Sustainability vs. Competition

Competitors in the London 2012 Olympics
Competitors in the London 2012 Olympics
Competitors in the London 2012 Olympics

Building sustainable communities is something we think about a lot here at the Fund for Democratic Communities. Our starting point in these discussions is the economic sustainability of communities and their ability to use their community wealth for their own benefit. The mainstream discourse on sustainability is largely set within the boundaries of the current economic system – one that is based on exploitation of labor and extraction of wealth and resources from communities around the world. True sustainability will likely not be found within this worn out and fundamentally self-destructive system.

I recently attended a large region-wide gathering with people from business, government and the nonprofit sectors. This event firmly grounded itself in the existing economic framework. We were told by several speakers that “competing [with other cities and regions around the country] was no longer good enough – we have to win.” This exhortation to renewed and heightened competition reached a Monty Python-like apex when one individual stated that the competition between the major cities in our area was hindering the region’s ability to compete.

Compete for what, exactly? Many local and state government officials are busy trying to entice businesses to relocate to their areas in need of job growth. As a result most governments are working hard to make their communities attractive to people who do not live in them yet. A huge piece of a community’s wealth is found in it’s “commons.” This is the set of resources, both tangible and ephemeral that we used to protect vigorously for the benefit of ourselves and our neighbors. Today, governments package bundles of these resources and give them to large businesses in the form of tax incentives and free infrastructure in exchange for an investment, a promise of job growth and long-term commitment.

But in a world driven by competition, what value does a promise of long-term commitment carry? Another city or region will merely package a better set of their communal resources and entice that business to pick up and move yet again, chasing a slightly higher profit margin. This happens again and again across the United States and certainly right here in our own community.

An alternative – likely, the only alternative – is cooperation. If local governments took those resources they may give away to attract a business from outside our community to local entrepreneurs right here in our neighborhoods we would see the wealth of our communities start to grow immediately. If we looked to our neighbors to join with us and become the developers of real estate and business we could build the communities we want to live in and retain our wealth instead of facilitating individuals with money and access to power who are not at all interested in long-term community sustainability but only interested in what they can get out of our communities..

I came away from my focus on local sustainability efforts over the past few weeks thinking, I’m not at all interested in competing with someone else for what is clearly a smaller slice of pie. If anyone talks to you about competing for sustainability remind them: races come to an end but cooperation can continue.

Developing a Comprehensive Approach to Trash for the City of Greensboro

With helpful feedback from MaryEllen Etienne of Reuse Alliance

We are happy to report that it looks like White Street Landfill is not going to be reopened! Through solid community organizing that garnered allies from across the city to the “Keep White Street Closed” side of the fight, plus a sea-change in the make-up of the City Council, it looks like the idea of reopening White Street Landfill is off the table. We hope for good.

Now what?

There is important work to be done in our city to come up with democratic, just, and sustainable approaches to our trash. That’s right, I claimed it — it’s our trash, and we have to deal with it—all of us, not just the people who happen to live within smelling distance of a landfill.

And it’s not just about where we will put our landfill—we have to think through the whole trash picture, asking questions like, Where does our trash come from? Why are we producing so much of it? And what can we do to reduce our waste stream so we’re not facing a trash crisis again in ten, twenty, fifty, or one hundred years?

We have a rare window of opportunity here, a confluence of events and conditions that make it possible for us to think big about this topic. Our solid waste contracts are up for consideration (regular waste as well as our contract with FCR, the firm that handles our recyclables). At the same time, a new City Council has just been sworn in, a reflection of massive dissatisfaction with the divisive politics waged in the most recent “trash fight.” Plus, across the country and here in Greensboro, there’s a growing sense of openness and engagement, as people start to wonder if “business as usual” is going to work in a time of economic, environmental, and social crisis.

So, instead of “business as usual,” let’s act now to use this window of opportunity to build a whole new approach to our trash, one that is democratic, just, and sustainable.

As part of F4DC’s commitment to deepening our understanding of democracy, justice, and sustainability, we invited people from across Greensboro to visit Catawba County’s Landfill and Eco-Complex on November 4th of this year. Twenty-four people took us up on this offer. We thought we’d learn a lot by seeing how another North Carolina county handles its trash, and we did! But what was perhaps more important was the time we spent together on the van ride to and from Catawba, and getting a chance to relax and talk together over dinner on the way home. New friendships were formed and lots of ideas were exchanged. Here are a few ideas, ranging from concrete policy recommendations to more exploratory suggestions to guidelines for our decision-making process, which I’ve been mulling over since that trip:

