The recent Black Lives Matter protests have brought to the forefront the need to confront systemic discrimination and address the root causes of racial injustice. Unfortunately, our criminal justice system is not the only domain where deep injustices need to be better understood and dealt with.

It is also worth recognizing that our systems of production, consumption and disposal also disproportionately impact people of color and low-income communities. Research has shown that these vulnerable communities have more than their fair share of a wide range of polluting industrial facilities – from oil and gas wells, refineries, coal-fired power plants, chemical and manufacturing plants, and the like. Many of these industries are concentrated in African American communities like those in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley.

They produce raw materials and the stuff we consume. We benefit from this production system without having to pay the real costs of the pollution burden on the “fenceline” communities – in quality of life, cancer, miscarriages, asthma, and a wide range of other health impacts.

Many of these products made in places out-of-sight and out-of-mind are single-use or designed not to last. Not surprisingly people of color and low-income communities are also disproportionately impacted after we’ve disposed of these goods, such as by waste incinerators that spew toxins into the air nearby neighborhoods, or solid and hazardous waste facilities that often pollute drinking water undetected until the damage is already done.

In fact, the environmental justice movement began in the early 1980s over a hazardous waste landfill proposed in predominantly African American Warren County, North Carolina. The movement was further catalyzed by the 1987 report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which showed that hazardous waste facilities and Superfund sites around the nation were disproportionately located in communities of color.

In 2007, I co-authored an update, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty, which found that people of color, despite comprising about 30% of the U.S. population, made up 56% of the population living near a hazardous waste site and 69% of those near multiple sites. We concluded that the problem had not improved and had actually gotten worse, despite twenty years of activism.

This lack of progress, and the federal government’s and industries’ failures to deal effectively with environmental inequality, eerily echo the largely unheard calls for reform to our criminal justice system.

Achieving zero waste is essential to ensure environmental justice and the right to a clean and healthy environment for all. It requires trading in our cradle-to-grave, consumption-disposal system for a circular or cradle-to-cradle system of production, use, recovery and re-use, whereby companies use clean production methods and are responsible to take back and repurpose products at the end of usefulness.

Missoula’s recently-adopted ZERO by FIFTY Plan, Missoula Pathway To Zero Waste lays out a path to reduce waste generation in Missoula by 90% by 2050, with interim goals of 30% or more by 2025, 40% or more by 2030, and 60% or more by 2040. The Plan includes a wide range of actions for the city and its residents to reduce our waste production and increase our waste diversion and reuse. Those steps can go a long way to reducing pollution in a community with a plastics plant, for example.

The Plan describes many steps we as a community can take that can reduce our environmental footprint on communities of color and thereby help build a more fair and justice society. The Plan provides an opportunity to address environmental injustice – the inequities resulting from the consumptive, waste-generating lifestyles of our throw-away society.

Although the Plan does not acknowledge these benefits of zero waste and is shy on details of how to address potential impacts of zero waste measures to vulnerable populations, it includes equity as one of its guiding principles. The Plan calls for implementation “in a manner that eliminates “barriers to participation … and causes no extraordinary burden on any particular group.” The Plan rightly recognizes that costs of zero waste strategies (such as expanded recycling services) may pose a burden on low income and other vulnerable households in Missoula, where we already have relatively high garbage disposal costs.

As Missoula is poised to implement ZERO by FIFTY, now is a good time to remind ourselves of the racial justice benefits of zero waste and reflect on how it can be rolled out equitably. Missoulians – and especially city leaders - should embrace the Plan as a meaningful step in addressing racial injustice, and investment in its implementation, while giving due consideration to the related equity issues.

Robin Saha is an environmental justice expert and an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies of the University of Montana. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has postponed or cancelled many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community and a handful of compelling readings. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

It’s farmer’s market season! The markets look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market will have online ordering for pickup at the market available throughout the season, starting May 23. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.

June 20. Virtual workshop: Compost. Join Caitlyn Lewis and Alison Coluccio of Soil Cycle to learn all about the basics of starting your own backyard compost system. Already have a compost system? They can help you troubleshoot any issues and there will be plenty of time for Q & A. More information and tickets are available here.

June 25. Big Sky Backcountry Skills: Adventuring with Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers online workshop. The Montana Wilderness Association is hosting another backcountry skills event! Celeste has spent more than 50 nights in a tent, skied in 20-below weather, kayaked with manatees, and traveled to seven countries. She’s 4. Hear from her parents, who are on a mission to help families discover the wonders of the great outdoors. Details and sign up here.

June 27. Gardening in Bee Country workshop. Join MUD and the National Wildlife Federation to learn all about creating a pollinator-friendly garden space at your own home. Whether you want to support honeybees or one of Montana's many native bees, you will learn about what bees need to survive, native plants that support pollinators, and even create your own native bee house to take home. Get your tickets here.

June 30. Butterfly Count Day. Help the MPG Wildlife Conservation Ranch count butterflies while hiking in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley. Space is limited - reserve a spot ASAP by contacting Joshua at or 406-396-6285. has many virtual activities listed – they’re stepping up to help us all stay engaged.

What we’re reading (and listening to) this week: