Nothing for us without us: Furthering equity and justice in the solid waste sector

Departments - Waste Watch

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On Jan. 20, President Biden signed the “Executive Order Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” The order is a policy that states the federal government should pursue “a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.” While this order is directed at the federal government, we as a firm at GBB are taking this opportunity to reflect and consider ways to advance equity in solid waste decisions going forward.

As responsible solid waste management consultants who often work with municipalities, GBB advises on all aspects of solid waste management, including the important aspect of equity in planning. Systemic racial inequity is not exclusive to solid waste management, nonetheless, our industry has struggled because of it. A bellwether in our industry’s history was the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, a watershed moment in the civil rights movement, where more than 1,300 African American solid waste management professionals marched for higher wages and safer working conditions.

While this event occurred more than 50 years ago, there are still many ways underrepresented groups are negatively impacted by the solid waste industry. This includes bearing a disproportionate share of the harmful effects associated with the traditional linear “take-make-consume-discard” model of consumption. Many marginalized communities are located near major solid waste infrastructure. Including these communities in the decision-making process for major infrastructure projects, such as upgrades and retrofits, is key to advancing equity in a systematic way that embeds a sense of fairness in the decision-making process while simultaneously ensuring the health and quality of life for these communities.

Public and private entities are increasingly coordinating efforts to embed equity principles, policies and approaches in meaningful ways. While this short column only begins to address the issue, we have provided three tactics for readers to consider regarding how to continue the push toward greater equity and inclusion, some of which are echoed in the executive order mentioned previously.

  1. Conduct an equity assessment. Both public and private entities should conduct program and policy reviews to assess whether underserved communities and their members face systemic barriers in accessing benefits and opportunities being offered. For the solid waste sector, for example, this program and policy review could look at accessibility of recycling or drop-off centers. Best practices then would be to report on potential barriers for existing programs and advocate on whether new policies, regulations or guidance documents may be necessary to advance equity in actions and programs.
  2. Promote equitable delivery of services and procurement. Planning and implementing procurements for services is a cornerstone of the solid waste sector. All opportunities should be available on an equal basis to all eligible providers of goods and services. To meet these objectives and to enhance compliance with existing civil rights laws within a given jurisdiction, stakeholders should produce a plan for addressing any barriers to full and equal participation in programs as well as in contracting opportunities.
  3. Take a reparative planning approach. Lastly, the industry can create positive systemic changes in decision-making structures by introducing innovative planning methodologies that embed environmental justice principles into current planning processes. One method that entities are adopting is called the Reparative Planning Approach, which concentrates on building trust between governments and historically marginalized communities by providing stakeholder engagement and methods of restitution for wrongs that were formally done to the population. As an example, the city of Minneapolis recently adopted a forward-thinking, comprehensive plan with reparative and restorative planning practices for racial equity. The plan states the elimination of racial (and other) disparities as its No. 1 goal for the community.

In a recent planning panel focused on racial justice, which highlighted the Reparative Planning Approach (see sidebar), one speaker emphasized the need to engage underserved communities directly by stating “nothing for us without us.” In the waste industry, major decisions with respect to solid waste programs, facilities and policies should be made with representatives from all affected groups. Section 8 of President Biden’s newly signed executive order had a similar emphasis, directing federal agencies to “increase coordination, communication and engagement with community-based organizations and civil rights organizations.” We in the solid waste sector must engage with these organizations to ensure that we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past so that we can enhance our industry to be more inclusive, equitable and just going forward.