One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret

The MacArthur grant–winning environmental justice activist’s riveting memoir of a life fighting for a cleaner future for America’s most vulnerable

“To Flowers, the neglect of the sanitation problem in Lowndes County is as obvious an environmental injustice as the contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan.” —The New Yorker

One of Smithsonian magazine's Ten Best Science Books of 2020

Catherine Coleman Flowers, a 2020 MacArthur “genius,” grew up in Lowndes County, Alabama, a place that’s been called “Bloody Lowndes” because of its violent, racist history. Once the epicenter of the voting rights struggle, today it’s Ground Zero for a new movement that is also Flowers’s life’s work—a fight to ensure human dignity through a right most Americans take for granted: basic sanitation. Too many people, especially the rural poor, lack an affordable means of disposing cleanly of the waste from their toilets and, as a consequence, live amid filth. Flowers calls this America’s dirty secret. In this “powerful and moving book” (Booklist), she tells the story of systemic class, racial, and geographic prejudice that foster Third World conditions not just in Alabama, but across America, in Appalachia, Central California, coastal Florida, Alaska, the urban Midwest, and on Native American reservations in the West.

In this inspiring story of the evolution of an activist, from country girl to student civil rights organizer to environmental justice champion at Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, Flowers shows how sanitation is becoming too big a problem to ignore as climate change brings sewage to more backyards—not only those of poor minorities.


“This is a book about justice long overdue, and it’ s also a book for our pregnant moment, as movements combatting racism, inequality, and climate change converge to win a radically transformed future.”
—Naomi Klein, author of On Fire: The Burning Case for the Green New Deal
“Catherine Flowers is a trailblazer in the environmental and climate justice movement, and her life story serves as an inspiration for activists, educators, and anyone who wants to use their voice to make a difference.”
—Former vice president Al Gore
“When you combine the ecological expertise of Rachel Carson, the dogged determination of Erin Brockovich, and the lifelong passion for equality of John Lewis, you get Catherine Flowers. Catherine’s story and her work in Lowndes County should motivate all of us to ensure that environmental injustice will no longer be America’s dirty secret.”
—John Kerry, 68th U.S. Secretary of State
“Combining careful research, a powerful personal story, and bringing to life the rich legacy and civil rights history of Lowndes County, Alabama, Waste is a gift and a must-read for any activist, educator, or individual on the path to transforming our country towards justice and equity for all. ”
—Varshini Prakash, Sunrise Movement
“Embodying the spirit of my late father, Muhammad Ali, this story is life changing, transcends all boundaries, and streamlines what matters through Catherine Flowers’s powerful voice. Her passion and commitment to fight for sanitation for all is as inspirational as it is aspirational. Waste provides a guide to uplifting the voices of the forgotten.”
—Khaliah Ali Wertheimer
“I never imagined that a book about raw sewage would be a real page-turner but Catherine Flowers’s Waste is just that. When the United Nations considers access to sanitation a basic human right, it is shocking that in this wealthiest of nations the most challenged and forgotten people continue to be flushed and forgotten. This book is a stunning eye-opener.”
—Jane Fonda, actor, activist, and author
“Mixing memoir, civil rights history, and polemic, this blunt litany by Flowers delivers a call to action for all concerned about sustainable solutions to the shamefully inadequate environmental infrastructure, policies, and practices in the United States.”
Library Journal
“A gripping, eye-opening story about the lack of access to basic sanitation in parts of the United States.”
“Throughout her plainspoken account, Flowers exhibits a prodigious forbearance. The effect is wrenching, as if she had succeeded in Agee’s plan to tear out a piece of the very body of the Black Belt. In Waste she proffers, with humility and without rancor, the plate of excrement that has been served to those like Pam Rush all their lives. The reader must decide what to do with it.”
The New York Review of Books
“Catherine Coleman Flowers’s important new book shows us how ordinary people can stand up, fight back, and build a government and an economy that works for all of us. Together, we can and we must guarantee clean water and sanitation as a right for all.”
—U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
“Catherine Coleman Flowers’s life story is a testament to the importance of sustained activism, a compassionate heart bound by justice, and a commitment to political clarity informed by the dark annals of history. If you care about environmental justice, racial justice, and class reckoning, this book is a lodestar.”
—Regina Hall, actor and environmental activist with The Solutions Project
“From the southern states, there have always been strong women who stood and fought for justice. To names like Fannie, Rosa, and Amelia, we must now add Catherine Flowers. Waste is the story of her work to organize communities against environmental racism. The fight is in her soul and because it is the truth, it will be exposed.”
—Rev. Dr. William Barber II
“Catherine Flowers drops us headlong into areas in our country where descendants of slaves continue to be held captive by racial, environmental, and climate injustices. She uses her personal journey and her gift of storytelling to force us to open our eyes and see how Black people in our country have been systemically and purposefully left behind to literally wallow in their own waste.”
—Gina McCarthy, former U.S. EPA administrator under President Obama and current president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council
“A useful primer on why America’s treatment of raw sewage doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Flowers exposes the true injustice of the situation and how it can be remedied, from both sides of the political spectrum. This is a powerful and moving book that deserves wide readership.”
“Flowers brings an invigorating sense of purpose to the page. Waste is written with warmth, grace and clarity. Its straightforward faith in the possibility of building a better world, from the ground up, is contagious.”
New York Times Book Review
“Making the case for investment in America’s rural population, this memoir moves from the author’s youthful civil-rights activism to her continuing fight against wastewater-infrastructure injustice.”
The New Yorker

News and Reviews

Fresh Air

Listen to an interview with author Catherine Coleman Flowers on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Author Interview

Read an interview with author Catherine Coleman Flowers about her journey as an activist, America's dirty secret, and the problems it poses to t the country’s most vulnerable.

New York Times

Read the essay “Mold, Possums and Pools of Sewage: No One Should Have to Live Like This,” adapted from Waste in the New York Times.

Goodreads Reviews