a serious quality of life issue for our neighborhoods. Thus, it is highly encouraged to recycle bulky items through charitable organizations and thrift stores. In cases where residents can’t, the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation provides a free “Bulky Item” pick-up service. Residents can use the My311 smartphone app, submit a service request online, or make a quick call to 311 at least one day before their regular trash collection day, and the Bureau of Sanitation will remove the items for free. Since garbage collection services will not always pick up heavy and oversized furniture, though, the best step is to contact your recycling and garbage collection services before leaving your furniture outside your building. For example, local garbage collection services may only pick up bulky items once a month. Rules like this are often not well known, so the city should develop better recycling education programs that promote proper waste disposal practices. Also, using the data collected from apps like the Marine Debris Tracker will improve such campaigns on waste disposal and influence the creation of mandatory recycling programs and policies. Overall, educating residents on resources like the 311 service will not just allow residents to properly dispose of large, bulky items but also promote sustainability.