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Underserved communities must be part of the strategy to meet long-term recycling and waste diversion goals at the local, state and national levels, speakers said at the recent National Recycling Congress conference.
During a panel discussion, speakers discussed strategies for connecting with communities where English is not the primary language, where recycling services are impractical or non-existent, or where the community faces other systemic barriers.
Sustainability organizations must build thoughtful, long-term relationships with diverse communities to make recycling and access to waste more resilient, said Sophia Huda, chair of the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Council of the National Recycling Congress. . “Effective recycling programs require the participation and buy-in of our communities – every member of our community,” she said.
Here are some takeaways from the discussion:
Build programs with membership from the start
It is not enough to start a new recycling program and invite the target community to participate, the speakers said. Key members of this community should always be present in the decision-making process and program implementation.
“You need to be able to have people from diverse communities in your organization strategizing on policies and programs,” Huda said.
Whenever possible, collect data and make informed decisions based on community feedback instead of implementing predefined programs, said Keysha Burton, community infrastructure program manager for The Recycling Partnership. “We don’t want to make assumptions about why people don’t participate” in recycling or other programs, she said. “We want to decide based on research.”
When creating new sustainability programs, consider changing your program requirements or being flexible based on people’s backgrounds, said Berenice Garcia-Tellez, action administrator for the City and County of Denver and President of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Boulder County. For example, some immigrants don’t have W2 tax forms to prove their employment or income, she said, which is a common document needed for certain types of programs.
Partnering with a local community organization can help determine how to develop outreach programs tailored to target communities through culturally appropriate communications, she added. When a Denver-area program created flyers reminding residents to use reusable shopping bags, for example, community members suggested replacing the picture of a canvas bag with one of a colorful rectangular bag more commonly used in this Mexican-American neighborhood.
Successful programs are built on trust
While it is important to include diverse communities in any sustainability initiative, building community trust takes time. That could mean attending events or working on projects that, at first glance, don’t seem related to recycling or waste management, Garcia-Tellez said. Find providers based in the communities you hope to serve, participate in local events, or help the community meet other common needs, she suggested.
Early in the pandemic, many Latino business owners she worked with were more concerned with keeping their businesses open than upgrading their buildings with sustainable improvements. The Latino Chamber helped businesses apply for federal loans and invited them to a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic. Through this process, they were able to build trust and inspire people to adopt new recycling and waste diversion strategies, she said. One such company, Taco Star, was later awarded a US EPA price for its sustainability efforts.
Helping immigrant communities connect to new programs also comes with unique challenges, she said, because some people come from countries where “the government just takes the money out of their pockets.” Additionally, some business owners are undocumented or uninsured, which means they are not eligible for certain local business discounts.
“If you’re going to communities and you’re new, don’t expect them to fill out your survey right away or apply to your programs,” she cautioned. “You have to be patient.”
When rolling out new programs, such as a multi-family housing recycling project, Burton recommended ongoing community outreach and communications to build consistency and trust. “If the service is inconsistent or there’s suddenly no access, there’s no trust in the real system,” she said.
Support programs and relationships with funding
Organizations that are serious about increasing the participation of diverse and underserved communities should also budget annually, or as often as possible, to maintain consistency of effort. This can be a challenge for sustainability groups, speakers acknowledged.
One option is to find grant opportunities to help fund new positions or internship programs to attract employees from underserved communities, they said.
One example is TRP’s Recycling Inclusion Fund, which aims to address racial disparities in the waste and recycling industry by providing grants for leadership and training programs to recent college graduates of color, Burton said.
“We know BIPOC communities want to participate in recycling, but we need to make sure they have access to participate,” she said.
The Recycling Partnership has three other initiatives to improve recycling and waste management systems in underserved communities. One is the Recycling Resiliency Fund, intended to help communities where recycling services are at risk of closing due to budget shortfalls or other factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
TRP’s Small Towns Access Fund, for communities under 50,000, and its The MRF intervention program to improve recovery and quality are other tools to help underserved communities.
“The question is how do we improve these systems? And how can we make it work for these specific communities? Burton said.