Rep. Ellison attends a zero waste fair in 2016.

Boosting recycling doesn’t just yield environmental and economic benefits, it also helps reduce the disproportionate burden of waste disposal on vulnerable populations.

That’s one message from U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the Democratic representative whose district includes Minneapolis and surrounding cities. Ellison is scheduled to speak at the 2017 Resource Recycling Conference in Minneapolis.

Resource Recycling asked Ellison, who has introduced legislation related to recycling and composting, about the federal government’s role in supporting the industry.

There are lots of important issues that a member of Congress could be focusing on. How is it that waste diversion has become such a critical topic for you?

Recycling is one of those things that just makes sense. It’s good for the environment, which means it’s good for our health and our children’s future. And it’s good for the economy, too.

My Congressional work on waste began when a garbage incinerator in the middle of Minneapolis wanted to burn 200 more tons of waste every day, right within two miles of over a dozen elementary schools. It didn’t make sense to me that citizens would be paying a company to burn tons of recyclable and compostable materials and pump that pollution into the heart of the city.

There’s nothing responsible or efficient about dumping stuff in a hole for our children to deal with later, or in burning it up near poor communities and giving kids asthma. Recycling fixes both those problems.

What do you see as the low-hanging fruit for boosting recycling rates around the country?

My bill, the Zero Waste Development and Expansion Act, addresses what I see as the No. 1 problem – funding. The first thing we should do is make it easier for everyone to recycle and compost at home. Federal funding can also help address the disproportionate environmental, health and economic burden of waste disposal that communities of color and low-income communities face.

Next, we should encourage businesses like restaurants, movie theatres and stadiums to recycle and compost. Hennepin County provides business recycling grants to help pay for new equipment, and it’s been a huge success. Dozens of businesses now produce next to no waste, and they save on their trash bills because it’s cheaper to recycle and compost. My bill would support efforts like this.

Waste and recycling is often portrayed as a “local issue” but you’ve introduced legislation at the national level. To what degree should the federal government be working to help shape the development of recycling, composting and other waste diversion initiatives in the U.S.?

Rep. Ellison (right) on tour at a Eureka Recycling materials recovery facility.

I agree that waste is something that local governments are best-suited to address. That said, I believe the federal government has an obligation to work on the aspects of waste management that have national significance, like promoting composting to fight climate change.

Are there specific areas in recycling policy where you see potential agreement between Democrats and Republicans at the national level?

The root of the word “conservative” is “conserve.” A lot of my friends across the aisle share my goal of conserving resources. They also share my perspective that we can promote recycling and composting without hammering cities and counties with more laws. No one will argue against high-paying jobs that offer good benefits – we need to continue to talk about recycling and composting as a solution to economic and environmental problems.

In the industry, we often aim to highlight recycling’s economic benefits as much as its environmental benefits to try to convince residents to properly recycle and to get policymakers to support the industry. Do you think this is a sound strategy, or are there other arguments the industry should be making to promote itself?

One of the biggest barriers we have to overcome is cultural. People are addicted to the convenience of disposable everything, and a big part of that is this idea that we have unlimited resources to use and land to dump our trash in. A couple generations ago, our economy was structured around repair and reuse. For some reason, conserving resources has become a partisan issue when it simply is sound economics.

The Trump Administration has made it a point to remove emphasis from climate change in setting the national political agenda. Do you think this will have lasting negative impacts on areas such as recycling that have been tied to emissions reductions in recent years? In other words, is there a chance that the words and priorities of the current leadership could make Americans care less about environmental protection?

As much as I worry about the President’s plan to roll back environmental and climate change programs, I am inspired by the groundswell of support for the Environmental Protection Agency. When it comes down to it, it’s within our power to make sure people don’t stop caring about the environment, and up to us to ensure waste reduction is at the center of solutions to combat climate change. I’m looking forward to joining the National Recycling Coalition and the Recycling Association of Minnesota to discuss how we can deepen support for recycling and composting!