“That’s the thing about this city, you gotta’ stand up too it yah hear me?” “It will chew you up and spit you out into tiny pieces like that recycling plant.” Not realizing he was almost yelling Jimmy Armado said this to the young man walking with him as part warning and part prediction. Although he himself didn’t know what a prediction it would be. Jimmy gestured with his thumb jutting out his fist over his shoulder to the recycling plant that was billowing thick grey and black clouds of smoke from the incinerator. Nathan shuffled along with Jimmy on the litter strewn street and side walk in east Chester, Pennsylvania. Touted as the oldest city in Pennsylvania, Chester was originally settled in 1644. Nathan was thinking about smoking a joint when he got home and listening to some music. He was only paying half attention to Jimmy as they walked on the cracked pavement. Jimmy was always going on about something.
Chester’s east side was a rough neighborhood bordering on New York with a very high crime rate and low employment. In 1681 William Penn acquired Chester and made it a safe haven for Quakers. In 2021 it was as ghetto as it gets. Jimmy was lucky to have his job at the plastic recycling plant. He never graduated high school and now as a middle aged man jobs were fewer and fewer. He and Nathan were sorters. They stood on the sides of a fairly fast moving conveyer belt with dirty plastic bottles and other trash moving in a river past them. They picked out the recyclable plastic which had not been cleaned yet and they were often subject to the remaining contents of the bottles or cups on their aprons, shirts, pants and gloves. It smelled putrid. Non-recyclable plastic and metals such as aluminum cans were sorted out by another group of sorters on down the line before the paper and other trash was heaped into mounds and later scoops of it was fed to the incinerators.
They reached Archie’s corner bar. The bar was in the down stairs of an early 1900s home that had been converted into a cozy bar in the 1950s. All the houses and establishments in this part of the city were built late 1800s and early 1900s. It was a better time when industry was booming. Some people might say the place had that retro look but it was just plain outdated. Archie and his family lived in an apartment upstairs. “Coming in?” Jimmy asked Nathan. “Ah. Not tonight Jimmy. I’m low on funds.” Nathan sighed. “I’ll take care of you.” Jimmy smiled and held his hands apart. Nathan begged off saying he would get a beer another time with Jimmy. Nathan didn’t feel like sitting with the old guys tonight. “Well okay, see you in the morning” Jimmy said. Jimmy had a studio apartment in one of the run down historical houses just a few blocks up. Nathan lived with his parents three houses from Jimmy’s place.
They started walking together to the recycling plant when Jimmy noticed they were going in the same direction every morning. So one morning he went to Nathan’s side of the street and struck up a conversation and ever since then they had been walking to and from the recycling plant every work day. Nathan wasn’t much of a talker but Jimmy could talk. He talked about the weather, the economy, the supervisors, cars, women, Italian food and just about anything and everything. Nathan listened or so Jimmy thought. Jimmy talked the most about getting out of the hood. Now this topic did interest Nathan. Nathan loathed Chester, Pennsylvania. He wanted to be anywhere but here but he had not figured out a way to get out of this town yet. He was 21 years old with a high school diploma working a menial labor job for minimum wages and he was going nowhere.
Jimmy stepped into Archie’s Bar and three or four guys greeted him. “Jimmy, my man...how yah doin’? Hey, Archie get a draft for Jimmy here…can’t yah see he’s dyin’ of thirst!” Big Bart laughed loudly and thumped Jimmy on his back as Jimmy crawled up on the bar stool. The beer was cold and frothy. Jimmy took a gulp and it rolled down his throat and hit the spot. Jimmy knew already that he was going to have another one. Bart and Jimmy joked and talked about sports for a little while but then Bart became serious and began to ask Jimmy questions about the plastic recycling plant. “Jimmy, there’s talk that the recycling plant is burning plastic and that is putting toxins in the air. People are getting sick. Twenty five percent of the children in east Chester have asthma. My Jenny has asthma bad. Is it true Jimmy?” “I don’t know Bart. I’m in the sorting section. I know some of what is left on the conveyer belt goes to the incinerator.” Jimmy said cautiously. Jimmy didn’t want anyone reporting him for anything and cause him to lose his job but then he didn’t want to lose Bart as a friend.
