Waste Disposal: Where Ableism, Economic Injustice, and Environmental Injustice Meet Up

I have a bit of a Birth household confession to make: we have a growing amount of miscellaneous waste in my house. Among the products still lying about include a circa 2006 computer and its assorted parts, and light bulbs with mercury.

Fellow environmentalists are probably already judging me, and really my entire household, after my making this statement. But before you all judge me, please hear me out…

The problem my family faces, and the problem that many families face in New York and in other areas, is the relative lack of accessibility to places that handle certain types of waste.

For example, in my hometown of New York City, there are only five places (one for each borough) that handle waste such as latex paint, passenger car tires, and motor oil filters, among other things. To make matters worse, none of these so-called “Special Waste Drop-Off Sites” are centrally located, so you might have to dedicate an entire morning or afternoon to just dropping off your waste if you’re in the wrong part of New York City.

New York is not alone in having this problem. Seattle has only three such facilities in its entire city. Omaha, Nebraska has one option (a “Household Hazardous Waste Collection Facility”) for two entire counties. And Fremont County, Wyoming has only a few e-waste disposal areas in a land mass close to the size of New Hampshire.

The lack of accessibility to places that handle various types of waste is a major problem. This is a problem of ableism, economic injustice, and environmental injustice.

This is an issue of ableism because these policies assume that people can travel to waste-disposal facilities, and in many cases travel by car. If you are homebound, wheelchair-bound, or unable to drive, the waste-disposal policies of many municipalities prevent many people from disposing of their toxic waste.

This is also an issue of economic injustice because the policy of minimizing the number of waste disposal sites assumes that people have the freedom in their work schedules to potentially spend a couple hours to dispose of their materials. In a world where an increasing number of people need to work multiple jobs in order to keep rooves over their heads and food on their tables, this is an unsound assumption, and an assumption which results in many people being unable to dispose of their waste because their work schedules don’t allow them to do that.

Finally, this is an issue of environmental injustice because these policies make it difficult to impossible for many families to do the environmentally friendly thing—to take materials to a place that can properly handle them. When a municipality forces someone to travel several miles to dispose of tires or batteries, that town, county, or city is making it extremely difficult for people to properly dispose of their materials. If a place like New York City truly cared about the environment, the municipality would make it as easy as possible, not as hard as possible, to dispose of these materials properly.

For all of my complaining about the ableism, economic injustice, and environmental injustice of how assorted waste often gets handled, I also think it’s worth acknowledging that there is a better way to handle this issue.

This better way can be found in San Francisco. In that city, most substances can be dealt with by calling for a free home pick-up. A few other materials (old and expired medicines and needles) have numerous drop-off locations throughout that city. In fact, residents are only forced to travel a distance if they have unlabeled or unknown toxic waste or other hazardous substances. While I don’t know how this type of program works in practice, San Francisco’s way of handling waste, for the most part, theoretically keeps homebound people from travelling when they’re not able to travel, keeps people with busy lives from having to take hours out of their lives to travel to a facility, and makes it easy for residents to do the environmentally just thing.

Hopefully, other municipalities will follow San Francisco’s lead in making it easy for residents to deal with assorted waste. Until such a time as this happens, many waste-disposal programs are ableist, economically unjust, and environmentally unjust.

IMAG0512
This is one of several pieces of e-waste that I have in my house. This ancient printer is one such piece of e-waste and is harder to get rid of than some readers might think.

 

The Ableism of Internet Map Directions

For most of us, it is easy to get transit directions to get from Point A to Point B. You just go onto Google Maps (or maybe Bing or Yahoo Maps), type your starting point, type your destination point, and get directions from there. It seems simple enough.

Simple enough for able-bodied people.

If you are wheelchair-bound, or told by your doctor or your own body to try avoiding stairs, obtaining directions are not that simple for one reason—to my knowledge, not a single internet map provider gives people an opportunity to select wheelchair-friendly directions.

The problem is especially noticeable in my hometown of New York City, where the subway system is so unfriendly to wheelchairs that it is in the midst of lawsuits right now. Given the lack of wheelchair access with the subways in New York, and with transit in many parts of the world, there is a severe need for wheelchair-friendly directions.

Yet, not a single internet map provider gives you the opportunity to plan out wheelchair-friendly directions. Google Maps may allow you to switch directions depending on whether you prefer the subway, the bus, fewer transfers, less walking, etc., but it does not allow you to switch directions depending on whether you need to avoid using stairs. Bing provides you fewer options than Google and fails to show wheelchair-friendly directions. Yahoo provides fewer options yet than Google and Bing, and Mapquest (AOL’s internet map service) does not seem like something you use if you need mass transit directions. Regardless of options, none of these internet map providers do the job of giving people wheelchair-friendly directions.

So if you can’t use stairs but want to make a day trip to the American Museum of Natural History, for example, you will find that all map providers are useless because of the lack of wheelchair-friendly directions. That is because the subway station for the museum lacks wheelchair accessibility, and there is nothing on any internet map provider which tells you that. Hopefully, people who suddenly lose the ability to use stairs will realize the uselessness of these internet map directions before starting out on their journeys.

Wheelchair Access Google
Google Maps lets you know whether you want the “best route,” “fewer transfers,” or “less walking,” but there is no option for “wheelchair accessible.” This picture was taken by me.

Between a lack of wheelchair-friendly transit (both mass transit and walking), and map providers such as Google and Bing failing to provide you with wheelchair-friendly transit directions, the result is that someone who desperately needs to avoid stairs will need to look hard for directions, and look much harder than able-bodied people like me.

The lack of wheelchair-accessible directions is an injustice, and an injustice I was blind to until recently. Yet, all it takes is something like a broken leg or a car crash that paralyzes part of your body, and suddenly you need to rely on wheelchair-friendly directions. If such an unfortunate event ever happens to you, you will not be able to rely on internet map providers for your transit directions. You will need to figure out directions through other means because internet maps, like so many other things, are made for an ableist world.