Corporate Trash

Picture of trash can in New York City taken at Broadway and Havemeyer St, Williamsburg. Photographer is a student editor for

The scene is familiar: an underprivileged neighborhood with mounds of garbage wafting around. Someone sits on a bench, waiting for a broken down bus, while others shuffle past in baggy clothes. Across the street, several fast food restaurants have mostly empty tables; during the workday, not many customers come here because “it’s on the dangerous side of town.” Once the bus passenger gets on, the person is transported from the first neighborhood to further down the major thoroughfare. Suddenly, not just trash cans but recycling bins appear everywhere. There are multiple restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating, and the bus passenger walks past people who are chatting about their favorite spot. At the destination, the bus passenger removes a satchel to go through security to attend a meeting at city hall about a new development coming to the first neighborhood.

Most neighborhoods of color appear to be full of trash for one reason: they are allowed to be full of trash. First of all, they are inundated with fast food restaurants, all of which have corporate policies of heavy packaging. Because most communities of color receive no assistance or support from their local government, they have very few public spaces or amenities. This means no transit, no parks, no benches–and no trash cans or recycling bins. Even though most transit stops include trash cans, many in marginalized communities do not. Thus, garbage maintenance is the responsibility of the businesses, which may or may keep their establishments clean for various reasons. Outsiders view the community as unable to manage its waste; residents are frustrated by the lack of compassion from the local government and the private industries combined.

Unfortunately, this frustration bleeds into some residents mistreating employees, who have no control over the amount of garbage their employer produces. Employees, regardless of where they live, are required to adhere to corporate policies, even if it means putting bags within bags or double-bagging groceries. Because most of heavy waste producers are located in communities of color, mostly Black, more residents are forced to rely on excessive packaging, which is why so many school fundraising events have bottled water and offer heavily packaged “goodie baskets.” Even though there are food sources that produce less garbage, residents are forced to choose between having a sustainable product or being able to do everything else in their days.

Based on jerseys and stadiums, fast food entities have collaborations with local governments and packaging companies, which is evident in how food is served in different communities. Biodegradable packaging exists, but only higher end restaurants offer it. Many of the private waste contractors with local governments include stipulations that make it impossible to recycle efficiently which increases landfill waste–landfills that are conveniently located near communities of color. People who work in service jobs have little time to organize cleanups and public participation, to the delight of big developers. The neighborhoods are then seen as “not respecting what they have,” labeled “slums” or “blight,” and then offered to the lowest bidders for displacement.

Other neighborhoods, of course, have “higher quality” restaurants because their residents can often afford the rents that the real estate market increases for the opportunity to live away from “those people.” In the other neighborhoods, much of the food is produced from sustainable cooperatives, not factory farms, and has almost no waste unless someone saves a portion of their meal for later. Reusable dishware means that both staff and patrons should be treated with care, although some patrons disagree to their detriment. Patrons are more accustomed to using flatware and silverware, which means they can go to other establishments with the same protocol. Food in these establishments is described as an “experience” rather than simply “food.” Ironically, now that food delivery services are expanding, even these restaurants that normally avoid waste will insist on providing plasticware and paper napkins–even if customers object.

Rather than judge residents based on what corporations have wrought, more should consider demanding that local governments demonstrate why there are no restrictions on the concentration of fast food restaurants in marginalized communities. Then, residents from the upper echelons can communicate with their “friends in high places,” and change corporate policies to reduce waste. Finally, local governments should reconsider how zoning effects marginalized communities versus those of means. If there is a concentration of fast food in some neighborhoods and not in others, that is the responsibility of the local government to address, not the residents.

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