Compared to many American cities, Seattle has a fairly robust recycling and composting system. The City of Seattle also provides resources to educate residents and businesses. In addition to physical fliers, there is an online search tool.

ECOSS often visits Seattle’s Chinatown-International District to work with the restaurants there, many of which are owned by immigrants and refugees. Photo Credit: ECOSS.

However, with a robust system comes constantly changing rules, such as regulations around plastic bags, Styrofoam, takeout containers and more. For small businesses, especially when the owner or staff don’t speak English as a first language, it can be challenging to stay up to date with all the changes. ECOSS helps residents and small businesses adapt to these changes, and advocates for racial equity, such as language access and culturally-relevant education. Yet, it’s difficult for these suggestions to change government policies systemically.

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) is ECOSS’ main client for solid waste management outreach, and they are stepping up when it comes to equitable engagement. By law, SPU can demand fines be paid for businesses that aren’t in compliance with recycling/composting regulations. However, this would inequitably harm business owners of color, many of whom face language and cultural barriers to adapting to Seattle’s regulations. Rather, SPU is spending resources internally to promote more equitable practices and externally for community-based organizations like ECOSS to ensure that commercial businesses have fair opportunities to recycling and composting education and resources before being hit with punitive fines. So what does that look like?

Enter “Targeted Universalism,” a framework created by UC Berkeley professor john a. powell as a model for promoting equity in policies and strategies. SPU has adopted this framework to guide their outreach efforts with businesses around recycling and composting compliance. The idea is that suppose there is a broad, universal goal to achieve – in SPU’s case, it’s 80% of all businesses complying with solid waste regulations. To reach this goal, there must be targeted solutions that recognize how different segments of the population are situated relative to that goal. For example, a takeout place will have different challenges from a sit-down restaurant. A Mexican-owned business will have different questions from a Vietnamese-owned one. Without a framework like Targeted Universalism, fining noncompliant businesses will unintentionally and unfairly target businesses of color due to inherent language and cultural barriers.

In practice, the framework greatly aligns with the ECOSS approach of recognizing the diversity among and within underserved communities and promoting culturally-relevant engagement. Here’s an example within the Korean community. Multicultural Program Manager David Han, who manages this project from SPU, was tasked with learning about how to improve compliance among Korean food-service businesses. Through outreach to 20 Korean-owned restaurants, David learned their lack of compliance was a simple difference in how compost was defined in Seattle versus their home country.

Understanding how to dispose of waste can be a daunting task. Seattle Public Utilities provides illustrative fliers to help businesses and community members determine what goes where. Photo Credit: Seattle Public Utilities.

Food waste is handled in its own cycle in South Korea. Due to a language barrier, David’s sample of Korean restaurants conflated compost with food waste. It thus didn’t make sense for Korean business owners to go through the additional mental and logistic effort to implement composting. David quickly picked up on this cultural difference and helped these businesses learn how other waste such as wooden chopsticks, used napkins and more could be redirected to composting, saving businesses money in the process.

Insights like these will inform engagement with that segment of Korean businesses throughout Seattle. In total, there are dozens of these segments, divided by type of food-service, geography, language and more. Through targeted engagement like what ECOSS accomplished, each segment can reach 80% compliance with education and solutions that are relevant to each community. By the time each segment reaches 80% recycling and composting compliance, there will be universal compliance of 80% or more – a win for the city that doesn’t come at the expense of underserved communities.

Environmental equity is often much easier said than done. With a framework like Targeted Universalism, there is clarity on how well the goal of equity is being met. ECOSS will continue to push for mindsets like this one so that there can be sustainable solutions for all.