With Environmental and Social Justice For All

Categories: Re-entry, Recycling

I love planet earth. I think it’s a cool place and I like living on it. But I must admit that I struggle a little when my friends and colleagues talk about “saving the planet” or “protecting the environment” without talking about saving our citizens. 

I know we have enormous environmental challenges before us, but the conclusion I’ve come to is that we can’t ask people to protect the earth if they don’t have a job.

We all know that unemployment is high, but the unemployment rate for ex-offenders has hovered between 25-40 percent for 20 years. A recent study by UC Berkley’s Center for Employment Law reports that 28 percent of all Americans have some sort of a criminal record. Currently, most employers will not hire a person with a criminal record. How much of the lament by employers that they cannot find appropriate workers is driven by the exclusion of a significant number of people from the labor force because of their criminal record?

What does an economy built on principles of fairness and sustainability look like?  What if we can create jobs and save our environment simultaneously? That’s what I would consider a true win-win!

One good place to start is with our trash. Trash is America’s third largest export – rivaling that of jet airplanes and automobiles. Much of our “trash” is valuable to the rest of the world because they process it into raw material for use in new manufacturing. In America, we obtain most of the raw material for our manufacturing from digging and drilling. Instead of sending our trash oversees, what if we processed more of the material from the mounds of electronics we throw away each year? One way or another, our trash will be processed. The question is this: do we want that processing to take place in our own communities, or are we okay for that processing to occur in a developing country? 

From steel to copper and aluminum, from plastics, paper, cardboard, and even the gold in circuit boards, these items are predominately processed in the developing world and used in the manufacturing of products that are shipped to the United States. In turn, we buy them, use them up, and throw them out. Once again, we ship it overseas where they are made into a new product and the process starts all over. That is why trash is America’s third largest export. The current manufacturing paradigm says companies move their manufacturing overseas because of cheap labor, but it is also because of cheap raw material. It is cheaper to recover than to dig and drill. For example, more gold resides in a ton of electronic waste than in 55 tons of ore. Moreover, digging and drilling for raw material is less environmentally conscious than processing electronics in a way to recover the raw material.

At Indianapolis-based RecycleForce, that’s exactly what we do. We provide some of the most comprehensive, innovative and responsible recycling services in Indiana as well as life-changing workforce training in a service-rich environment to formerly incarcerated individuals.

Our model has caught the attention of everyone from the Mayor of Indianapolis and Indiana’s Governor to the U.S. Department of Labor, so much so that the USDOL is putting us to the test. RecycleForce is one of seven organizations selected from over 200 applicants from across the county to participate in the Enhanced Transitional Jobs Demonstration (ETJD) program.

Over a two-year period, RecycleForce will receive 500 randomly assigned ex-offenders for a four-month transitional work assignment. Each will receive a comprehensive assessment and intensive case management services specifically focused on addressing barriers to employment. RecycleForce puts these individuals to work in a process that adds value to our trash. With the help of RSF Social Finance and the Cincinnati-based Seton Enablement Fund, RecycleForce recently invested $1 million in technology to do that. We are now looking towards Japanese technology to further refine the recovered material to make it even more usable in the American manufacturing process.

We embrace a labor force on which the rest of the country has turned their backs. Our approach is putting one of the most difficult-to-employ populations to work. The USDOL study will help determine if what we are doing works. As we attempt to fully pull ourselves out of this stagnant, challenging economy, we can’t expect folks who are struggling to feed their families to care about saving the planet. Yet it doesn’t have to be about environmental justice or social justice – we can do both – and RecycleForce is proof.

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