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Tough talking over environmental justice

Brian Henesey: 'We can no longer be judged by the lowest common denominator.'

Recycling businesses in the US have been urged to embark on long-term strategies of engaging with their communities as part of national efforts to promote environmental justice (EJ).

Recyclers’ biggest environmental headaches typically concern the impact of their facilities and transport movements on neighbourhoods but EJ advocates argue this is part of wider civil rights issues than just environmental quality.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines EJ as ‘the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies’.

Crucially, according to the EPA, EJ will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as well as equal access to the decision-making processes.

ISRI debate

The issue was on the agenda at the 2021 ISRI Convention, staged virtually from 20-29 April. Gary Champlin, ISRI’s chair, used his opening address to stress that recyclers should view the challenge of EJ as an opportunity (read it here).

In a later session, delegates heard from Matthew Tejada, director of EJ at the EPA, who said the key was understanding why certain communities had suffered for many years and how to close the gaps between them and those more privileged communities. ‘Addressing why injustice exists is the most crucial point,’ said Tejada.

Matthew Tejada: ‘Investing in EJ practices now will always pay off in the long run.’

He described how in 1982, in Warren County, North Carolina, local people protested about a PCB landfill site. Five hundred people were arrested amid claims that the site was chosen because it was a predominantly poor, black area.

The campaign emerged as the birthplace of many EJ studies into hazardous waste facilities being placed in minority communities.

‘They said “You can’t keep pouring hazardous waste into our area. They tried to take power back, to have the right to determine what happens in their communities.’  Tejada explained, saying it showed how closely waste sites, public health and civil rights were linked, and had been for decades and even centuries. ‘The problems are huge, complex, multi-faceted and will need a holistic Government approach.

State interventions

States are also backing EJ. New Jersey is implementing a law to assess the cumulative impact of new waste sites, rather the individual site as a standalone permit. California is reviewing smaller facilities such as recycling yards to decide the best sites in terms of the wider needs of a community.

The presentation was introduced by Brian Henesey, ISRI’s chair-elect, who said the public had an unfair perception of the environmental record of recyclers but he conceded some in the sector had ignored such issues. ‘Some thought it was better just to keep your head down and continue the business by “flying under the radar”. Ten years ago that might have saved you money: today it can cost you a fortune.’

Owners and operators today had a wider responsibility than profits, he argued. ‘Many among us sense these changes and are taking steps to improve as citizens. We can no longer be judged by the lowest common denominator.’

Engage or fail

Asked how recyclers could interact better with their local populations, Tejada replied: ‘If you wait until you need to engage communities, then you have already failed. Investing in EJ practices now will always pay off in the long run.

‘EJ practice and requirements are only going to become more defined and rigorous – there is every reason to start changing business practices right now. But you do not have to do this yourself. The EPA wants to help and it is baked in to how we operate.’

Tejada concluded by saying the key to engaging with communities was to meet them on their terms: ‘Seeing it through their eyes is critical.’ He suggested the sector recruit staff who bought into the principles of EJ, adding: ‘Have people who are comfortable in this space. It is tough talking about issues of racism and class.’

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