The zero waste movement can provide safer and more sustainable jobs in the years to come compared to other jobs in the solid waste sector – but only if communities invest in principles of environmental justice, said speakers from the recent National Zero Waste Conference.
Zero waste activists and advocates at the virtual event called for more job creation in the reuse, refill, repair and composting sectors, saying such jobs can change communities towards a circular economy and help residents disproportionately affected by pollution from incinerators or landfills.
However, before communities can achieve a waste-free future, they must re-evaluate current waste and recycling practices that harm overburdened populations, said Alejandra Warren, executive director and co-founder of Plastic Free Future. She said communities must prevent their waste, especially plastic, from being shipped to developing countries. This practice amounts to what Warren calls “waste colonialism” by dumping what she described as pollution mislabeled as recyclable materials to places that have not generated waste and cannot treat it.
Communities must also invest in better handling of recycling, Warren added. MRFs have increasingly purchased automated equipment to avoid workers sorting waste by hand – a job that many MRF operators say can be dirty and dangerous. In many parts of the United States, workers in these positions often have lower incomes or are people of color, Warren added. Continuing to hire for these dangerous jobs “perpetuates social injustice and racial injustice,” she said.
Zero-waste businesses can also help shift society away from linear systems that generate waste and pollution, said Kearni Warren, an organizer with the Energy Justice Network. “Zero waste and jobs are linked,” she said.
Warren lives in Chester, Pennsylvania, which she describes as a “frontline, overburdened environmental justice community.” Covanta’s massive combustion facility, a sewage sludge incinerator and several chemical plants are located there, and Penn America Energy is also considering the city as the site of its new liquefied natural gas export terminal. Warren said emissions from the combined industries have created unbearable air pollution in her predominantly black neighborhood.
Quoting a report of the Institute for Local Self-Government, Warren said the reuse sector can provide more jobs per 10,000 tonnes of discarded materials than incineration or recycling. Programs to reuse computers, wooden pallets and other durable goods, as well as textile salvage work, are some examples, she said.
The reuse sector is a “major opportunity” for the 35% of black Americans in the American workforce, according to Warren. “Only 13% of black people and people of color are engaged in green tech and zero-waste type jobs, so there’s definitely room for people like me to get involved,” she said.
Reuse/refill companies can also solve equity and access issues, Alejandra Warren said. It’s common for some low-income communities to use individual amounts of items like laundry detergent because it’s easier to afford than buying in bulk. However, single servings end up costing more in the long run. “You pay more and get less,” and that creates more plastic packaging, she said.
Building better reuse and recharging infrastructure would make it easier for people to buy products at fair prices, regardless of income, she said. An example is the Chilean recharge system Algramwhich builds refill stations for common household cleaners, charges a flat rate and allows people to bring their own containers, she said.
New zero waste and reuse/refill businesses are popping up every day. To be successful, they must consult with the communities where they operate, Warren said. “They already have the local knowledge to create a reuse and refill system that will really work. If you just tell people, “These are the reusable containers we’re using now,” it won’t work. It is neither fair nor just, and it is disrespectful.
The concepts of zero waste and reuse aren’t new, which means the wisdom to make it work isn’t new, Kearni Warren said. “Many of our ancestors participated in zero waste. They kept their grocery bags, used returnable glass milk and soda bottles.
While zero-waste efforts can be a powerful lever for creating good jobs, the focus should always be on building stronger, healthier communities, said Elida Castillo, program director for the environmental justice group Chippa Texas.
Major industries in the Corpus Christi city of Castillo, including ExxonMobil, often raise awareness in crowded neighborhoods to tout job fairs and scholarship opportunities. At first glance, these opportunities look like relationship building. However, Castillo said the strategy doesn’t work when these industries are still polluting the neighborhoods where they operate. “They call themselves our neighbors because they are here to create jobs for us. But it is rather a question of economic development.