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Saturday, June 19, 2021

State’s New Environmental Law Risks Disparate Impact On Small And Black-owned Businesses

Sandra Williams

By Sandra Williams

 Special to the Seattle Medium from the Trice Edney News Wire

As important conversations take place in Washington about the future of the state’s environment, its new law increasing recycled content minimums has the potential to put small businesses in a tough spot. Even the most well-intentioned businesses that are committed to sustainability will struggle to meet the new environmental benchmarks. To ensure we can actually meet these goals, we must invest in expanded recycling infrastructure and public awareness initiatives rather than inhibit those trying to advance the recycling cause with increased costs. 

Protecting the environment is an important goal, and supporting recycling is a critical part of that. Yet business owners need to pay the bills after a challenging year. One survey several months into the pandemic found that nearly half of small businesses indicated a significant or severe effect from COVID-19 on their business. 

This impact has been particularly challenging for all sorts of businesses, including black-owned businesses and businesses owned by other people of color. In fact, the Metlife and U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Index found that 86 percent of minority-owned small businesses surveyed said that the pandemic has led them to worry over the future of their business — nearly 15 percent higher than non-minority owned businesses that share this concern. This is a grim reality that I can personally attest to as a longtime entrepreneur and member of the business community in Spokane. 

That’s why this legislation comes at a particularly challenging time. COVID-19 has devastated recycling systems and forced packaging companies to grapple with limited access to usable recycled resources. With this disruption to the system, businesses will likely not have enough usable materials to meet the content minimum requirements and could face a financial hit from trying.

While the pandemic did not create these racial disparities, it certainly exposed how communities of color are often facing an uphill battle — especially when it comes to questions about the environment. Washington’s new recycled content law is another example of this. I am now hearing across the business community here in Spokane that many businesses, including Black-owned businesses, are already struggling to make ends meet and will almost certainly face higher costs if manufacturers increase prices. 

Meanwhile, this law’s approach may also result in higher product costs — and rising costs at the checkout counter for families in underserved communities at a time they can least afford it.

Everyone must play a complementary and fair role in the circular nature of the plastic recycling process. This is where effective legislation can be an asset to the recycling process. 

Legislation like this does not fix the underlying problems with recycling. We must address the underlying issues that exist by investing in recycling infrastructure. We must take a holistic approach to strengthening each step of the process – from the recycling bins that consumers use to the manufacturing of the reused plastic materials. 

It is also critical to invest in public awareness around recycling so we can all share the burden and move toward a more environmentally friendly solution. The best way to expand our recycling will be to teach consumers how to effectively recycle each item they use. As we begin to look past the pandemic, now is the perfect time to improve our collective recycling efforts and give Washington communities the tools to be good environmental stewards in their everyday lives.

As small businesses fight their way out of the economic challenges brought on by the pandemic, we must set realistic recycling benchmarks for Washington businesses as well as consumers. It’s on all of us to be a part of the solution and substantively move the needle on recycling.  

Sandra Williams is an entrepreneur and activist in Spokane, Washington.

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