We Need to Stop Throwing Our Garbage Over the Fence Into our Neighbors’ Yard


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To the Editor:

I think most Old Lyme residents would be incensed if neighboring towns—Essex, East Lyme, East Haddam and so forth—decided to dump their trash in Old Lyme, right along the river,and burn it there. Old Lymers would shout about the traffic, fumes and noise from trucks growling down Lyme Street hauling smelly loads of other people’s trash.They would scream about the poisons emitted into their air and water.

Yet dumping their garbage in a neighboring town is EXACTLY what Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and 48 other towns have been doing since at least the 1980s.

Where do you think all our garbage goes? I’ll tell you: to a trash crematorium in Hartford. In Connecticut, the two largest trash incinerators are in Hartford and Bridgeport. These trash-burning factories emit far more dioxins, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxides, mercury, and lead than the comparably-sized coal-fired power plants that preceded them (CTMirror, “Let the Mira incinerator shut down,” June 22, 2020).

Towns like Old Saybrook and Old Lyme are 95% white, while Hartford is 88% Black and brown. Our cleaner air, soil, water, food, and better health are extracted from the health outcomes and life expectancies of the Black and brown population of Hartford.

Why do the nearly all-white populations in towns like Old Saybrook and Old Lyme think their garbage relationship with the people of Hartford is okay? Could they perhaps have a blind spot as to the humanity of the Black and brown inhabitants of Hartford? And could that blind spot be a result of systemic racism?

Every person disposing of trash in our two towns is a daily participant in systemic racism as well as in our environmental caste system. Systemic racism is depersonalized, bureaucratized, and no one person’s fault, but is not therefore less real in its effects.

The Republican leaders in our towns like to crow about “business” and low mill rates, but their dirty secret is that they—we—literally shove our garbage into towns with much poorer, browner populations. How can millions of people think that this is normal, not even questioning it? The answer is systemic racism, an intricate network of collective silence and subtle messaging that hides the truth from those who benefit from this system.

The traditional “leadership” in “pristine,” overwhelmingly white enclaves has enabled the private polluting of public air, land, and water in “other places” for private gain. This is an unconscionable ethical failure of both voters and leaders alike.

The irony is that the wind blows and the water flows: this pollution that we send away eventually returns to us. It seeps into our own children’s air, food, water, eyes, noses, lungs, stomachs, and brains. Visions of present and future climate catastrophe, of more tick-borne illnesses that cancel afterschool sports and produce chronic disability, spill into our children’s lives and onto their smartphone screens. ALL of our children—white, Black, and brown—are paying for our greed and neglect in environmental illnesses, but Black and brown children in Connecticut, on average, pay a higher price. Meanwhile, powerful adults continue to deny these problems, clutch their pearls and shout  “Not I!”

Many of our children literally can’t breathe unassisted because of pollution. We are forced to drug our children daily with inhalers and other medications because we refuse to face and solve the CAUSES of their health problems. Our children suffer every day from skyrocketing rates of asthma, as well as from increasing anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, economic precarity, storms, floods, power outages and the near-term threat of irreversible climate Armageddon—all of which are linked to our greed-driven polluting. We try to hide the pollution we create in the backyards of the “lazy” poor who “can’t afford” to live in our “beautiful” communities. Why are our property values so high, and theirs so low? Perhaps it has something to do with where Old Saybrook and Old Lyme continue to send, store, and burn their garbage.

The Bible, which some are fond of mentioning, says one cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon. It says we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The people of Hartford are our neighbors, and we have NOT loved them as ourselves. We have loved ourselves and money far more. We are responsible for this, right here, right now.

We need to stop pointing to the “southern border” and other trumped-up issues and look instead into own kitchen garbage pails and ask ourselves who is responsible for that garbage.

We need to stop throwing our garbage over the fence into our neighbors’ yard while bragging about our “low mill rate.” We need to get honest with ourselves, like Steve Jungkeit and the people of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme are doing. Our children literally cannot breathe without chemical assistance! They were suffering from stress and despair in record numbers even before the pandemic. Their future looms before them full of preventable sickness and hardship, while Republicans, the party of fossil fuel danger denial and billionaires, tries to keep the wool pulled over everyone’s eyes. We need to stop the excuse-making, get humble, and get generous—fast. We need to stop voting for “business” and start voting for humanity. Even Harvard has divested from fossil fuels, our biggest source of deadly pollution. The train to the future is leaving now. Will it leave without us? 

Linda Mahal
Old Saybrook, CT