25 Years Among the Poorest Children in America

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America

by Jonathan Kozol

Crown Publishers (2012)

Book Review

Unlike Kozol’s prior books, which focus on the abysmal condition of inner city schools, Fire in the Ashes follows the families of specific children Kozol has befriended and their disastrous living conditions. The families he describes are either those he encountered at the Martinique Hotel homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan or those he met through an after school program at St Ann’s Episcopal Church in Mott Haven.

With a media annual income of $17,000 for a family of five, Mott Haven is the poorest neighborhood in the South Bronx and the poorest congressional district in the US. Official unemployment (which doesn’t count those who have given up and quit looking) is 14%.

The book poignantly describes the brutal living conditions the children and their families confront, including chronic malnutrition, chronic asthma (from asbestos and incinerators), sexual exploitation of mothers by shelter guards, grooming by gangs and drug dealers, untreated parental mental illness, repeated episodes of homelessness and overcrowded classrooms and schools (many of which have lost funding to private charter schools).

Kozol follows the children of eight African American and Hispanic families from primary school through adulthood, as they struggle with social service and educational systems that have virtually abandoned them.

Some of the children he befriends graduate from high school (and even college) and end up in long term employment. Others drop out and are swallowed up by the criminal justice system. In each case, the children who succeed do so because someone (a teacher, social worker, pastor or Kozol himself) offers financial assistance to ensure they received the educational support they needed.

Although Kozol (with the help of readers and supporters) has set up an Education Action Fund to assist students from desperately poor racially segregated neighborhoods like Mott Haven, he argues against this type of individual intervention as a long term solution.

The real answer, he maintains, is to provide public schools in neighborhoods like Mott Haven, with the best educational funding (instead of the worst), the smallest classes (at present most classes have over 30 pupils), and the best prepared and best paid teachers (instead of the least experienced, most poorly paid).

Zero Waste: Closer Than You Think

zero waste

The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time

by Paul Connett (Chelsea Green 2013)

Book Review

The Zero Waste Solution is about 100% waste recovery and reuse, the new gold standard in recycling. Paul Connett’s new book summarizes the state of play of the zero waste movement in local communities around the world. His detailed descriptions of existing programs and technologies provide powerful ammunition for local activists trying to pressure city and town governments to be more environmentally responsible.

According to Connett, we have had the technological capability to recycle 80-90% of our waste stream since the mid eighties. What has held us back has been an artificial corporate-centered view that maximizes profit for waste management companies, the contractors who build and operate incinerators and soft drink bottling companies.

Waste management companies and incinerator contractors have powerful lobbies, as will as cozy relationships with many community councils. Connett also documents the little known role of the Business Environmental Action Coalition (BEACC) in lobbying major cities to provide curbside recycling for glass and aluminum cans. Following the first Earth Day in 1970, BEACC, whose members included Coca-Cola, the Aluminum Association and 7 Up, feared the introduction of producer-focused waste reduction laws (e.g. mandatory deposit/return programs). They viewed limited curbside recycling as a way to head this off.

History of the Zero Waste Movement

The zero waste movement first got its start in Berkeley California in the 1980s and in Canberra Australia in the 1990s. At present, California and Italy are at the forefront in terms of community participation. By 1996, 300 California communities had achieved 50% trash diversion (from landfills and incinerators). San Francisco reached 80% diversion in October 2012 and expects to reach 100% by 2020. More than 200 Italian communities have achieved 70% diversion, with some small towns reaching more than 80%.

Not only is zero waste recovery better for the environment and human health*, but it’s far more economical than traditional waste management. Recycling and reusing resources always saves money. Loss of revenue, stemming from the 2008 economic downturn, has forced many corporations to focus on more efficient resource use. Japanese companies are the clear leader here, with nearly 2800 producing zero landfill waste. A surprising number of Fortune 500 companies (including Anheuser Bush, Apple, Hewlett Packard, Pillsbury Xerox, Ricoh electronics) have also committed to zero waste.

The Twelve Master Categories of Discards

Zero waste experts divide the waste stream into 12 reusable fractions:
1. Reusable goods – repairable appliances, demolition debris and reusable clothing, furniture and household items.
2. Metals
3. Glass
4. Paper
5. Plastic polymers (including plastic bags)
6. Textiles (including non-reusable clothing)
7. Chemicals, including reusable solvents, paints, oil and lubricants.
8. Wood from non-reusable lumber and furniture (can be made into wood chips)
9. Plant debris
10. Putresibles – kitchen waste, manure
11. Soils – from barren or developed land
12. Ceramics, rock, porcelain, concrete and non-reusable brick

At present, more than 90% of the waste stream can easily be recovered for resale. The non-recoverable fraction consists mainly of hazardous materials such as batteries, electronic equipment, mercury-laden fluorescent bulbs and disposable diapers. Many zero waste advocates want to implement extended producer responsibility (EPR) to deal with hazardous waste. Under EPR, the manufacturer is expected to come up with a non-toxic alternative or to accept the product back for safe disposal.

Of the 12 recoverable fractions, kitchen waste, which comprises 33-40% of the waste stream, is the easiest to resell (as compost). Connett contrasts communities in Italy that merely encourage backyard composting, with Seattle and other cities that offer curbside collection of kitchen waste. The latter has proven far more cost effective, largely because backyard composting isn’t an option for the hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, which generate most of it.

Zero Waste Creates Jobs

In view of the immense cost savings, I was surprised to learn that job creation is another important benefit of a zero waste approach. Rising land, energy and transportation costs make landfills and incinerators so expensive that zero waste programs are always cheaper, despite employing more people.
*Recycling reduces the burden of climate change by eliminating methane production (one of the most damaging greenhouse gasses) from decaying landfills and carbon emissions given off by waste incineration. Both landfills and incinerators pose major health hazards. Landfills leak toxic substances into the water table. Incinerators produce dioxin, which is linked to cancer, birth defects, and immune and neurodevelopmental problems.

Below Pete Seeger performing my all time favorite folk song “Garbage (Garbage, Garbage, Garbage) Garbage”