“Well, we’ve noticed that there is black smoke coming out the second chimney for a couple of years now and grey out off the other. People are complaining of their throats hurting and their eyes burning.” Bart told Jimmy. Jimmy pondered what Bart said for a minute and he too had experienced the same symptoms but had thought that it was his seasonal allergies. “Bart, I don’t want to lose my job but I will keep my eyes open and see what I can find out.” Jimmy said quietly. Jimmy sat there and finished his second beer and he didn’t feel like another beer as now he felt apprehensive of promising Bart he would try to find out something. Jimmy barely noticed anything as he walked home as he couldn’t stop thinking about the conversation with Bart and how he was going to find out if the recycling plant was incinerating plastic. Bart picked up his mail from the rusty narrow mail box aside the door to the main vestibule of the shabby Victorian era house that had been made into studio apartments with small kitchenettes. He opened the door and it smelled like someone was frying eggs. No bacon, just eggs. Bacon was expensive. It was a luxury item for special occasions for some people.
Jimmy didn’t feel like eating. His stomach was upset and he had indigestion from the beer he had drunk. He didn’t even realize that his stomach upset was related to his nervousness over his task he promised he do for Bart. Jimmy took a shower in the communal bathroom down the hallway. He was glad he did not need to wait. He tried to watch some television but he was too distracted. He was tired and wired up at the same time. Jimmy laid down on his bed and tried to sleep and he couldn’t sleep deeply. The conversation with Bart kept replaying in his mind and he kept thinking of different scenarios of how he could find out about whether or not plastics were being incinerated. He also thought about different scenarios of how he would be fired and then homeless. When Jimmy got up in the morning his head felt heavy and his eyes felt dry.
He drank his coffee and splashed some water on his face from the kitchen sink and wiped his face with a hand towel. He had a mirror on the wall above a chest in his bed area and he rubbed the towel against a three day old beard. Jimmy wasn’t going to shave today besides it was popular to have a three or four day beard growth. He heard the ladies liked that. “Who was he kidding?” Jimmy thought sarcastically. Jimmy hadn’t had a woman in years. He was now in his mid forties and his face was getting that tired look and some grey was sprinkled in his dark hair. His hands were callused and bulky. How could he every hold a woman again against his flabby chest and paunchy stomach. “What could he offer a woman anyway?” He felt disgusted when he thought off this. He had a girl once and they were together for a long time just her and him. They were like pals, buddies. She said she wanted more and Jimmy wanted to wait but she didn’t and off she went out of his life. A chunk of Jimmy’s heart went with her. He still had her picture in his wallet, faded and a little torn.
Jimmy met up with Nathan just as Nathan began to walk in front of Jimmy’s apartment on the other side of the sidewalk. Nathan never crossed over to Jimmy’s side of the sidewalk. They walked into work on Nathan’s side of the walk and they walked back on Jimmy’s side of the walk. He didn’t know why, it was just that way. Neither man said anything as they walked to work which was unusual for Jimmy. Nathan really didn’t think anything of it. The quiet walk was nice for a change as Jimmy would always talk about politics from the news report he’d heard the first thing in the morning. Nathan knew nothing about politics and could care less but Nathan’s demeanor was always the same dull nothingness affect that Jimmy had grown used to. In actuality Nathan was high having smoked a joint behind his parent’s garage before walking down the sidewalk. Jimmy’s stomach was doing flip flops as they approached the old 19th century industrial building now adapted as the plastics recycling center.
Philadelphia and New York shipped their plastic to the Chester recycling plant which provided very little renewable energy. More than 4 million people in the United States live next to incinerators, which emit lead, particulate matter, mercury, and other pollutants that can cause several diseases such as Chester’s incinerator. A poster said taped to the wall of their building. Jimmy stopped to read the poster he never noticed before. The wall was littered with them and farther down the wall was a worker scraping them off the wall. Jimmy read quickly:
-79 percent of the incinerators in the country right now are located in low income communities.
- Chester emits more particulate matter than any other such facility in the country
- Rate of child hospitalization due to asthma is more than three times the state average in Chester.
Jimmy didn’t have time to read farther down the poster to see what group was responsible for them. He had to hurry to his spot on the conveyer belt line or he would be docked pay. The conveyer belt started with a jolt and a loud screech and the rubbish came down the line. People on each side picked out what they called hard plastic as this was usually recyclable. Most plastic cups, straws and plastic bags were not recyclable and were left on the belt with other trash but if incinerated they emitted toxic smoke with very fine particles that are less than 2.5 microns in width called PM2.5. PM2. 5 refer to particles that have diameter less than 2.5 micrometers (more than 100 times thinner than a human hair) and remain suspended for longer. These particles are formed as a result of burning fuel and chemical reactions that take place in the atmosphere. Essentially burning plastic created this chemical reaction. Fine particles (PM2.5) pose the greatest health risk. These fine particles can get deep into lungs and some may even get into the bloodstream. Exposure to these particles can affect a person's lungs and heart.
