Waste Management’s Charles City Landfill. (NBC12)
We need to rethink waste.
The waste sector is booming and market forecasts are bullish even as landfills are getting bigger. Runaway waste flows profit already-too-wealthy investors; for example, Bill Gates is a leading shareholder of both Waste Management and its major competitor, Republic. Meanwhile landfill operators continue a pattern of unfairly harming Black and brown people caught in oppressive, toxic systems.
Like the Black farming community in Warren County, North Carolina, 30 years ago, where a landfill battle spawned the modern environmental justice movement, families around the Charles City County landfill are burdened by waste hauled long distances, with a large percentage originating out-of-state. In rural Virginia, WM diverts minimal waste and wants to expand its mega-landfill in a minority-majority environmental injustice hotspot. Within a mile radius around Chambers Road, more than 60 percent of residents are people of color, while pollution watchdogs have been critical of inadequate regulatory scrutiny.
A 2021 opinion from the Virginia Office of the Attorney General citing concerns about new landfills impacting people of color and low wealth areas seems applicable to landfill expansions in heavily burdened hotspots like this section of Charles City County, where, in addition to historic African American heritage land holdings, much of the Chickahominy Tribe resides on ancestral lands.
With a Dominion Energy substation and the 1,600 megawatt Chickahominy gas plant planned for this same location, locals experience structural racism today on a site of long-standing racial injustice. St. Mary’s Church Battlefield is the site of fallen U.S. Colored Troops. While eligible for full review, the Virginia Department of Historical Review has not finished assessment. Agencies like Preservation Virginia, a consulting party to the expansion process regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, must be allowed to assess the evidence supporting historical recognition before WM further disrupts this important Black historical site with 16 new landfill cells added to the original site obtained in 1988 following limited cultural and archeological review.
In a more urban conflict, also over expansion in a historic Black community, this time on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, in Bordeaux, where WM is pushing back against Nashville’s Solid Waste Regional Board’s rejection of its proposed expansion, which was premised in part on the fact that WM was not doing enough to divert waste. Bordeaux hosts a 77-acre dump and has been a site of tension due to declining property values and reports of higher than average health problems in the area, where each household is home to, on average, two chronic illnesses among the individuals who live there.
Markets for landfill gas are thriving and incentives support growth. Stalled 2016 Obama-era methane regulations allowed companies to focus on expansion with minimal investment to end health harms tied to toxic air and water emissions from waste management facilities like municipal waste landfills, which have been linked to serious and fatal illness, including gastric cancer, increased risk of adverse birth and neonatal outcomes and mental health effects. As with other polluting industries, the biggest indicator of exposure is race.
Waste Management recently announced its rebranding to WM, supposedly to reflect its transition to becoming a greener company; yet, WM is phasing out 7,000 positions through automation and attrition, while making claims about the company’s environmental, social and governance considerations in its bottom line. Most would agree that at a base level ESG considerations requires fair, non-discriminatory labor conditions. ESG components are often self-reported and inconsistent, creating a situation ripe for greenwashing, or proclaiming greater ecological and social responsibility than deeds show. Showing serious gaps between claims and reality, WM is facing charges of racial discrimination in a lawsuit in Kansas alleging mistreatment in the workplace. A former employee in Topeka says he endured multiple racist incidents, including being called obscenities by fellow employees, having a racist note posted on his locker, and ultimately being fired because of his race.
WM appears to not be concerned about worker rights violations, as seen in the hundreds of listings in the violations tracker from Good Jobs First. Notably, 157 out of 317 violations formally documented over the past two decades were for disregarding environmental codes.
In the wake of a successful 2021, WM launched its greenwashing campaign with a new slogan (“For Tomorrow”) and the creation of a chief sustainability officer position, creating a “green halo effect” that buoys its sustainability reputation, showcasing small, carefully-tailored investments without making the necessary but more expensive commitments. Meanwhile, WM’s long-standing presence in predominately African American communities runs far deeper than this symbolism. Focusing on the good to distract from the bad is a greenwashing strategy known as bait-and-switch.
To be truly thinking “for tomorrow,” WM must help combat the climate crisis that disproportionately harms Black and brown communities around the globe that it is contributing to, and it must support healthy, rewarding jobs in communities struggling with poverty and unemployment, like Charles City County. A starting point could be a sufficient investment in green jobs diverting methane-producing waste (food scraps, paper products, yard waste, etc.) into the production of organic fertilizer — a productive process that runs counter to the development of landfill gas facilities. Composting represents just one of many necessary ways to rethink waste management with local economic benefit and climate change mitigation as key objectives in Virginia. As landfill cells are closed and capped, communities can use the damaged lands for a solar farm, rather than clearing new areas or harming fertile areas.
Landfills also take land and often keep it out of use for long periods, since gas emissions continue for decades. Successfully capturing gas for energy use reduces its global warming potential, but does not effectively mitigate net greenhouse gas emissions. Leaks and releases that still occur despite landfill gas capture efforts releasing the potent greenhouse gas methane, for which the UN and IPCC have called for immediate reductions. WM has been wastefully flaring gas in Charles City for decades in spite of longstanding collaborations with Richmond-based Ingenco. With a mainly remotely operative facility, Ingenco runs 48 repurposed diesel truck engines to produce electricity for the PJM interconnection from a portion of the methane the WM landfill emits. Flares burn to release gas pressure when Ingenco reaches capacity.
Municipal solid waste landfills are the third largest source of human-generated methane in the US. While landfill gas (LFG) is popular, it is leaky and not the panacea that industry claims. Based on Trump-era rule-making, LFG from our highly polluting waste stream is recognized as ‘renewable’ energy, which is spurring a sudden wave of LFG development nationwide. Growth markets have driven the submission of bills like industry-friendly SB 565 in Virginia’s General Assembly, which blurs lines between methane from fossil sources, landfills or industrial livestock operations as a means to spur investment. WM stands ready to profit robustly as a sector leader—which certainly explains CEO Jim Fish’s eagerly stating in this month’s WM sustainability forum, “I think it’s safe to say WM is leading the renewable energy revolution.” Despite what WM and its CEO think, it isn’t revolutionary to ignore Black people yet again; not their leadership in advancing real renewable energy solutions, not their demands for equitable investment in their communities and definitely not the ongoing harms done and planned to be done to them by companies like WM.
WM holds too much power in policy circles given their poor track record; for example, a national WM representative served this past year on an expert panel defining Virginia state code for ‘site suitability’ during air permitting, a role that requires sensitivity to the history and ecology of the commonwealth, particularly when mega-landfills are being constructed, in this case by a large subsidiary of the Canadian firm GFL Environmental, at Black historic sites like the endangered Pine Grove School. Instead of focusing on people-centered solutions with local economic benefits and safeguards from the worst harm, WM circulates green-tinted marketing strategies that continue to inflict disproportionate pollution on majority minority communities.
WM is one of the biggest waste sector companies and a leading influencer in a sector known for big earnings. Yet, for all its talk, WM has done little to address the two main problems in the waste industry: climate impacts and public health harm.
Charles Mullis and Mary Finley-Brook are researchers at the University of Richmond in the Department of Geography and the Environment.