Keith Ellison speaks at the 2017 Resource Recycling Conference.

In a rousing speech to recycling leaders, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison explained how pushing forward on materials diversion will lead to a higher quality of life for everyone.

Ellison, a sponsor of the Zero Waste Development and Expansion Act of 2017, spoke during the closing plenary session at this year’s Resource Recycling Conference, which was held last week. He outlined how the issues have become priorities for him as a lawmaker, and he offered specific tips to enhance recycling efforts, such as facilitating meaningful communication between experts and the general public. The session was organized by the National Recycling Coalition and the Recycling Association of Minnesota.

Ellison, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s 5th District, an area that includes Minneapolis, host city for the conference.

The following is a transcript of Ellison’s wide-ranging, off-the-cuff talk:


Well let me tell you, I know who the on-the-ground, everyday heroes are in the fight for our climate, in the fight for zero waste, in the fight for putting folks to work at living-wage jobs, and that is you. And I want to say thank you. You have been absolutely awesome.

Not one single thing I’ve ever done has been done in isolation. … So I definitely want to say that I appreciate you, and I want to lift you up as the heroes that you are.

In fact, my opinion is you are working on what may be the most important thing for anyone to work on, which is saving this planet. And so I want to just let you know that I understand the context that we arrive here together in. Yes, there has been a proposal for a 30 percent cut in the EPA. Barnes (Johnson) is absolutely a hero in this regard. He is fighting a mighty battle to do the work that he does, and not under the easiest of conditions. I want to let you know, Barnes, when they’re talking bad about federal employees, this is something that I resist and fight back against all the time. These guys are the ones making sure we can drink the water and breathe the air!

And I just want to tell you, when somebody starts talking about a job-killing regulation, I’m like, “You mean health and safety regulations?” This is the reality, and we have got to lift it up. Because if you are a federal employee you may not be in a position to talk about the larger context of what you do and why it’s critical, so we have to. We have to.

What if we said, “If you want to throw that stuff in a hole, the existence of that hole is going to cost more money”?

Let me tell you, one of the most important challenges I’ve faced as a citizen of this town is the asthma, the lead, all these environmental problems, coupled with the job challenge that my constituents have. We need to live in a clean and safe environment. We also gotta go to work. People tell us in order to go to work we gotta live in a dirty environment. And people tell us in order to be in a clean environment we gotta be unemployed.

What has become very clear in the moment that we’re in is that this is a false choice. That we can breathe and have a job. We can work and live in a clean environment. I believe zero waste and recycling are an important way to do it. In fact, why in the world are we burning up all that valuable stuff? We could use that stuff, and it takes people to sort it, collect it, process it, work it through, put it back into productive work, so those folks are making money.

And at Eureka, you’re not working for starvation wages at Eureka Recycling. Let me tell you, I’ve been there, I’ve walked around their plant, and the employees are like, happy, because they know that not only are they doing work that means a lot. … I mean, I told them: You think you’re just sorting garbage? That’s garbage. You’re saving our whole city. And I’m glad to see you getting $15 an hour, and I’m glad to see the fact you can go to the doctor if you’re sick and take a few days off to recuperate. We oughta be able to do both of those things. And what you are all working on is that reality. I think we gotta go way bigger.

You know, Barnes, I am glad along with you that we’ve gone from single digits up to as much as 30 percent [recycling rate]. But man, we’ve gotta go to 100 percent. We gotta go to 100 percent. And we absolutely can do it. It is fundamentally a question of political will.

Now, why do we spend all that money making the food and making this other stuff, and then bring it to the consumer, the consumer buys it, consumes it, or maybe just tosses it away, and then it goes out of the door, and we burn it up, we throw it in a hole, landfill – I like calling it a hole, that’s really what it is. Why do we do all of that? Why do we allow it to be done? Because the consumer only sees their slice of it – it doesn’t exist until it arrives on the shelf. Then it exists until I get it home, then I eat it or I don’t eat it, I use it or I don’t use it. Then, when I’m done with it, it’s gone. When I put it in that bin, it doesn’t exist for me anymore.

The other reason is that every stage of the production and consumption cycle, somebody is getting paid off it. So, why do I make the packaging? Because it makes me money to make packaging, I sell packaging, that’s the business that I’m in.

The important lesson about both of these two factors is that each one of them is the product of decisions that we have made as a society. There’s nothing natural about either one of those two things, the production or the consumption process. We have decided to do it that way, or somebody has decided to do it that way, and all of the rest of us just kind of go along with it.

What if we decided to do it another way? What if, on the consumption side, we said the point of life is not to consume as much stuff as we can, it’s not to get new stuff every time we feel sad, lonely, hungry. After a breakup, what do we do? We go consume something. But what if we said the real point of life is to be happy? Measured by what? … Time with my family, being well and healthy, having enough to meet basic needs in life. And my happiness does not turn on me getting the latest new thing that somebody said I need to have to feel good about me?

What do they say in “Fight Club”: buying stuff that you don’t need to please and impress people you don’t like? You all saw “Fight Club,” right?

What if we converted this whole thing to refocus things on what life is really all about? Because you don’t really care how old this suit is, and I don’t really care about what that thing you have on your wrist is. I don’t know who made it. I don’t know who the designer was. You’re wearing this wristwatch to impress me. I don’t even know nothing about that wristwatch. I just know it’s a watch.

So one of the things we’ve gotta do, in terms of the consumption side of this thing … is help people understand that things do not exist simply because they meet your eye. We have got to help people understand the entire consumption process. That means all of you who are experts in science and in policy have to suddenly become in the information-sharing business. And you have to share that information in a way that is compelling and that people want.