Jimmy had not made his move yet to investigate the incinerators in the next building. He could leave his post to take a bathroom break and that was timed by a button that was pushed. He’d have to go at lunch time. Everyone was assigned a number. Odd numbers went to lunch at 11:00 am and even numbers had their lunch at 12:00 pm. So there was always someone on the conveyer line working. Jimmy had an odd number and he decided at lunch he was going to the incinerator building and get a look. Jimmy was shaking on the inside. He hoped it wasn’t noticeable. He tried to act like his usual self but for some reason he felt awkward doing that so he just remained quiet. The 11:00 am lunch bell rang hysterically. All the odd number people dashed to the hand washing stations and the restrooms and to their cubby holes for their lunches. Some people went outside to Ollie’s Trolley the local roach coach to buy their lunch.
Merged in with the roach coach crowd Jimmy made it outside and turned right and walked very fast against the side of the sorting building to the other building. “Good, nobody’s coming” Jimmy thought. Doors as wide as an airplane hangar doors were open. Two forklifts with were sitting just inside unoccupied. Clean plastic was bundled into huge blocks, banded and stacked. This is the plastic that was sold for recycling to be made into other products. He ran around the forklifts and down the aisles stacked with bundles. “Damn it!” Jimmy thought. He had gone into the wrong building. He should have gone into the back building but luckily no one was there in the bundle building. Jimmy saw the gaping red-orange opening of the incinerator and felt the heat blasting from it the minute he stepped into the door. It almost knocked him down. It was so hot it practically roared. On a wide chute being fed from a large bin from the building where he worked was the material to be incinerated. Jimmy could recognize a mixture of paper and non-recyclable plastic. The fumes were strong in this area and his eyes and nose were running and he was beginning to cough.
A man came from behind a wall where a panel of controls were and saw Jimmy. Jimmy saw a man dressed in a protective over suit with a full helmet and air apparatus. He looked like an astronaut. “Hey, you there!” The man shouted his voice muffled by the helmet and mask shield. “You can’t be here!” He reiterated. Jimmy froze and he felt like he was going to faint either from the heat or his nerves. Jimmy mustered up the courage and yelled. “I’m looking for Mr. Mayes” Jimmy coughed. Jimmy had seen that name on a door over in the bundle area. “He ain’t here…Get outta’ here now. Don’t sue me if you get sick!” the man said to Jimmy and Jimmy knew he meant something about the activists position against the recycling plant.
Jimmy felt very unsettled the rest of the afternoon as he chucked hard plastic from the conveyor belt into the bin for washable plastic. He didn’t know how much of the rest of the non-recyclable plastic was going to be incinerated or go to landfills. Neither solution was a good choice. Jimmy walked home with Nathan. He was quiet again and Nathan did wonder what was up with Jimmy. He’d never seen him like this before. “Was Jimmy sore about his declined invitation last night?” Nathan wondered. Jimmy thought about skipping Archie’s tonight but he promised Bart to find out some information and he would feel rotten if he went home. Rotten like a lousy rat. “Hey Jimmy!” Bart yelled as Jimmy came in the door. Jimmy crawled onto the stool by Bart quietly not smiling. He ordered a whiskey. Bart asked “That bad Jimmy?” “It ain’t good Bart” It ain’t good” Jimmy swallowed a shot of whiskey and orders a draft. “The plant is burning plastic…I saw it with my own eyes Bart” Jimmy sounded sullen and angry.
Bart slammed his fist down in the bar “I knew it Jimmy. You can smell it”. “The City of Brotherly Love chooses not to incinerate their own trash within their borders; they don’t mind poisoning our children.” Bart said. “Our community has been the dumping grounds for the pollution and facilities no one else wants, and we have had to literally pay the cost with our health and our lives,” “Many people are struggling for a breath of clean air and that has to be unacceptable in our country.” Bart said as he looked Jimmy straight in the eyes Jimmy shook his head in agreement.
Writer’s Notes: Until very recently, Philadelphia burned its recyclable plastic at an incinerator in Chester, one of Pennsylvania’s poorest communities. The city still sends about 30% of its trash to what are known as waste-to-energy facilities, including the one in Chester. More than 4 million people in the United States live next to such incinerators, which emit lead, particulate matter, mercury, and other pollutants that can cause several diseases, according to a report published by The New School in New York City. Eight out of 10 such facilities are located within low-income neighborhoods, among communities of color.
“We wanted to show the reality of how these dirty incinerators are largely concentrated in environmental-justice communities, which is what community residents and activists on the ground have suspected all along,” said Adrienne Perovich, assistant director at the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School and one of the authors of the study. “And it turns out that 79 percent of the incinerators in the country right now are located in environmental-justice communities.” https://whyy.org/articles/incinerators-in-camden-chester-are-among-the-nations-most-polluting-report-finds/