The Color of Climate

What Happens When a FreshDirect Warehouse Moves Into Your Neighborhood

Facilities and warehouses for online delivery companies frequently end up in communities of color

A purple filtered photo of a stack of boxes with an angry Amazon face on them at a protest.
Photo illustration; Image source: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

When online grocer FreshDirect announced in 2012 that it wanted to build a sprawling 400,000-square-foot warehouse in the South Bronx, part of New York City’s northernmost borough, community members, activists, and public officials spoke out in protest. They raised concerns about the potential environmental impact on Mott Haven, the majority Latinx and Black neighborhood where the company wanted to build the warehouse.

“They feel that our waterfront is a junkyard,” Mott Haven resident Monxo Lopez told the New York Daily News. But despite the opposition, which included Bill de Blasio, who was running for mayor of New York at the time, the company built the warehouse. It opened in 2018.

It turns out the community’s concerns about pollution were warranted, according to research published this month in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Scientists from Columbia University studied the impact of the new FreshDirect warehouse on traffic, air pollution, and noise in Mott Haven and found that truck and car traffic increased significantly — between 10% and 40%, depending on the time of day. The researchers predicted there would be slight increases in air pollution and noise due to the increased traffic.

Mott Haven is 67% Hispanic and 28% Black and has a poverty rate more than twice the New York City average. It also experiences more air pollution on average and higher rates of childhood asthma-related visits to the emergency department than the rest of the Bronx and the rest of the city. Before FreshDirect moved in, the neighborhood was already dealing with several other sources of air pollution: two highways, two waste transfer stations, and a food distribution center hub in nearby Hunts Point.

Markus Hilpert, PhD, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University and senior author of the paper, said that even slight increases in air pollution “are a concern” in Mott Haven because of its existing issues with air quality. Air pollution levels have dropped in most neighborhoods in New York City, but not in Mott Haven.

This isn’t the first time an online delivery company has bumped heads with residents of a city over its plans to expand into a community. In early 2019, a grassroots movement of residents, activists, and politicians successfully thwarted Amazon’s plans to open a headquarters in Queens. Among their concerns were the potential environmental impacts of the headquarters on the surrounding community, which included increased noise pollution, pressure on the city’s sewage system, and pollution and garbage created during construction.

In the Inland Empire region of Southern California, where 49% of the population is Latinx, residents and activists are currently protesting the spate of distribution centers, including recently built warehouses run by Amazon and UPS, over concerns about air pollution.

This pattern of distribution centers being built in and around communities of color and poor neighborhoods is largely due to the “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, phenomenon, in which people advocate against the placement of such facilities near their homes. Very often, these people are affluent and white and have more time and resources than poor people and people of color to show up at the city council, zoning, and planning meetings where decisions about the placement of these facilities get made. When communities of color and poor communities protest the construction of these facilities in their neighborhoods, they don’t always see results.

Now, business is booming for online delivery services as consumers have turned to apps and websites like Amazon, Instacart, and DoorDash to avoid exposure to Covid-19. It’s been profitable for these companies: Amazon earned $24 billion during the first quarter of 2020, and DoorDash’s revenue grew 21% in March. Between mid-February and mid-March, daily downloads of the Instacart app grew by 218%.

The role online delivery services have played during the pandemic — helping consumers get essential items like food and toiletries without going to the store — may be a view into the future, where these services could play a much larger role in how people shop. If that’s the case, distribution centers could cause even more environmental problems for people in neighborhoods of color and poor areas, where the distribution and logistics centers for these companies are often located.

Is your use of online delivery services contributing to environmental pollution? Here are some other developments on that front from recent years:

  • In 2018, Epicurious published a story about the potential environmental impact of shopping for groceries through online retailers.
  • The Economic Roundtable released a report in November 2019 outlining the environmental impact of Amazon’s warehouses in Southern California.
  • And in December 2019, Vox explored the environmental impact of restaurant delivery apps like DoorDash, GrubHub and Uber Eats and attempts by some of these companies to limit the waste they create.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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