Turning Waste into Economic Opportunity

Anthony Smith's life turned around when he was 46. After 32 years of being in and out of prison, he found RecycleForce, an Indianapolis-based social enterprise that combines recycling services and workforce development for people returning from prison. "Working here has changed my life," said Smith.
The company provided him a job taking apart computers and other discarded electronics, along with support services, to get him back on his feet. That was seven years ago. He now manages operations and events, oversees peer mentoring, and serves on the board. He has reconnected with his family, gotten married, and bought a home.
"At RecycleForce, they say work is therapy, but the way I look at it, [RecycleForce takes] in a man and [they] try to make him believe in himself," Smith said. "I started at the bottom, when the company was small. I started showing them what I was capable of doing, and then as the company grew, I grew with it."
Smith's story demonstrates the potential of the recycling industry to transform lives — and build more resilient local economies. Doubling the amount of recycling in America would create 1.1 million jobs and generate billions of dollars in economic activity while improving the air and health of the nation's most vulnerable communities.
That winning proposition has inspired innovation and organizing across the country to increase recycling, connect low-income people and people of color to opportunities in the growing industry, and raise the floor for workers. Recycling and composting create two to 40 times more jobs than sending waste to landfills does. Because city and county governments have the ability to control how their waste is managed, recycling is something every community can do to strengthen the local economy and create job opportunities for residents who face employment barriers, including the long-term unemployed and people with conviction records — people like Anthony Smith.
Growing a "high road" recycling sector that provides good, family-supporting jobs is challenging. Sorting waste and converting it into new products is the nation's fifth most dangerous occupation. Much of the work is outsourced to temporary employment agencies that pay rock-bottom wages, with no training, job stability, or opportunities to advance. Yet from Boston to San Francisco and from New York to Milwaukee, advocates, policymakers, and equity-focused entrepreneurs are implementing models to reshape the industry. Today, America's Tomorrow highlights two inspiring initiatives to turn waste into a resource that benefits all.
Recycling and reentry in Indianapolis
RecycleForce has capitalized on the demand for recycling services with a comprehensive program of job training, transitional employment, peer mentoring, and support services for people returning from prison. Since 2007, the program has processed more than 30 million pounds of waste while training more than 600 people. The workers, 79 percent of them African American, learn all aspects of recycling, from forklift operations to safe handling of hazardous materials to customer service.
Transitional employees work up to six months, at a current wage of $10.10 an hour, and receive assistance to find housing, pay child support, and navigate the extensive requirements of parole. Although placement into permanent jobs is challenging in the relatively weak regional economy, nearly two-thirds of their workers find unsubsidized jobs afterwards, according to Gregg Keesling, president of RecycleForce. And while formerly incarcerated people in Indianapolis return to prison (or recidivate) at a rate of around 50 percent, only about 25 percent of RecycleForce employees end up back in prison. This not only reduces incarceration costs but also contributes to the economic well-being of families. For example, RecycleForce employees have steadily increased their child support payments, collectively paying $300,000 in the past two and a half years.
RecycleForce depends on both recycling sales — nearly $2 million last year — and grants to cover the costs of the additional training and services for workers. Although a $5.5 million federal grant is coming to an end, Keesling is confident that RecyleForce will continue to grow in the face of increasing demand for successful reentry programs and for recycling services.
"The recycling industry is part of the future," said Keesling. "The job creation potential is huge."
Campaigning for policy change in Los Angeles
Municipal policy change can go a long way toward sustaining and scaling up programs like RecycleForce and building waste management systems that simultaneously create good jobs, boost local economies, reduce greenhouse gases, and clean the air in low-income communities that have long been disproportionately harmed by pollution from trucks and garbage incinerators. "Cities have tremendous resources and unique policy levers to change the industry and get to those outcomes,'' said Hays Witt, waste and recycling campaign director for the Partnership for Working Families, which works nationally to transform trash into good jobs and create healthy communities.
In Los Angeles, a coalition of labor, faith, environmental justice, small business, and community groups led by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy supported a recent city council effort to enact sweeping changes to the antiquated system for hauling trash from large apartment complexes and businesses. Hauling companies, which previously negotiated contracts with commercial customers independently, will become city contractors under the new zoned franchise system, so for the first time they will have to comply with city wage and labor protections such as the living-wage ordinance, which is $11.03 an hour with health benefits, or $12.28 without.
The new system is projected to eliminate 2.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, reduce as much as 94 percent of truck particulates by requiring clean fleets, and improve the lives of tens of thousands of workers. As Los Angeles develops the infrastructure to recycle nearly three million tons of waste annually, it will also create 20,000 new manufacturing jobs related to recycling.
"LA's big move toward a Zero Waste plan that's good for climate, workers, and communities of color really paves the way for cities across the country to do the same," Witt said.