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Is Recycling for the Rich?

Isabella Blair, Portland, Oregon

Week 14: Sunday, December 9th, 2018

To finalize a semester of environmental studies, we focused on environmental engagement. As a class, we have created a set of engagement proposals reflecting the topics we have been focusing on all year. As for my group’s project, we focused on environmental justice, and specifically, the differences in the knowledge of and ability to practice proper waste disposal amongst people of different socioeconomic statuses in Portland. You can view our project here.

We decided to focus on this topic because we wanted to bring attention to the fact that people, as a result of their socioeconomic status, are not only disadvantaged by their external environment, but they can also be disadvantaged in their ability to take action to improve upon their external environment.

Some of the environmental scholarship we used included:

Robert Bullard who states, in Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty, that Poorer communities are often in closer proximity to waste disposal plants, which can cause harmful health effects.

From Sustainable Fisheries: “Caring about sustainability is a privilege: most people in the world have more pressing issues to think about.”

Ellen Stroud: “The connection between toxic pollution and poor and non-white communities has been widely accepted, not only by activists, but by government agencies as well.”

Gordon Walker: “What defines and constitutes environmental justice has diversified.”

We then had to decide who we would engage with to fulfill our goal. We decided we would engage with high school students and staff because schools can be a very accurate way to gather data based on their location and its socioeconomic status.

Mean income in areas of Portland.

Photograph from


We chose Riverdale High School (located near Lewis & Clark, a relatively affluent area) and Lincoln High School (located Downtown, one of the most affluent areas of Portland). We also chose Grant High School and President James Madison High School, both schools that are located in Northeast Portland, which holds the most concentration of the lowest median income status in Portland.

In order to do this, we would have to contact each of the high schools to request permission to speak to students, teachers, and staff. We want to administer an anonymous survey to the classes we speak to, followed by an open discussion of the topic. The types of questions we would administer include:

Do you find recycling to be difficult?

Do you have a recycling bin at home?

Do you live near a waste treatment plant or similar facility?

We would also observe the availability of trash or recycling bins around campus, comparing each of the campuses. Furthering our engagement, we would like to speak to the cafeteria staff regarding food waste and engage with teachers and staff about access to recycling on campus and overall habits of students.

If you’d like to see our engagement poster, click here.