The following article is from the Environmental Justice: What Is It and Why Is It Important session during ISRI2021. Many of the programs available in ISRI2021 will remain available to convention registrants through May 20 on demand. The exhibit hall will remain open during that time as well.

For Matthew Tejada, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, success when it comes to environmental justice (EJ) means one thing.

“Success for EJ, for me, is when our office goes away. That means everyone is doing EJ,” Tejada said during ISRI2021. During the EJ session, which included questioning by ISRI President Robin Wiener and Dan Garvin, president of Colorado Iron & Metal, Inc., and ISRI’s Young Executive of the Year, Tejada explained there’s a long way to go until his office will no longer be needed. He highlighted various ways the federal government is taking a more proactive approach to tackle EJ-related issues, and how the recycling industry can help.

EJ in the U.S.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s introduced the concept of EJ, Tejada says. Martin Luther King Jr. started identifying several concepts related to EJ such as economic prosperity and the location of hazardous sites in communities that were predominantly populated by people of color. In 1982, a community in Warren County, N.C., took a stand for its right to determine what happened in the community. The small, predominantly African American community had long been a dumping area for hazardous materials; residents were determined to end that practice. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others staged a massive protest. More than 500 protesters were arrested. While the protest failed to prevent the siting of a hazardous materials landfill, it did provide a national start to the environmental justice movement. Decades after the initial incident, the state of North Carolina was required to spend more than $25 million to clean up and detoxify the Warren County PCBs landfill. 

Throughout the 1980s, organizations and communities across the U.S. started raising EJ as their main cause. Individuals started to focus on scientific research to validate issues related to EJ. Data was used to identify the location of hazardous sites, and the public health outcomes that resulted from placing these sites in certain communities.

By end of the 1980s, the EJ movement determined that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities were being “dumped on” because they didn’t have the power to control their environmental destinies. By the early 1990s, the EPA started responding to these issues, which led to the creation of the Office of Environmental Equity. Pretty quickly, that office was renamed because leaders of the EJ movement said they wanted an Office of Environmental Justice. Tejada explains that equity is about closing the gap between various groups and demographics, but if you don’t find the inequity that’s causing the gap, the gap will just keep opening back up. Justice means removing systemic barriers that prevent everyone from having access, in this case to communities with high quality of life.

EJ Today

The Biden administration and many states have committed to improving the environment and public health in BIPOC and low-income communities across the country. Within his first days in office, President Joe Biden signed two executive orders to advance equity and justice across the U.S. Executive Order 13985, Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, mandates that the U.S. government review all of its policies, programs and activities, and to figure out where and why they have been inequitably administered and implemented over time. The federal government is also responsible for addressing the barriers and inequities within these policies, programs and activities.

Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, has several principles that directly address EJ issues. This includes a “whole-of-government-approach,” where more agencies in the federal government are tasked with achieving EJ as part of their missions. Other themes of the order include the enhancement of federal accountability; increasing enforcement in EJ areas; making sure data is available to communities so they can advocate for themselves; and ensuring disadvantaged communities get their fair share of benefits to address EJ issues.

State and local governments also have begun to implement laws to address EJ. In 2020, New Jersey passed a law that allows the state to look at the permitting of hazardous facilities and the cumulative impact of hazardous facilities in an area. If a facility is going to add too much to the cumulative pollution in an area, then it will have to find another location. Tejada says the EPA, state and local governments are paying close attention to the law’s implications.

The Role Recycling Can Play

EJ is an uncomfortable space, with a lot of uncomfortable conversations and dialogues, Tejada says. That should not stop the recycling industry from participating in the movement, though. He encourages the recycling community to collaborate with members of the EJ movement, because EJ activists know how to navigate these difficult conversations and subjects. He also encourages the industry to be a real partner with communities to find solutions that work across the board. It’s important for recyclers to emphasize that the industry is there to build a long-term relationship. “EJ is not this thing that you achieve, and then it’s over and everyone’s good. EJ is a process that you continually advance,” Tejada says.

While there might be some pushback from communities, Tejada says finding common ground is worth any discomfort the industry might face along the way. “It’s great that the scrap recycling industry is trying to understand and better embrace what EJ means, and what it means for you all,” Tejada says. “It’s not something intangible. It’s not something that happened by accident. It’s all of our responsibilities to do whatever we can to seek equity and justice.”

Photo caption: Matthew Tejada (right), director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice, discusses environmental justice with Dan Garvin, left, and ISRI President Robin Wiener, middle.