David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Recycling - Not So Green to Its Neighbors
by David Bacon

HUNTINGTON PARK, CA (9/10/97) - Recycling plants are key components of the effort to create a more environmentally-sustainable economy, but they are often plants which cause environmental problems themselves, especially in the neighborhoods which surround them.

Recycling has an environmentally-friendly image, especially in Los Angeles, where commodity consumption is a secular form of worship. Any vision of a sustainable future here at least mandates the reuse of the basic materials of everyday life. That makes recycling the city's big growth industry.

Twenty years ago, when LA drew up its master plan, the industry hardly existed at all. Today big industrial facilities are mushrooming, collecting and processing glass, metal and concrete. The most recently-opened plant recycles dirt, burning it to rid it of its petroleum residues.

But low-income people living in southeast Los Angeles have a hard time seeing recycling's green image. Their problem? They live near the plants.

"There's always glass in the air here," complains Mercedes Arambula.

Arambula's home is catty-corner from the huge Container Recycling facility on Leota Street in Walnut Park. Huge mounds of broken glass rise to twice the height of an adult in the Container Recycling yard. Skip loaders constantly fill open truck trailers with it. From their huge scoops glass pours down in a dusty stream.

"I've lived here 18 years," she says. "My kids have asthma now, and my littlest one, who's 1 1/2, is always sick. I won't even let them play in the yard anymore. The trees around my house have all died anyway."

A neighbor, Ana Cano, wipes her finger across the windshield of a parked van in front of her house, coated with a thick layer of dust. Rubbing it between her fingers, it sparkles and feels grainy. "Little by little, we're breathing this in," she says. "I feel like my lungs are filling up with glass."

A little further down Alameda Street, the main corridor of the city's industrial heartland, Alameda Street Metal Corp. crushes used cars, trucks and metal appliances. These hunks of used metal travel to Terminal Island in the Los Angeles harbor, and then on container ships to the other side of the Pacific, fueling a global economy of trash.

The driveways and walls of the homes of Epifania Oliveria and Thelma Diaz are cracking as the earth shakes from the bone-jarring thump of the metal crusher. A thin film of oil coats their yards, and they say that little metal granules push up through the skin rashes of neighborhood children. When the women brought their complaints to city authorities, they were defeated by the most local laws of all - zoning regulations.

In balkanized southeast LA, divided into many small cities, they discovered that the plant was located in Lynwood, and zoned industrial, while their homes and the elementary school across the street were in Los Angeles, and zoned residential.

"The city's message to us was that we live in the wrong place. In their eyes, we just shouldn't be there," Diaz says. Ana Cano got the same message when Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina came out to look at the impact of the glass dust on their homes. "We have to expect this, she told us, because we live in an industrial neighborhood," Cano recalls.

Both Container Recycling and the office of Councilwoman Molina chose not to comment on the neighbors' allegations. , says "The company has tried to accommodate its operations to meet the concerns of community residents on Wiegand Street," says Mary Greybill, a public relations consultant working for Alameda Street Metal Corp. "We don't operate the crusher after 4 PM." Greybill points to the construction of a wall separating houses from the facility, and says the company has also contributed hundreds of dollars to a local organization, the Watts Century Latino Organization, and donated supplies to its street-sweeping activities. Olivaria feels the actions are an effort to buy off neighborhood opposition.

The neighbors are working-class people. Oliveria's husband drives a lunch truck. When he makes his stops at plants throughout southeast LA, hundreds of workers at break time buy their meals from him. Up and down his street, almost every neighbor is a factory worker. In this community, the plants mean jobs and a living for families. The question is, at what price?

"We understand we all need to work," Diaz says. "But these places have to respect the people in the community which surrounds them. The bottom line is that our community is poor. Everyone in our neighborhood is Black or brown. Many like me are immigrants. And you only find these kinds of companies in poor neighborhoods. Can you imagine a metal recycler in Santa Monica or Hollywood? They just know we can't go anywhere else."

Carlos Porras, Southern California Director of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), points out that recycling is exempted from most regulation, because it's viewed as an environmentally-positive industry. Recyclers are not required to obtain discharge permits for pollutants, for instance, and the air quality management district does not monitor small businesses like recyclers. They are not covered by the land-use regulations in the county's master plan, which was written 20 years ago, before the recycling industry existed.

"Public policy has allowed recycling plants to crop up without oversight," Porras says. "This is environmental injustice. Regulations are simply not applied to potentially harmful businesses which are located in low-income communities of color, particularly in southeast Los Angeles."

CBE is one of California's most aggressive environmental organizations, with a long history of fighting corporations over toxic contamination. In 1993 CBE began to organize the bar-rios of southeast LA against some of the highest levels of toxic pollution in the country. Porras calls it "a conscious decision to get grounded as an organization in communities which have become LA's toxic hotspots."

CBE and the neighbors of the recycling plants have formed an alliance to take on the burgeoning industry.

At Aggregate Recycling Systems, a concrete recycler in Huntington Park, this alliance cut its teeth on a gritty, four-year campaign of neighborhood opposition. Although residents of Cottage Street, which runs behind the plant, started out simply trying to control its operations, the company's hardball defiance hardened neighborhood attitudes. Neighbors made support of the recycler the political kiss-of-death at city hall, and the city council finally declared the facility a public nuisance. Although a mountain of discarded concrete still overshadows the neighborhood, and has yet to be removed, residents have stopped the plant's operation completely.

"The city council thought this concrete recycling business would be the first of many such clean and green facilities," says Dean Hickman, who's fought against the concrete mountain from the beginning. "But we not only organized our own neighborhood in response, now we're going to the neighborhoods around other plants, and helping them get organized as well."

Maybe the greenest thing produced by proliferating recyclers will be a new kind of movement for environmental justice.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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