The zero waste movement can offer safer, more sustainable jobs in the coming years compared with other jobs in the solid waste sector — but only if communities invest with environmental justice principles, speakers at the recent National Zero Waste Conference said.
Activists and zero waste advocates at the virtual event advocated for more job creation in the reuse, refill, repair and composting sectors, saying such jobs can move communities toward a circular economy and help those residents disproportionately impacted by pollution from incinerators or landfills.
Before communities can achieve a zero-waste future, however, they must reevaluate current waste and recycling practices that harm overburdened populations, said Alejandra Warren, executive director and co-founder of Plastic Free Future. She said communities must prevent their waste, particularly plastic, from being shipped to developing countries. That practice equates to what Warren calls “waste colonialism” by offloading what she described as pollution misleadingly labeled as recyclable materials to places that didn’t generate the trash and can’t process it.
Communities must also invest in better recycling processing, Warren added. MRFs have increasingly purchased automated equipment to avoid having workers hand-sort scrap — a job many MRF operators say can be dirty and dangerous. In many regions of the U.S., workers who fill those job positions often have lower incomes or are people of color, Warren added. Continuing to hire for these dangerous jobs “perpetuates social injustices and racial injustices,” she said.
Zero waste businesses can also help move society away from linear systems that generate trash and pollution, said Kearni Warren, an organizer for the Energy Justice Network. “Zero waste and jobs are connected,” she said.
Warren lives in Chester, Pennsylvania, which she describes as a “frontline, overburdened environmental justice community.” Covanta’s mass burn combustion facility, a sewage sludge incinerator and several chemical plants are located there, and Penn America Energy is also considering the city as the site for its new liquefied natural gas export terminal. Warren said emissions from the combined industries have created unbearable air pollution in her majority-Black neighborhood.
Citing a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Warren said the reuse sector can provide more jobs per 10,000 tons of discarded material than incineration or recycling. Reuse programs for computers, wooden pallets and other durable goods, as well as textile reclamation jobs, are some examples, she said.
The reuse sector is a “major opportunity” for the 35% of Black Americans in the U.S. workforce, according to Warren. “Only 13% of Black people and people of color are engaged in green technologies and zero waste type jobs, so there is definitely a place for people like me to get involved,” she said.
Reuse/refill businesses can also address equity and access issues, Alejandra Warren said. It’s common for some low-income communities to use single-serving amounts of items like laundry detergent because it’s easier to afford than buying in bulk. However, the single servings end up costing more in the long run. “You pay more and get less,” and it creates more plastic packaging, she said.
Building better reuse and refill infrastructure would make it easier for people to purchase products at fair prices regardless of income, she said. One example is the Chilean refill system Algramo, which builds refill stations for common household cleaners, charges a flat rate and allows people to bring their own containers, she said.
New zero waste and reuse/refill businesses are popping up every day. To succeed, they must consult the communities where they operate, Warren said. “They already have the local knowledge to create a reuse and refill system that will truly work. If you just tell people, ‘These are the reusable containers we’re using from now on,’ that won’t work. It’s not equitable or fair, and it’s disrespectful.”
Zero waste and reuse concepts aren’t new, meaning the wisdom for making it work isn’t new, Kearni Warren said. “Many of our ancestors participated in zero waste. They saved their grocery bags, used returnable glass milk and soda bottles.”
Though zero waste efforts can be a powerful lever for creating quality jobs, the emphasis should always be on building stronger and healthier communities, said Elida Castillo, program director for environmental justice group Chispa Texas.
Major industries in Castillo’s city of Corpus Christi, including ExxonMobil, often do outreach to overburdened neighborhoods to tout job fairs and scholarship opportunities. At first glance, these opportunities look like relationship-building. However, Castillo said the strategy doesn’t work when such industries are still polluting the neighborhoods where they operate. “They call themselves our neighbors because they're here to create jobs for us. But it's all about economic development instead.”