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Blog: Catalyzing System Change – Recycling Inclusion Fund

By Jessica Levine

“We at The Recycling Partnership stand with Black people and people of color. We stand against racism. Today, and in all the days to come, our mission to advance recycling will carry with us a flag of social justice including the right to pursue a healthier and more sustainable life. We call on our community, company, and industry partners to listen, and do more to uphold equality. We pledge to do the same.”Keefe Harrison, CEO

A mentor once asked me, What is your wildest dream? I told her that I wanted to be a catalyst for change.

I discovered my passion for the environment and sustainability field during my senior year of high school in Chicago, Ill. Very quickly, I began to immerse myself in academic studies related to the field and ensured that all of my leadership roles in college and external work experiences encompassed sustainability in some form. Through personal and professional settings, I noticed that not many people looked like me amongst leadership and considered why and what my contribution to the industry could be to change that. At 23 years old I became the youngest and first person of color to join The Recycling Partnership – an organization that for six years has been committed to empowering the systems that enable recycling to happen at the community level.

For almost two years now, I’ve been able to learn, grow, and contribute to developing recycling system solutions alongside some of the best and brightest community and corporate stakeholders in the world. But then, in the middle of a global pandemic, the national discourse on race in America shifted and shined a direct light on the persistent inequities faced by Black people in the U.S. While we are proud of the work we have accomplished to improve the health of people and communities to-date, the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the unrest that followed, has propelled us to take a closer look at ourselves as an organization and the recycling industry as a whole. What is evident is that there is a problem of racism in America that directly connects to our organization’s mission, and we are compelled to do something about it.

What Do We Know?

Our collective experience shows that recycling services across the U.S. disadvantages certain streets, neighborhoods, and housing types along socioeconomic lines, essentially excluding participation in a system that benefits the entire U.S. economically and environmentally. Take for instance, the following examples:

  • While recycling feels universal, only half of the U.S. population has the same level of access to recycling as they do garbage service, and the access gap is most prominent in multifamily housing.
  • Socioeconomically disadvantaged Black, and people of color often have unequal access to recycling infrastructure and educational materials compared to more affluent neighborhoods.
  • Only half of recyclables in homes with service are recycled. For minority populations, these numbers may be lower due to the lack of inclusive education resources that speak to their needs and in their language.
  • We often see people of color in labor positions, but not in leadership roles within solid waste and recycling programs — illustrating a clear need to create leadership opportunities for people that reflect the communities they serve.

All people deserve to feel valued by their communities and provided with access to a sustainable and healthy lifestyle. But providing recycling service equitably is only the first step. Therefore, we are developing a framework and five-year plan that addresses opportunities for improvement internally on issues of diversity and inclusion within our organization and externally within the recycling industry as a whole.

We are also launching the Recycling Inclusion Fund as a first step to address these efforts. Through this Fund, we will be directing grant dollars toward investment in recycling infrastructure and education equity, training and leadership modules for communities of color, and research into the challenges that hinder a more equitable circular economy. We have received an initial contribution from our Funding Partner, 3M, to launch these efforts.

Call to Action

What does a world where all people feel like valued members within their communities look like? How can we as global, national, and local industry do our part to apply our shared experiences, knowledge, and resources to catalyze a sustainable lifestyle for everyone?

We, at The Recycling Partnership, are not shying away from this work, but, instead, have committed to the progress of it. We are establishing the Recycling Inclusion Fund as a mechanism to allow us to do this urgent work and give our funding partners a channel to engage and participate. We are at the beginning of this journey and invite you to join us as we learn and grow. Recycling through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion deserves focused attention and mission-aligned philanthropic support to create a more comprehensive and just system nationwide.

I look forward to continue working toward my wildest dream and being among the people leading and committed to this critical work.

Learn More

Want to learn more about how you can be a part of system change? E-mail Jessica at jlevine@recyclingpartnership.org

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