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Blog: Catalyzing System Change – Recycling Inclusion Fund

By Jessica Levine

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

I discovered my passion for environment and sustainability during my senior year of high school. Very quickly, I began to immerse myself in academic studies related to the field, and ensured that all my leadership roles in college and work experiences involved sustainability in some form. Through personal and professional settings, I noticed that not many people looked like me amongst leadership and considered what my contribution to the industry could be to change that.

As the youngest and first person of color to join The Recycling Partnership team, 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 during the 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. These tragedies and events propelled us to take a closer look at ourselves and the recycling industry as a whole and compelled us to take action by launching the Recycling Inclusion Fund to address these systemic issues.

Why Invest Now?

Our collective experience shows that recycling services across the U.S. disadvantage 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:

According to our Paying It Forward report, nearly 40 million Americans lack the same level of access to recycling as they do to garbage service, and the access gap is even larger for families living in multifamily housing.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged Black, Indigenous and people of color often have unequal access to recycling infrastructure and educational materials compared to more affluent neighborhoods.

Only 1/3 of recyclables in homes with recycling collection service are recovered due to a lack of access, education, and infrastructure. For minority populations, these numbers may be lower due to the lack of inclusive 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 access to a sustainable and healthy life, but providing recycling service is only the first step. The Recycling Inclusion Fund directs grant dollars toward investment in recycling infrastructure and education equity, a training and leadership program geared towards communities of color, and research into the challenges that hinder a more equitable circular economy.  We are so thankful to our inaugural funding partners – 3M, Arconic Foundation, Coca Cola Foundation, Cox Enterprises, Kroger’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste Foundation, Procter & Gamble, and TAZO – for committing to launching this fund with us.  Here’s why they’ve chosen to support this crucial work:

“3M is proud to be an inaugural supporter of The Recycling Partnership’s Inclusion Fund as they work to achieve equitable access in the recycling system.  As a science-based organization who believes in the importance of data, we were thrilled to support the foundational research to determine barriers to access and community-specific needs, which will inform the Fund’s approach to behavior change and education efforts.”
Ann Peddle Meitz, Vice President – Sustainability & Packaging Innovation, 3M

“Cox Enterprises is committed to ensuring that all people have the ability to contribute to sustainability efforts. This partnership helps us to continue to care for the BIPOC communities we serve, while providing access and education to the resources needed to create a sustainable and healthy lifestyle for all.”
– Meredith Lindvall, Director – Recycling & Waste Diversion, Cox Enterprises

Inclusion Fund Strategic Pillars

The Recycling Inclusion Fund focuses on 3 key areas:

  • Research: To identify the state of recycling access and participation, barriers, and needs in BIPOC communities across the U.S.
    • Impact: Improved program efficiency to increase material capture; empowered residents so that they can actively participate in recycling.
  • Access and Education: To reach and empower BIPOC populations with recycling access and education resources that meet their needs.
    • Impact: Expanded range of household populations reached; increased household capture; achievement of equitable access for all.
  • Leadership Training Programs: To create leadership opportunities in the sustainability sector for recent BIPOC college graduates through the “Fellowship Through Partnership” Program, offering experience and training.
    • Impact: Establishment of a diverse talent pipeline with exposure to the full recycling value chain; incorporation of diverse perspectives to deliver strong solutions.

Join Us Today!

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

Join us in addressing this urgent need within the U.S. recycling industry.  Investing in an equitable recycling system today will unlock both environmental and economic benefits of recycling and a circular economy for all people. The Recycling Partnership won’t shy away from this work. Instead, we’ve committed to leaning into it. Looking at recycling through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion will enable us to address the problem. It deserves focused attention and mission-aligned philanthropic support to create a more comprehensive and just system nationwide.  The Fund aims to raise $5 million by 2025. We invite you to partner with us to create meaningful measurable change.

I look forward to continuing to work toward my wildest dream, and to be among the people committed to leading this critical work.

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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