  • Extend the current contract with Republic Services through June 2013 to give us time to thoroughly study and come up with a comprehensive approach to solid waste.
  • Negotiate a contract extension with FCR, to give us time to thoroughly study and come up with a recycling plan that allows for a significant decrease in the amount of trash heading to the landfill.
  • Get the new City Council to take a field trip to the Catawba Eco-Complex, both to see what another community has done, and also to get the benefit of thinking together about trash as they ride down and back. F4DC is willing to help organize such a trip, if that is helpful.
  • Appoint a citizen/staff task force on solid waste (perhaps in conjunction with the Community Sustainability Council?) to study and recommend comprehensive approaches to our trash that are governed by “seven generations” thinking—that is, developing an approach to trash that our great, great, great, great grandchildren won’t be sorry for.
  • Learn from other cities that are more progressive/visionary about this than we are. The City of Austin, Texas would be a great place to start, followed perhaps by San Francisco. We shouldn’t limit our search for ideas only to the U.S. either. In some cities around the globe (e.g., Cairo) over 80% of the waste stream is being recycled, lessening the need for landfill space significantly, creating job for hundreds, and making cheap resources available to industry. Why should we settle for 15% recycling, when 80% is possible?
  • Put everything on the table for re-consideration! This includes the implicit and explicit incentives we give to households and businesses about trash. We may not need to move to a mandatory recycling program if we set the incentives correctly. For example, what message do we send when we pick up regular trash once a week, and recycling every other week? If we flipped this arrangement, it might incentivize people to do a better job separating their recyclables. Or, consider a different fee structure for waste pickup, one that rewards the household that creates less waste. Using clever incentives and pricing, Catawba County and other towns have found ways to encourage voluntary recycling and reduce the flow of waste into their landfills.
  • Build trash policy around the “Four R’s:” Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. We generally concentrate on recycling, but we need turn out attention to the other “Rs” if we’re going to shrink our need for landfill space. We need to educate the public on “reduce” – giving people easy ways to reduce their waste. We also need make residents and businesses aware of existing “reuse” opportunities in Greensboro, and provide resources that help support and grow the reuse sector. And yes, I included “rot” in the list. Organics account for nearly two-thirds of solid waste stream. By keeping food and other organic wastes out of landfills, we can make organic material useful for commercial and residential soil amendments.
  • Think about trash and the costs associated with trash in a more holistic and comprehensive way, considering jobs, economic development, and long-term sustainability as essential parts of the “bottom line,” e.g.:
    • FCR is proposing to invest in high tech mechanization in its next contract with the City, but is this really cost effective over the long run and in the big picture? Such mechanization may result in jobs being lost as machines replace human “pickers.” Some research suggests that human pickers are needed to achieve high recyclable levels (the machines are just not that smart or flexible) and thus reduce the amount of trash heading to landfills. I am not sure of all the trade-offs here, but the City should consider these factors as it designs its next contract with its recycling firm.
    • Consider the triple bottom line benefits (economic, environmental, social) of reuse and recycling in deciding how much to emphasize these approaches in our trash policy. Reuse, in particular, can have a huge economic impact, as can be seen in these statistics: If you take 10,000 tons of materials, and:
      • Incinerate it, you create 1 job
      • Landfill it, you create 6 jobs
      • Recycle it, you create 36 jobs
      • Reuse it, you create 28-296 jobs (depending on materials)
    • Can jobs focused on community education on trash reduction, reuse, and recycling pay wholly or partly for themselves, through sale of recovered materials and reduction in costs associated with landfill trash? Currently, most Greensboro households and businesses are not participating fully in our recycling program, so there is a lot of potential for growth here, if such education led to significantly improved levels of voluntary compliance with recycling.
    • What new community-based businesses can we grow from our trash? For example, are there business possibilities in the rich organic waste from our kitchens (waste that currently creates most of the greenhouse gases coming from our landfills) and the reusable building materials that come from deconstructed buildings? What about specialty businesses that exploit any number of “undiscovered” recyclable materials?
    • Can Greensboro become an innovative leader in developing new markets for recycled materials, and through this attract new business to the region?
    • What role can the City play in reducing the amount of unnecessary packaging of consumer goods, packaging that is taking up space in our landfills? Every ton of packaging that does not go to a landfill saves us tipping fees as well as slowing the rate at which any landfill gets full. Perhaps we can consider packaging bans (e.g. 100 cities across the US have banned Styrofoam).
    • Is it possible for Greensboro to convert its transfer station into an eco-park or zero waste facility# where all of its reusables and recyclabes can be recovered and not exported as waste? This idea is worth exploring.
  • Engage people from across the City in meaningful learning and dialogue about a full range of options concerning our trash. We need to make more use of truly participatory processes, with genuine back and forth dialogue, for identifying issues and trade-offs in the trash debate.
  • Acknowledge and make use of local experts: City staff (the professionals who wear suits to work and the professionals who pick up our trash), university professors, and ordinary citizens who’ve made it their business to understand the science, business, and logistics of trash, landfills, and hauling. One good place to look for grassroots expertise is in the ranks of Citizens for Environmental and Economic Justice, who have had to learn quite a bit about trash in order to make sure the landfill didn’t get reopened.
  • Work to engage everyone in the city—not just people who live near potential landfill sites—in solving the dilemma of what to do with our trash. One possible motto: If you create trash, then you should be thinking about where it goes and doing your part to reduce the waste stream.

Finally, I hope that we will remember that our city, Greensboro, is woven into a larger fabric of people and places who are just as deserving of democratic, just, and sustainable lives as we are. I know there is a lot of discussion about the potential for negotiating a “regional solution” that would have the bulk of our trash going to a facility in Randolph County. While such a solution makes it possible keep the White Street landfill closed, it also lands our trash in another community, one that is just as concerned about their health and quality of life as we are here. It may be a community that has historically been marginalized, just as the White Street community was. Moving trash from one marginalized community to another marginalized community is just not a good enough solution.

It’s a real dilemma – there are lots of places that are suffering economic downturns to the degree that getting a big trash contract might feel like a “good deal,” at least to some people. And there are certainly businesses in Randolph County and other places that would like to profit from our need to do something with our trash. But just because some folks in a different county think it’s a good idea doesn’t make it an idea with integrity. Let’s make sure that the people in such communities have been fully informed and heard in their own city and county deliberative processes. Let’s make sure we know all the details about where our trash might be going and what communities it might impact.

Our collaborative engagement with communities and people—not just businesses—in any place receiving our trash can lead to better landfill design and construction, higher standards on heath and safety, living wages for people just like us, and more sustainable relationships that can help keep the partnership going for a second and third contract. This, in turn, can help us keep White Street closed forever.