NJ Only the Start, EJ Impact on Recycling Businesses Will Grow

According Matthew Tejada, Director of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, who spoke at the virtual Annual Meeting of the Institute of the Scrap Recycling Industry, the tenets of environmental justice (EJ) include the belief that humans have the right to determine what is in their communities, including what industries. And some communities are never going to grant entry to specific types of industries (and might even work to remove what is already there). Waste facilities fall into that category of not often being wanted.

He added that under two of the Biden Administration’s recent executive orders regarding climate change and racial equality, plus direction from the White House, environmental justice concerns will be part of every action the federal government will be taking. It’s “baked in,” he said.

Certain communities are and will be designated in the future as disadvantaged after reviewing data that has been gathered on pollution, demographics, poverty levels, and other characteristics. More data on these points will be gathered in the future. In addition, a history of the area, as to whether it has been purposely disincentivized or discriminated against in the past, will be taken into consideration. All of this information will be used to determine the cumulative impact emissions, runoffs and pollution have had on a community to determine whether a facility looking for a permit to build may proceed. And those impacts will not be limited to a facility’s fence line. Instead, the cumulative impact on the whole area will be considered. Tejada cited one example where a refiner had to defer to a community 70 miles away because of the impact it might have.

Tejada also indicated that the recent New Jersey EJ bill will be used as a model for other states and localities. Under its requirements, a new facility of any kind seeking a permit will face an environmental review that looks at the total impact of all pollution and other adverse effects occuring in the community, as well as community input and judgment, before it can be determined if this new facility will add enough of a further negative burden to make the community undesirable. If the impact is too much, no permit will be awarded.

Environmental injustice has been going on for centuries in America, says Tejada, starting with the resettlement of indigenous people onto reservations that were on less-than-desirable land, and continuing with zoning laws written in the early 1900s, with parts of urban areas designed for people of color and where undesirable industries, such as tanneries and the like, would be redlined into. Environmental justice began as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and has accelerated since the early 1980s. Bill Clinton created an executive order that required environmental justice concerns to be considered in federal actions, and as part of that an Office of Environmental Justice was created in the U.S. It then plodded along, acting independently from the rest of EPA. In 2009, Lisa Jackson, who had been head of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, became Administrator of the U.S. EPA, and one of her first actions was to require integration of EJ into every action the agency takes. The Biden Administration has put that into overdrive, and there is now an interagency panel on environmental justice across all federal agencies that has started meeting in the White House.

So, what can a recycling business do in response to EJ? Tejada said the biggest move is to invest in it upfront, from the beginning, if possible. Be ready to further engage the community. It’s more than just running a street sweeper outside the plant: “You got the street dirty anyway.” A business needs to become a partner with the community, and that includes sitting down at the table to discuss uncomfortable subjects such as race and class. This requires sending people who can handle those delicate discussions. At that table, business and industry need to understand they are driving none of the agenda and that the community holds all the cards. They must also know that what will happen may not work out well with the business as common ground may not be found. And if there is one kernel of agreement, build on that. If you do get what you want, do not just walk away, but stay engaged. It is a continuous process. Tejada promoted hiring from the local community and sharing the economic benefits. Communities may not want every industry, but they also need to recognize that jobs and economic activity can lead to a vibrant community. Tejada also says to remember that change won’t turn on a dime because this situation has been decades in the making.

The CDRA Legislative Committee recognizes the tremendous effect that the implementation of these concepts will have on current and planned recycling businesses and has formed a task force to respond to the issue. We recommend members start engaging with their local communities now on environmental justice concerns.

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