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Sustainability Talks

Environmental Justice Serves All

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Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (U.S EPA)

Environmental Justice (EJ) may be one of the most talked-about topics in our industry in 2021.  Every organization that I belong to has created or is developing an EJ policy.  Federal and state legislation is being proposed – and passed – and regulators are recognizing the need to enforce existing laws carefully.  Companies are concerned about their ability to meet aggressive sustainability goals alongside new permitting restrictions, and they are concerned that the cost of doing business will increase, making sustainable growth cost prohibitive.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve to understand the nuances of what this important community, social and business imperative means for our industry.  The more I learn, the more respect I have for the work my company has done in the past – and the work that we must do in the future in communities where we operate.  This can be a win-win for EJ communities and for business. But we will need to approach our processes, communications, and relationships thoughtfully, and with a very different lens than we have previously.

For well over a decade, my company has engaged with national groups working to identify and support EJ communities.  We worked closely with the U.S. EPA and with nonprofit organizations as EPA created its EJSCREEN tool, based on nationally consistent data and an approach that combines environmental and demographic indicators in web-accessible maps and reports. EJSCREEN is a powerful asset, enabling companies to precisely understand the demographics of their facilities and frame data-based assessment protocols. 

To my knowledge, Waste Management has been the only company in our industry to use EJSCREEN, including publishing a summary graphic of all our sites in our sustainability report. We also have some impressive best practice examples of work to meet our local community partners where they are, finding ways to support their communities with investments that they identify as important. 

And still it is not enough.

We are currently embarking upon a process to map more information about each of our facilities to ensure transparent reporting, paired with analysis of the data and the development of systems to support those communities with the greatest needs in the future.    

I tend to be pragmatic – balancing our suite of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) sustainability drivers with our business interests.  From my perspective, Environmental Justice is the intersection of our operations and our communities.  And the expectations for businesses operating in EJ communities in 2021 and beyond should not be taken lightly. Moreover, our stakeholders expect us to maneuver through the complexities of this new world in which we live, and to come out on the other side with a plan that will make our business, and society as a whole, stronger. 

It sounds like a lot to expect, doesn’t it? Yes, it does. And yes, we will do this.  We will all benefit from engaging more purposefully and proactively with our neighbors – supporting local communities with services they identify as priorities.

We benefit from responsible operations in a wide range of communities across North American. And we will all benefit from understanding the role that we play as community partners, finding ways to support our local partners and to raise the quality of living wherever we operate. This makes sense if you think about it.  When our stakeholders have their own needs met, they can also take care of the environment.    

Environmental Justice in 2021 and beyond will be challenging. It will be complicated.  And it will be one of the best things that we have ever done – as individual companies and collectively as an industry and community collaborators.  It is one more responsibility that we must take seriously in our ESG Sustainability journey. And I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this effort.

Join Susan at Waste360's Sustainability Talks co-located at WasteExpo to hear about this and more, register today.

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