A just transition deserves a targeted universalism approach

Equity-based policy framework created by a UC Berkeley professor offers guidance for cities and municipalities looking to integrate environmental justice principles into operations and programming.

The waste and recycling grant programs funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are set to launch soon. As the public comment period concludes for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) bipartisan infrastructure law (BIL) funding, local government leaders are eagerly awaiting finalized grant parameters, including environmental justice (EJ) guidelines for Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act funding.

The EPA’s decision on the definition of disadvantaged communities related to waste management can determine those eligible to receive grant funding. Additionally, EJ parameters will require grant applicants to consider the solid waste system’s needs and how project partners will conduct the infrastructure projects, particularly the steps needed to meaningfully engage community members and incorporate feedback into each phase of strategic planning processes.

In considering the overarching goals of BIL funding, the EPA should consider a targeted universalism approach when finalizing EJ parameters, particularly concerning strategic planning and partnership requirements for the Recycling Education and Outreach Grant Program. Targeted universalism is an equity-based policy framework created by John A. Powell, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. It offers a dynamic definition of equity that can be used to help cities integrate EJ principles into operations and programming.

The framework is implemented through a five-step approach that includes multistakeholder community engagement and thorough equity-based gap analysis. Through this process, local governments can create services and educational initiatives that align with program goals while providing service options and educational materials that meet the needs of various population segments within designated jurisdictions.

When performing gap analyses on services, planners evaluate the quality of services and current outreach tools. This step allows differences among and within marginalized communities to be acknowledged, as residents within the same racial groups might have a different experience with city-provided services and require different outreach strategies (i.e., Black people living in multi-family dwellings versus Black people living in single-family houses). Additionally, to support the equity-based needs assessment, planners can use citywide waste characterization studies and waste flow analysis reports to establish a baseline for general population performance. Neighborhood-level waste audits, such as curbside waste audits, can be used to understand the waste composition and determine targeted plans for population segments. In doing so, localities can tailor waste service options and outreach plans to their waste stream.

An example of this can be found in Seattle, which uses targeted universalism to enhance recycling and composting outreach initiatives. The Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) partnered with the nonprofit Environmental Coalition of South Seattle to develop culturally relevant educational materials for business owners. In the past, the city noticed that fines for noncompliance disproportionately affected businesses with owners of color. The city engaged in gap analysis within that population segment to assess barriers and make more targeted outreach plans.

For example, when evaluating the needs of business owners within the Korean community, the city conducted community outreach with 20 Korean-owned restaurants. An article on the evaluation, “Targeted universalism: How does it promote equitable outreach and solutions?” by Will Chen, showed the SPU Multicultural Program found many cases of noncompliance stemming from cultural differences between the definition and practice of composting in Seattle compared with their home country of South Korea.

The program then targeted educational outreach materials that addressed discrepancies and key concerns discussed during the engagement effort.

In establishing parameters for funding, the EPA can take another definitive step toward advancing EJ in solid waste management by ensuring better integration of tenets, such as service equity and meaningful community involvement. These actions are vital in implementing the vision of a just transition, where capital investments for essential services and infrastructure extend to all communities.

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