Improving recycling through community-led initiatives

I recently chatted with Shannon Conk, community engagement coordinator for Ramsey/Washington Recycling and Energy, about the increased community engagement around recycling because of the Apartment Recycling Specialist Program. Created by Ramsey/Washington Recycling and Energy, with support from Minnesota Waste Wise, the program aims to grow community capacity on recycling best practices in apartments within neighborhoods identified as vulnerable to climate change.

The Apartment Recycling Specialist Program was recognized in May 2022 for its community-focused model for education around recycling best practices. What changes have you noticed in the communities where individuals have taken part in the program?

We’ve heard from our specialists that projects can be a bright spot for residents and the whole community. For example, we have a specialist leading food scrap collection in a building with many low-income individuals experiencing historic rent hikes. Residents have coalesced around working on the program, and it has been something positive in an otherwise challenging time. In general, the program has been a vehicle for building community and increasing community capacity in ways that are incredibly hard to quantify but are certainly signs of success from our perspective.

At the time of the 2022 Awards, five individuals were in the program across four properties. Has the program expanded to more properties? How many more specialists have taken part?

Since the Awards, we have had one new session start, which has included three new specialists at two new properties. We have our first specialist in Washington County. The specialist is in Newport, which is where the Ramsey/Washington Recycling & Energy Center is located.

The program pays residents a stipend to lead as an apartment recycling specialist for a minimum of six months, up to 18 months maximum. Do specialists often continue to champion waste management and recycling best practices after their time in the program?

Yes! We’ve observed that during the program, specialists build community and increase community capacity around waste reduction and recycling. Even after they’ve completed their term as a specialist, other residents still look to them for guidance regarding recycling and waste reduction, and the specialists still make efforts to perpetuate this type of work. They’ve built a sense of community through the different events or projects and have gained expertise in best practices around waste reduction and recycling in apartments. We are grateful for their passion and willingness to continue to engage in this work, as time allows.

Are there currently opportunities to get involved with the program?

Something that is necessary for the success of an apartment recycling specialist is buy-in and support from building management. Eligible buildings also must fall within a certain geographic boundary area that is more climate vulnerable and often experiences dis- or under-investment. Because of this, the recruitment process is fairly specific, and we rely on our consultants at MN WasteWise to make these connections and find opportunities for new properties to join the program.

What would you like us to know that we haven’t asked?

We have learned a lot from the apartment recycling specialists. I think something that we can’t shy away from is digging deeper into understanding the barriers that apartment residents face, especially considering the intersection of class, language, race, immigration, etc. Correct signage and providing information and bins and other resources is important, but there are deeper questions we should be asking around housing stability and affordability, living wages, and workforce development. We see that for many folks in apartments, waste reduction and recycling are not a priority because so many basic needs are not being met.

Would you encourage other organizations to apply for an Environmental Initiative Award? If so, why? What benefits have you experienced?

The Environmental Initiative Awards really elevate creative, innovative, and community-based approaches to environmental issues — something we desperately need as we confront larger issues like climate change and systemic inequities. The Awards recognize these efforts, but more importantly opens the conversation of how our work should be evolving to be more community-led and community-centered.

Nominations for the 2023 Environmental Initiative Awards will open on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. The Environmental Initiative Awards recognizes those working in partnership at the nexus of a healthy environment, a prosperous economy, and an equitable society.