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A New Day Dawning: Policy and Regulation in the Reign of Millennials

millennials dawn
For emerging policies to be meaningful and remain relevant for Millennials, the old guard needs to start seeing the world through this broader lens, or step aside.

We recently marked Earth Day 2017. The day’s events and celebrations pay homage to our host planet beckoning us to do our share for “Mother Nature.” Festivities may be a drawing card, but the recent March for Science rings truer to the heart of the inaugural event in 1970.

Let’s not forget, Earth Day was conceived to provoke change in environmental protection policies. Initially celebrated every 10 years, each decade featured a priority for regulatory reform. The approach was effective in starting important conversations that culminated in core federal and state environmental regulations, not to mention the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This year’s March for Science reminded us that the decisions behind those policies were grounded in scientific evidence, a practice that should continue.

Recycling was the focus of Earth Day 1990. It’s no accident that most state level municipal waste and recycling legislation originated around that time. Equally of no coincidence, many of those state policies are now under review. With the 30-year marker approaching in 2020, it’s time to reconsider the relevancy of each law, its mission and requisite approach in today’s world.

In the process, stakeholders are asking if neatly defined regulatory boundaries and institutionalized programs have become impediments rather than conduits to reaching higher goals and objectives. From that perspective, limiting material management to our current downstream options seems narrowly restrictive. To address these concerns, policymakers may find it’s time to abandon rules that compartmentalize and isolate issues as if they occur in a vacuum. In other words, we need to start thinking like Millennials.

The Millennial generation is highly educated. More than one third have college degrees and many hold advanced degrees. Regardless of their chosen discipline, throughout the college/university experience Millennials found Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) embedded within their curriculum. Perhaps not consciously, but as a group, they were groomed by ESD techniques to view issues across environmental, economic, and societal lines.

ESD is often considered a new strain of “environmentalism.” It is much more. Subscribers to ESD believe public as well as corporate policies should be established using sustainability metrics. The purpose is to consider, for both rural and urban areas, the interdependence of economic, social, political, and ecological conditions. In addition, ESD evaluates the impact of local measures regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Passing the Torch

For emerging policies to be meaningful and remain relevant for Millennials, the old guard needs to start seeing the world through this broader lens, or step aside. We can embrace this approach now and lend a continuum of knowledge to provide balance. Alternatively, we can wait for the generational disruption, which inevitably will transpire based on numbers alone. Either way, “business as usual” will look different.

According to the Brookings Institute, by 2020, one of three adult Americans will be of the Millennial generation. By 2025, Millennials will represent an estimated 75 percent of the workforce. Within the same timeframe Millennials will pursue political careers and successfully be elected into office.

At that point, in both private and public sector roles, Millennials will possess the power to enact laws or internal policies that can change how corporations are governed and define their responsibilities. They will be able to direct funds and subsidies to favored projects. Of course, the changes will be flavored by their personal experiences and demand for sustainability at any cost.

A Regulatory Renaissance?

Does this mean rapid change for waste and recycling policies? Probably not immediately, but soon enough. According to those “coming-of-age” dates shown earlier in the article, Millennials will be fully entrenched within less than 10 years.

Millennials are surveyed often and by a variety of sources. A number of reliable pollsters use dependable methods and outcomes. They tend to provide data consistent with one another. To understand the Millennial impact on the waste and recycling industry, we pulled some general profile data gathered in various types of surveys within the past few years by Pew Research, Brookings Institute, and Nielson. Consider some Millennial traits and how they form the basis for certain policy types.

Millennials distrust corporations. In fact, they distrust institutions in general. Consequently, The Millennial generation believes that more regulatory control of corporate activity is necessary and that it warrants any increase in cost that may result. This group does not perceive regulations to negatively impact profits or jobs. Among this generational group, 83 percent agreed with the statement that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies.” You may recall the Occupy Wall Street movement primarily orchestrated by Millennials and aimed at the wealthiest 1 percent. Likewise, Millennials believe the profit margins for large corporations are too high.

Corporate environmental compliance and social sustainability practices are highly valued. The corporate actions need to be visible. Initiatives should the consumer feel like a participant through caused based marketing, since Millennials vote with their wallets. They represent more than half of the more than 50 percent of those who will pay extra for sustainable products, 51 percent of those who check the packaging for sustainable labeling and 49 percent of those who prefer to work for a sustainable company

About 53 percent of all Millennials expect an activist government. The Millennial generation represents the highest ratio in any generational group to prefer bigger government providing more services. Of course, ESD thinking is coupled into it all.

Based on their viewpoints on corporate responsibility, it seems logical to assume Millennials would expect Extended Producer Responsibility for a growing number of products and packaging. Take-back programs and rewards for recycling also fit.

The willingness to pay more for sustainable products might encourage laws geared at toxicity in packaging. Bans or fees as monetary deterrents for using certain products like plastic bags would see obvious to Millennials. A highly visible issue like food waste, with all its societal ramifications, is another easy target. Facility siting and permitting could face tighter environmental justice scrutiny.

There will also be more support and subsidies for circular economy initiatives, remanufacturing, and resource optimization

Engage and Energize

If you’re not engaging young professionals, your strategic planning could be off course. We’ve all sat through “can’t do” meetings. Too often organizations limp along under a dysfunctional system believing tiny patches can renew an eroding framework. This comfort level with the status quo is symptomatic of policymakers isolated from the realities of the evolving marketplace. Where staff burnout and lack of vision prevails, change is considered too complicated and preserving internal protocols becomes the sole priority. I’ve witnessed the effect of injecting the Millennials’ perspective into brainstorming sessions.

Even when the ideas aren’t the best, the freshness of the comments can steer the discussion in new directions, which spark solutions from experienced staffers with the advanced skill sets to see the project through. The young professionals fee both a sense of inclusion and respect, which they desire. The organization and mature employees benefit from a renewed sense of purpose. That’s a Win-Win.

Michele Nestor is the President of Nestor Resources Inc., based in the Greater Pittsburgh area, and chair of the board of directors, of the Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center, Penn State, Harrisburg. She helps private and public sector organizations develop strategic plans to survive in a transitioning marketplace.

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