Transforming Waste & Recycling

March 1, 2013 -- Leslie Moody

Washington, D.C. is so stalled with fiscal crises and gridlock that reformers may find more success at City Hall than in the nation’s Capitol.

Case in point: climate change. While many were cheered by its prominence in President Obama’s second inaugural speech, the reality is that Congress is stumbling from one manufactured crisis to another. It’s hard to see the fate of the earth getting much attention in that environment.

But there are remarkable opportunities for progress at the local level. Consider the mundane business of dealing with America’s trash. 

An expanded, responsive and responsible high-road recycling industry could help solve some of our most vexing problems. Recycling is better than traditional trash systems for so many reasons. It eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from landfills and incinerators. It’s a bigger job generator than landfills or incinerators. It produces new raw materials ready for use by local manufacturers. It’s a universally lauded feel-good activity with genuine economic benefits.

It can mean jobs in every community that rely on skills people already have. It can mean revenue for cash-strapped local governments. It can support the re-emergence of made-in-USA manufacturing. It can slow the consumption of virgin raw materials. Because the industry has a higher-than-average proportion of undocumented workers, it can offer employment to support pathways to citizenship. With all these upsides, it’s hard to understand what the holdup is.

Recycling and waste are largely regulated and managed at the local level. With national politics so clogged, this can open immediate routes to progress, especially when so many local governments are in the process of overhauling their waste and recycling contracts and practices.

At the Partnership for Working Families, transforming waste and recycling is where many of our affiliates have found windows of opportunity for broad local coalitions. Recycling is where the enviro-ethic has common cause with the undocumented laborer and the union label.

In Oakland, the Campaign for Sustainable Recycling has united labor unions, undocumented workers and the immigrant rights movement. As in other cities, some employers are retaliating against worker organizing with “immigration audits” against Latino workers. Employers misuse immigration law, sometimes illegally, as a cover to fire and intimidate workers organizing for their rights.

In Los Angeles, the Don’t Waste LA campaign lead the City Council to overcome strong opposition to authorize a plan, backed by environmentalists and local unions, to overhaul the waste system at commercial properties and apartments. 

In Denver, a recycling laggard, a planned consolidation of services is an opening for FRESC’s local alliance to show recycling’s potential to create both jobs and revenue for local government.

In San Diego, the Center on Policy Initiatives helped a blue-green coalition block the sale of a big landfill. Now, it’s bucking anti-immigrant and pro-privatization interests while supporting mis-classified sorting facilities workers. 

In Milwaukee, a new agreement to merge some waste operations with suburban Waukesha County signals regional cooperation between often-warring municipal neighbors. Some see the potential for a new job-rich recycling facility on an abandoned factory site. The recycled output would be raw material for a re-invigorated manufacturing base. 

To capture all the benefits, merely increasing recycling rates is not enough. Without broader objectives and clear community benefits, that just increases the number of low-quality jobs and does little for the local economy. 

This means changing local governments’ relations with the waste industry from passive customer to active partner. Experience has shown that for-profit contractors will operate at the level demanded by local officials.

If municipalities enforce tough standards not just on recycling rates but on job quality, worker health, public health and the sale of output to local manufacturers, companies will rise to the occasion. Where standards are minimal, companies engage in a race-to-the-bottom, endangering workers, communities and the earth.

What next? Advocates for transforming America’s waste and recycling industries will meet in April in Washington, D.C. for the “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” national conference, the largest gathering where the green movement joins with the labor movement. 

Everybody is for recycling. Let’s turn it into a real instrument for change.