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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

ISRI2021: Investing in environmental justice

The EPA’s Matthew Tejada provideds a history of environmental justice in the U.S. and what it means for scrap recyclers today.

April 30, 2021

Environmental justice (EJ) might not be the No. 1 issue scrap recyclers aim to tackle, but it is one of increasing importance and one that Matthew Tejada, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Environmental Justice, thinks can’t be an afterthought.

“Practicing EJ takes investment up front,” he said during ISRI2021, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries’ (ISRI’s) online convention and exposition that took place April 20-22 and April 27-29. “[EJ] takes relationship building, tools and data [and] credibility building.”

History of environmental justice

Tejada said there is a misconception that EJ is part of the environmental movement.

“It’s not,” he said. “EJ comes from the civil rights movement. It’s the environmental part of civil rights.”

He added that EJ has “largely been in conflict” with most environmental groups. In the last couple of years, he said the environmental movement has started to recognize and take strides toward closing the gap and understanding EJ principles.

Tejada noted that EJ roots back to the practice of redlining in communities, which were zoning decisions in the early 20th century that adversely affected people of color. “There was a recognition that people of color were being relegated to live in areas that were polluted [and] forced to live in areas where there was a lack of investment in infrastructure. They were being forced to live in areas less good for public health, even though the idea of public health was a nascent idea at that time.”

These communities faced things such as poor housing, lack of economic opportunity, increased incidence of violence and crime, poor sewage and pollution. He said much the same issues and elements that we deal with in EJ today “were being locked into our communities” during zoning decisions made in the 1920s and 1930s.

The principles of EJ were evident throughout the civil rights movement of the 1960s as well.

In the 1990s, he said, the EPA began to respond to EJ. The EPA created Tejada’s department, which eventually became known as the Office of Environmental Justice. Additionally, former President Bill Clinton signed executive order 12898 into law to address EJ in minority and low-income populations in 1994. “That was a big deal in the EJ movement—an executive order on environmental justice,” Tejada said.

Goals of EJ

Achieving equality is at the heart of EJ.

“Equality is a bedrock principle of our country—all communities are created equal,” Tejada said. “But we know that’s not true. Because of governmental policies over time, there are communities that are unequal, starting from a place farther behind.”

With equality, he said, equity and justice are important goals to achieve.

Tejada said equity understands that some people in some communities have been left behind and that work needs to be done to close the inequality gap. He said the EPA has done this in part with grant programs, trying to make sure disadvantaged communities aren’t neglected to participate in things such as its diesel reduction grant program. “We’re going to give more to those who need more.”

Then justice is the idea that something caused that unequal place to be there in the first place, Tejada said. “If all you do is equity, you can try to close the gap over and over again, but a gap will keep coming back. Justice fixes the gap—it addresses the reasons equity injustices exist in the first place.”

Key takeaways

This year, President Joe Biden released two executive orders related to EJ. The first, released Jan. 20, is on protecting public health and the environment and restoring science to tackle climate crisis. Tejada said this executive order provides a longer definition of equity and mandates the federal government to look at whether activities have been equitable over time.

The second executive order, released Jan. 27, is on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad, which directly points to EJ, modifying some of what was in former President Clinton’s executive order 12898.

Tejada said these orders and others coming from states and local governments will require scrap recyclers to consider things such as where to locate and/or whether to expand a business so that it does not adversely affect disadvantaged communities but that it also provides economic opportunity to those same communities. Part of that means engaging with communities that are concerned about EJ.

He added that having EJ conversations can be “uncomfortable” because they involve talking about issues such as racism and class. “It’s a reason why most of my colleagues, they do not like to show up for EJ community meetings because they are tough. It’s a human response. Nobody likes to show up when you know people will be unhappy with you.”

Tejada added that part of participating in EJ means being a partner, not just a neighbor, having intentional conversations with people in the community a business is located in. He said it can take years (or even decades) for companies like scrap recyclers to accomplish EJ.

“Understand that this isn’t something you’ll turn the corner on in the next year,” he said. “This isn’t something you turn the corner on this decade. It’s a long-term commitment on engaging communities and meeting demands of needs in the community. It’s something I'll do the rest of my life. … Environmental justice issues are incredibly complex. They are rooted in decades of practices, policies, investments (or disinvestments) in certain areas."

He continued, “So, it’s not like you show up, and it’s a discussion off the board in a year. It’s not that simple. It’s going to be a long road you travel on. It’s a commitment to advancing equity and justice in what you do permanently. I think over time, I would hope that if the scrap recycling industry really is committed to and starts to walk the walk in a meaningful way, you’ll see people coming around.”

Tejada said scrap recyclers should keep a few things in mind regarding EJ:

  • EJ is not something intangible—it did not happen by accident. It’s everyone’s responsibility to seek equity and justice.
  • Waiting until it’s necessary to engage with communities is not good; at that point, it’s probably too late to start the conversation. Being proactive is essential.
  • An affected community isn’t always where you think it is.
  • EJ practices and requirements are only going to become more defined and rigorous in the future, giving businesses every reason to start changing their practices that relate to EJ today.
  • Communities have the right to influence what happens in their communities. To the communities, some industries will never be desirable.
  • Corporations must be real partners, not just neighbors, with communities, and must support local health, economics, environmental quality and education.
  • Tools, people and practices can help scrap recyclers to better understand EJ and develop policies and protocols.
  • Investing in EJ practices might not pay off now, but it always pays off in the long run.