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Another “E” for Earth Day: Equity

We’re still giving apartment dwellers 20th century trash service.

Lawsuits are a lot like waste—you’d rather prevent them than try to clean up the mess afterwards. Yet many cities are discriminating against residents when it comes to providing equitable access to recycling, inadvertently or not. This practice not only results in more waste, but may result in lawsuits if community and industry leaders don’t heed the warning.

In small and large cities across the country, there are two tiers of recycling services: those for single-family homes and those for apartments, condos and townhomes, aka multifamily units.

Single-family homes are the favorite child. They tend to get convenient curbside recycling—even composting in some places—and they receive all the attention of education programs.

Meanwhile, on some of the same streets, apartment residents walk outside to a trash dumpster with no recycling onsite. It’s no wonder apartment recycling rates are less than half those of single-family homes. In Boulder, Colo., for example, single-family homes divert 54 percent and apartments only 21 percent.

Further, these apartment residents are less likely to own a car. This means driving recyclables to a drop-off center isn’t an option, leaving these residents with no access to recycling, period. That’s second-class treatment and a strong case for discrimination.

The city would be sued if it provided dial-up internet instead of cable to apartments. But we’re still giving apartment dwellers 20th century trash service. Trash and recycling should run just like any other utility—providing all of the community’s citizens with the same quality of services.

This isn’t a diversion problem. It’s a discrimination problem. And the fix isn’t about the environment or recycling at all. It’s about equity, and treating all residents in your community equally.

How equity reframes the discussion

Equity isn’t just another reason to expand recycling. It changes the conversation to become the reason to move forward. Without it, apartment recycling remains only an environmental issue and something that lingers unaddressed on the long-term plan of the solid waste or sustainability department.

Reframing the discussion around equity makes apartment recycling an issue of community values. It puts it on the radar as something that’s intolerable and fundamentally unfair. This rebranding can then ignite citizens and elected officials to move quickly to right the wrong.

When equity becomes the driving reason, the logistical barriers to apartment recycling—space constraints, language barriers and contamination—are just mole hills, not mountains. They need to be addressed, but they don’t derail the efforts to move forward as they do in so many stakeholder meetings about improving diversion at apartments.

Why apartment residents matter

Nearly 39 million residents in the U.S. live in multifamily properties with five or more units. Aside from the basic right to not be treated like second-class citizens, there are some legitimate reasons why it is important to have these residents actively participating in recycling efforts.

For many young adults, an apartment is a first step to living on their own. More than 25 percent of multifamily residents are under 30 years old, a phase of life when people are forming their lifestyle habits. If the only option is the trash dumpster, then that’s going to be their default habit for the rest of their lives. If we can embed recycling into those early days of adulthood, we’re helping to build recyclers for life.

An apartment is often a first home when someone arrives in a new community. It’s a new resident’s introduction to the community, its people, its values and its services. Far from putting our best foot forward, we’re turning our back on these residents and starting them off on a sour note.

Lastly, apartment dwellers are also teachers, students, co-workers, public staff and active community members. If they don’t recycle at home, they are less likely to recycle elsewhere, and you can’t build a zero waste community without engaging everyone where they live, work and play.

Moving forward

There’s no denying that there can be some substantial logistical options to providing recycling at apartments and condos. There are significant space constraints. There can be language barriers. Contamination is an ongoing challenge. It’s an additional cost. These are real issues and we’re not just going to wave a magic wand, call it equitable and have stellar recycling programs at every multifamily property.

But like in every aspect of recycling, when there is community will, there is a way, and there are proven solutions and cities forging ahead on both multifamily recycling and now, composting. Toronto has made apartments a key focus area with a big public outreach and engagement plan called the Mayor’s Towering Challenge. It engages apartment dwellers and property owners to improve their recycling efforts and services, and offers support along with great prizes and recognition.

Portland, Ore., standardized the recycling bins and signage at apartments so residents are all using the same system. Boulder, Colo., requires picture-based signs that help break down language barriers. Collier County, Fla., loosened its code requirements around parking spaces if it helps make space for recycling bins. Equal space ordinances in California require new multifamily properties to design extra space for recycling bins so space constraints no longer exist. These policies represent successful strategies that can make multifamily recycling successful when the community invests in the programs.   

Putting another “E” in Earth Day for equity

Despite a few shining beacons, multifamily recycling is a black eye for the waste and recycling industry. It has the lowest diversion rate by sector and it’s often treated as the forgotten stepchild when it comes to allocating staff, resources and time for improvements.

There are proven best practices so we know what to do. The issue is why bother, and we’ve been approaching apartment recycling from the wrong angle. It shouldn’t be about diverting tons. It should be about equity. Apartment residents deserve the same opportunity as single-family home dwellers to contribute to a cleaner environment and to the economic vitality of the community. They deserve equal services, period.

When it’s a question of equity, there is only one right thing to do—one thing that we have to do: Give all multifamily residents access to convenient and adequate recycling, and build a more sustainable and equitable community together. This year we need to expand Earth Day beyond the environment to focus on the other big “e”: Equity. 

Kate Bailey is the project director of Eco-Cycle Solutions and works with citizens, government staff and elected officials to implement Zero Waste solutions around the U.S.

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