Presidential politics don't come up at most recycling industry conferences. Though after he delivered a crowd-pleasing speech at an event in his Minnesota district, one of the first questions Rep. Keith Ellison received was about if he'd run in 2020.
"No, but let me just say this. Whoever is running for president, we need to make them commit to zero waste," said Ellison.
During the final session of the Resource Recycling Conference in Minneapolis, both Ellison and Barnes Johnson — director of the EPA's Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery — discussed the political realities of achieving that goal. The session was more pep rally than policy discussion, with an emphasis on inspiring people to take action around promoting waste reduction and raising recycling awareness. For an audience of industry professionals and government employees, the prospect of any national attention on recycling was an easy sell.
Amid ongoing questions about how much of the EPA's recycling work will survive proposed budget cuts, Johnson's reassurances that the agency remained committed to core policies of sustainable materials management and food waste reduction were applause lines of their own. During his presentation, Johnson called resource efficiency a goal that "anybody in any administration" could get behind. He noted that Administrator Scott Pruitt attended a G7 environmental summit earlier this year to discuss the topic.
"It’s a goal that I think many folks in this room and across the country are committed to and it’s an area where we can make some real progress," he said. "EPA is here. We are going to continue to be cheerleaders for efficient resource management policies and perspectives. We are continuing to move forward."
Aside from promoting a $100 million recycling infrastructure bill he re-introduced earlier this year, Ellison also stayed away from some of the conference's detailed discussions on material markets or Chinese trade policy. Instead, he took a more expansive tack that hit on plenty of contentious topics — landfill taxes, waste-to-energy combustion, extended producer responsibility — but had a larger cultural message.
In free-flowing remarks that managed to reference both "Fight Club" and a Marvin Gaye song, Ellison called for a new "zero waste" society. A society that valued the durability of reused items over the instant gratification of cheaper new ones. A society where recyclers collaborated with artists to raise environmental awareness and school green clubs sprouted across the country. A society where decisions about recycling were driven more by morality than cost analysis.
"You are working on what may be the most important thing for anyone to work on, which is saving this planet," said Ellison. "I believe zero waste and recycling are an important way to do it."
At the end of the event, attendees flocked to Ellison for pictures and well wishes. Whether the message will resonate in more hard-edged industry circles, or among the hundreds of other representatives that haven't signed on to his bill yet, remains to be seen.
Waste Dive had a quick conversation with Ellison afterward, edited for brevity and clarity.
WASTE DIVE: You made the moral case for recycling, but this industry is driven by a lot of for-profit companies. They support recycling, but may be more selective about how it happens. How do you reconcile that?
KEITH ELLISON: Well I'm not saying make the moral case to the exclusion of the other things. I'm saying that if you want to persuade the public you've got to make a moral case. I actually don't mind companies making money on recycling, but I think we ought to structure the incentives around consumption and production to be [about] sustainability. If you think about consumption it is a value to consume in and of itself. You've got to have the latest. What's that about? That's all about consumption. We need to reprioritize our society to say no, quality of life is what it's all about. Not more stuff. Right now we're into more stuff. So that is, I think, a problem. Our economy is structured around consumption. We need to restructure it around the benefits of society. This is going to be a radical change, but it's what we need to do to live on this planet.
"Our economy is structured around consumption. We need to restructure it around the benefits of society."
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN)
You described the $100 million for this proposed bill as "budget dust." In that case it shouldn't be that hard, but it seems hard to get anything through right now.
ELLISON: Well the biggest problem in Congress is will. Trust me, if you remember the day before 9/11 we were saying we didn't have no money. George Bush was president. The day after we'd spend. But the day before Lehman Brothers is about to go down and we have a financial crisis in 2008 we don't have any money. Suddenly we've got $800 billion. It's a matter of will. They don't have any money if there's no will and we've got all the money in the world if there is will. So that's just how it is.
Is that what it will take for action on climate change? How do we get beyond arguing about if it's happening and doing something?
ELLISON: By going to the people and helping them understand that this is necessary. Remember, 90 million people did not vote. We need to create a climate voter. Look at Harvey, to help people understand why it is that this hurricane is so fearsome. So that's the real change. When you've got 90 million people who are saying, 'democracy, I don't have time for it,' you've got a problem. But the electorate is more conservative than the population that doesn't vote. So the question is engage people around what they need most. Zero waste has the opportunity. It says we're going to give you a job, we're going to give you breathable air, both. Whereas the other ones, the consumption-based advocates, say you've got to pick.