The city of Chester burns thousands of tons of trash every day. This documentary shows residents’ efforts to stop the pollution. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/18/2024)

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“Trash & Burn,” directed by Bilal Motley, will be screened at this weekend’s “Confluence: Earthly Films for Philadelphia” film festival.

Nearly everyone Bilal Motley grew up with has asthma. All of his friends, all of his siblings wheezed as their airways constricted day to day. But this is life in Chester, Pennsylvania.

The city’s childhood asthma rate is currently 27%, which is more than four times greater than the national average. Motley and others from Chester believe the cause is clear — the largest trash incinerator in America, which every day burns 3,500 tons of waste from Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, and Ocean City, Md., on the Chester waterfront.

A 2019 study from the New School identified the incinerator, operated by Covanta, as one of the largest polluters in the country.

“There were decisions made a long time ago to sell out my hometown … and it really pisses me off,” Motley said. Even though Motley now lives in Delaware, he’s never forgotten what his loved ones and Chester have experienced; his mother died of cancer when she was just 29.

Motley said it hurt when Philly mayoral primary candidate Jeff Brown dismissed Chester residents’ complaints at a debate last year.

“We’re a resilient people … There’s nothing I care more about than Chester, no matter where I’m going in the world,” he said.

Bilal Motley is the director of "Trash & Burn." His first documentary film, "Midnight Oil," was about the last days of the PES refinery in South Philly, where he worked for 15 years.
Bilal Motley is the director of “Trash & Burn.” His first documentary film, “Midnight Oil,” was about the last days of the PES refinery in South Philly, where he worked for 15 years.Read moreBilal Motley

He is the director of a new short documentary film about Chester and its residents’ fight to close the incinerator. Trash & Burn will be screened this Friday night at Cherry Street Pier as part of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University’s environmental film festival, Confluence: Earthly Films for Philadelphia. The screening begins at 7 p.m. and is free to attend, but guests must register via

The full lineup of films and events for the weekend festival can be found at

Trash & Burn is Motley’s third documentary film, and his second on environmental justice. His first documentary, Midnight Oil, tells the story of the last days of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. Motley spent 15 years working at the refinery, and the film includes footage he shot on his cell phone on the day that the complex exploded.

Friday’s screenings will include both Trash & Burn and Midnight Oil, and there will be a panel discussion afterward with Motley, community organizer Alexa Ross of Philly Thrive, and Zulene Mayfield.

Mayfield is the central figure in Motley’s latest film, because she has been Chester’s most ardent environmental justice advocate for decades.

“There’s nobody like Zulene on the planet. There’s no greater advocate for our city,” Motley said.

According to filmmaker Bilal Motley, Zulene Mayfield is Chester's leading environmental justice advocate. She has been fighting the city's trash incinerator since the 1990s.
According to filmmaker Bilal Motley, Zulene Mayfield is Chester’s leading environmental justice advocate. She has been fighting the city’s trash incinerator since the 1990s.Bilal Motley

Mayfield founded the Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living group in 1992, and is still doing everything she can to make her hometown a safer place to live. In addition to her continued advocacy and protests against the incinerator, as well as other environmental threats in Chester — like a proposed liquefied natural gas plant — Mayfield also works to educate her community and develop the next generation of environmental justice leaders.

“It’s an environmental assault,” she said about the incinerator. “It’s unconscionable for somebody’s mother to die at 29. It’s unconscionable for me to lose a 15-year-old sister to cancer. That’s not normal. And it’ll never be normal and acceptable for me.”

Mayfield now lives outside of Chester but still owns her waterfront home across from the incinerator. Her home, she said, now has zero market value. Though, when she hears of people asking other Chester residents “why don’t you leave? she dismisses it as a question not even deserving a response.

“It’s an environmental assault.”

Zulene Mayfield

“Why is our solution that we have to move away from everything, everybody we love? And then what happens to the people that are still … stuck there? So is that the sacrifice zone? The suicide zone? Are those people the acceptable risk?” she said.

A still from the short documentary film "Trash & Burn," about the trash incinerator plant in Chester. The plant burns 3,500 tons of trash per day and is the largest of its kind in the country.
A still from the short documentary film “Trash & Burn,” about the trash incinerator plant in Chester. The plant burns 3,500 tons of trash per day and is the largest of its kind in the country.Bilal Motley

Motley knew from the outset that his film needed to focus on Mayfield, her work and tangible environmental impacts, as opposed to centering scientific experts or taking a deep dive into pollution data.

“What you’re doing to see in Trash & Burn [are things like], ’oh my kid missed this many days of school.’ Everybody can feel that,” he said.

Despite its dire subject matter, the 18-minute film is not an exercise in whipping up fear and dread.

Some of Motley’s favorite scenes involve one of Mayfield’s mentees, a 14-year-old girl committed to learning about environmental justice and how to fight for it. The documentary ends with shots of community members coming together for Chester’s Environmental Justice March, which is holding its fourth annual iteration this Saturday at noon in Chester.

“It’s a sight to behold. And that gives me hope,” Motley said.

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