By Sue Briggum
Companies often ask me, “What can we expect if we start engaging on environmental justice issues?” My response is – “There will be some rough spots, but it is so overwhelmingly worth it.”
My company’s roughest spot came in the early days of discussion about environmental justice. One of the seminal documents of the environmental justice movement, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, took aim at the distribution of hazardous waste facilities in the U.S. and came to the conclusion that more often than not, they were located in communities of color. That was a wakeup call for those in the business of running hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities. We were used to thinking about facility location in terms of nearby highways, distance to customers and desirable features like low rainfall or favorable hydrogeology. We weren’t thinking about who lives near a proposed facility.
We quickly learned that we needed to think about our prospective communities. Responsible companies want to be known as good neighbors – responsive to community concerns, providing benefits greater than potential environmental burdens, and located equitably. As soon as we started talking to environmental justice leaders, we learned that they were open to very candid and productive discussions with companies willing to listen carefully with a genuine interest in finding common ground.
U.S. EPA was very helpful in facilitating these discussions. Through its advisory committees, EPA pairs grassroots community advocates, environmentalists, government officials and businesses, and asks them to find consensus on the major environmental issues of the day. Over the years, we’ve found common ground with environmental justice advocates on important issues involving brownfields, understanding and addressing the multiple kinds of risk that appear in communities of color (called “cumulative risk or impact”), and best practices for operating various kinds of waste handling facilities.
Tools for engagement
Eventually, the power of the Internet and GIS systems made it possible for any company to understand precisely the demographics of all of its facilities. Environmental justice scholars and leaders had led the way by establishing a protocol for assessment in their update to the original study on toxic wastes and race, Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987 – 2007 (TWART).
Waste Management adopted the assessment protocol utilized in the TWART report in 2009 to assess the location of our landfills and waste-to-energy facilities. We published the results in our 2010 sustainability report, showing that in contrast to the pattern across the hazardous waste sector generally, our facilities were more likely to be located in predominantly white communities. In 2012, we responded to requests from environmental justice advocates for a company-wide profile that would include recycling, waste collection and all other activities. (2012 Appendix).
The heart of engagement is constant dialogue
By now we were well aware, however, that patterns in facility siting are only part of a healthy dialogue about environmental justice. Regardless of national patterns, an individual environmental justice community will demand that businesses operating in their midst engage in constructive dialogue and develop best practices in responding to community concerns. Reassurances about overall company practices don’t answer specific issues that need to be addressed in specific communities.
Moreover, we realized that the more we engaged with community groups, the better we understood opportunities to improve our local practices. The more we engage, the more we can learn. We’ve partnered with other businesses and government agencies to sponsor conferences on environmental justice, and we’ve sought opportunities to join environmental justice problem-solving committees whenever they arose.
The link between environmental justice and sustainability
Our strategic business planning has benefitted from these dialogues. Environmental justice advocates early on urged business and industry to stop wasting assets and focus on waste reduction and recycling, not just simple disposal. Over the past twenty years, we’ve seen our customers join that chorus asking for better recycling solutions, and recycling and innovation in waste disposal reduction has become an increasing proportion of Waste Management’s business. By the time we published our 2012 sustainability report, we were able to show that operations associated with recycling and production of renewable and alternative energy increased from 49 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2011. In 2011, traditional landfills represented only 13 percent of our total non-collection revenues, with recycling by far the largest element (47 percent).
This evolution in business focus reflects the importance of sustainability as a business model for our sector – and for any other. Customers seeking environmental services want to be able to demonstrate concrete environmental benefits and resource conservation. Communities know that a sustainable business operates as a good and respectful neighbor. Environmental justice must be a core element of any company’s social responsibility initiatives.
Sue Briggum is Vice President, Federal Public Affairs at Waste Management