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Our Industry Cannot Be Silent (Commentary)

A palpable shadow hangs over our world following the death of George Floyd. As the waste and recycling industry, we cannot be silent. We exist in this world and contribute to it. This is not the space to write about how the protests are disrupting our operations and affecting our industry. This is the space to write about how our industry knowingly and unknowingly contributes to the problem, and how we can be part of the solution of ending racism and injustice. It was said best by Upstream: “This is not a ‘stay in your lane’ moment. This is an ‘all hands on deck’ moment.” 

Where do we start? Somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. We must engage in this introspection and in this conversation and in this work. We must think about the opportunities for change that are present for each of us and for our organizations. We must not hold back in fear of failure, but rather give ourselves permission to embrace our missteps, to learn, evolve, and take chances that will actualize change.

As an industry, we can begin by speaking up. We can make public statements from our organizations and businesses to show our support and solidarity, like many in our industry have done.

The next step is to start talking with our co-workers, our employees, our management teams, and each other about how we are all affected. These are hard conversations to have, but nothing will change if we stay comfortable. We so casually start our conversations, and now our Zoom calls, with “How are you?” Now is the time to ask genuinely, and to listen to each other, and to be brave enough to be honest in our responses. Our work will still be there after we have taken the time to recognize each other and our shared and unique human experiences. 

I encourage you to adopt statements of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to guide your operations and your internal governance. We must seek to unravel and understand how racism and oppression are embedded in our industry, in the social and environmental impacts of the materials we handle, in our hauling and facility operations, in our personnel management and working relations, in how we manage and make decisions, and in the internal and external policies we support. I am inspired by the Post Landfill Action Network for its DEI mandate and its aspiration to create change where the zero waste movement intersects broader social and environmental justice movements.  

We can commit to learning together. Our state and national conferences are excellent teaching and learning opportunities for us to explore how can we incorporate anti-racist practices into our daily operations, services, management, and relationships with customers and co-workers. 

I have written before that I love this field of work because recycling and waste management intersects with many issues that affect all of us every day. This is where our opportunity lies, in discovering how we can play a role in ending racism and injustice. These are tremendous goals, much like our zero waste goals, and there is much work to be done, but it is good work and it is the right work, and we can stand in solidarity together. 

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Kate Bailey is the Policy & Research Director at Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest recycling organizations in the U.S.

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