We’ve got to create a working definition for what do we mean by zero waste, because I guarantee there will be some people who want to slip it in there as a marketing term, and not as a real thing.

I am telling you now, when you go home, please, convene a group of artists. Yes, that’s what I said. And talk to them about how they can write a song, write a play, write a video, do something to help people understand the implication and impact of that purchase and what it means over the long term.

I just needed some bookshelves. I was on my way to somewhere to go buy some new ones. Somebody who cares about me said, “Wait a minute. There’s a resale shop down the street. And I guarantee you you’re gonna find something higher quality and probably with more character and probably more interesting than you’re going to find in that cardboard pressboard thing you’re about to go buy.” And you know what? They were right. I’m like this new fan of resale shops.

But what if we gave some sort of tax incentive or some kind of incentive of some kind to resale shops? And what if we taxed people who want to build a bunch of brand new stuff, and what if we went upstream and said, “You wanna put that packaging in? Fine. If it’s not sustainable and recyclable, it’s going to cost you more.” What if we said, “If you want to throw that stuff in a hole, the existence of that hole is going to cost more money”? So if you wanna put something in a hole, it may be better and cheaper to find a way to put it back into reuse. It shouldn’t be cheap to put something in a landfill. It should be expensive.

Now, in terms of the other thing, in terms of people having a profit margin at every step of this process, we can shift that around too. Our tax system literally encourages the behavior that we see. We need to change it. We need to convert it to something new.

And if we do this in a few years, our quality of life will be better, we’ll have more heirlooms around our house, we’ll sustain things longer, we’ll keep them in better shape, and we won’t just toss them whenever we want a new one. Instead, we’ll focus on the quality of our marriages and our friendships and our relationships, and not so much on having something that I just bought make me feel good – right up until I get it out of the package, find out that it wasn’t as cool as I thought, and throw it in a hole, which is what we’re doing!

We need social change, economic and social shifting.

Now, the other thing I wanted to tell you, I mentioned something about artists. I want to tell you this. When you hear Marvin Gaye sing “Mercy Mercy Me” – who knows this song? There’s nobody in this room who could give a better, more compelling presentation about the importance of the ecology than that song. We’ve got to form critical partnerships to help people feel what we’re saying. I’ve been around enough environmental types to know we love our long words and chemical equations. We’ve gotta stop this, because we’ve gotta expand the scope of our advocacy. We’ve gotta have more people in this movement. And those people may not know what these chemical terms that we’re using even are!

I remember before I was into the environmental movement, it was intimidating. I thought I wasn’t qualified, even though I had a law degree. People started talking about how many micrograms per deciliter. I’m like, “What?”

We’ve got to learn how to talk differently, and people in the arts community can help us. If you go back to your community, and you call the folks who write the poems and the plays and all the rest to come to you and say, “We need you to help us tell our story in a more compelling way,” what do you think would happen? Who has already done that? There’s one, there’s two, three. What if we all did it? There is a Marvin Gaye in your neighborhood, waiting to sing. We had a little rap group, a bunch of kids called the Green Team. … The Green Team’s rapping about the environment. These are young African-American kids, and guess what? Everybody was snapping to it, even the scientists.

So what I’m saying is please do this. Our biggest problem is our army’s not big enough. We’ve got to expand it. And that means you’ve gotta go beyond the confines of the comfortable to get more people in. I’m not just saying it has to be pop. If you want to go do something with the orchestra, get them! We need them folks too! We need everybody.

Let me tell this to you: I have a bill that I want you to know about, and I need your help on it. If everybody can go to their member of Congress and say, “Are you on that bill?”, it would be awesome. Because there’s nothing Democrat or Republican about recycling.

Let me tell you a little bit about my bill. First of all, it creates and defines the term zero waste, which is important, because some people might want to tell you that throwing a bunch of crap in a hole is zero waste. I guess if you wait enough years, it will turn into recyclable material. How long does it take Styrofoam to become something that is part of the environment again? OK, so never. So not that one. But there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s one year short of never, you know what I mean?

We have got to help people understand the entire consumption process. That means all of you who are experts in science and in policy have to suddenly become in the information-sharing business. And you have to share that information in a way that is compelling and that people want.

The bottom line is it’s not recyclable. Burning that stuff is not recyclable. We’ve got to create a working definition for what do we mean by zero waste, because I guarantee there will be some people who want to slip it in there as a marketing term, and not as a real thing. Somebody said they’re already doing it. So we’ll need to put a stop to that.

The next thing it does is it creates a $100 million grant program, which is no money – when you say “million” in Washington, that’s like budget dust right there. It creates a $100 million grant program for the EPA for zero waste projects around the country. Create infrastructure, educational programs, capital investment, research. It allows any local government with statutory recycling targets to be eligible, because we want to encourage local governments to get some goals.

It promotes public-private partnership. We know that there’s a lot of corporate entities that are doing great work. We know Best Buy is leading the band on helping recycling and electronic waste. This is a good thing, we want to encourage this. And no matter whether Trump is part of the Paris Climate Accords or not, local governments can be, and so we need to encourage them.

It would have the EPA administrator convene an annual conference of grant recipients to share successes and lessons learned. And a one-size-fits-all approach to waste may not work best. That’s why the bill gives support to local governments to do what they believe is the best way to do it as long as it fits within the real definition of what it means to be zero waste.

We need your help on this. We need you to get people involved. If you think the bill could be better, we’re looking for your advice.

At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to convert stuff into productive use again. We have an opportunity to put a lot of people to work at livable-wage jobs. We have a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And, by the way, landfills produce methane, which is as bad as anything.

And if we do all those things, that would make life better. And I want to thank you for leading the band on this thing, and I want to ask you yet again for your help to move this HR 1034 forward. Thank you.

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