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How this immigrant worker center entered the business of organic waste management

The CERO Cooperative, founded in 2012, was an opportunity for economic justice within the new green economy.

Person throws leftover vegetables from a bowl into a backyard compost

When the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection's organics waste ban came into effect in 2014, CERO was well positioned to seize on the new market opportunity.

Copyright 2021 by The New Press. This excerpt originally appeared in "The World We Need," edited by Audrea Lim and reprinted here with permission.

The World We Need book cover, yellow background with white letters with blue outline and black lettering in between those words that reads, 'Stories and lessons from America's Unsung Environmental Movement' 'Edited by Audrea Lim'

Josefina Luna begins her day at 5 a.m. She rises from bed and makes her way to the Dorchester, Massachusetts, headquarters of CERO — Cooperative Energy, Recycling, and Organics — where she checks in with the four drivers who maneuver the co-op’s four trucks around Boston each day, picking up loads of organic waste — orange rinds, eggshells, moldy bread — from commercial clients: supermarkets, hospitals, colleges, cafeterias, Facebook, Amazon, and Google. 

How does everyone feel? Could the routes for the day be more efficient? Have the barrels been washed? Do the truck mechanics look good? Then the drivers set off. The real work begins: troubleshooting logistical issues, dealing with customer queries and complaints, training new clients on what can and can’t be composted — no plastics, metal, rubber, or anything besides food waste — as well as old clients with new employees. And with high employee turnover at many supermarkets and other food businesses, the trainings never seem to end. Some days, Luna and her colleagues don’t finish until 9 p.m. 

CERO is a cooperative business, where the workers own the business and everyone is effectively a boss, or soon to become one: in addition to the five member-owners — Luna, a co-founder, is one of them — the hired employees are all "in the process of becoming member-owners" by participating in meetings and learning how the company runs, she explains. This adds an additional layer of work to the traditional business model, which only requires workers to perform certain tasks in exchange for a paycheck, but doesn’t offer the long-term stability of potential ownership in the business. 

But for Luna, CERO is a culmination of many disparate elements of her life: a love of plants and nature that she inherited from her mother; her education and organizing work as part of a teacher’s co-op back in the Dominican Republic, where she grew up; and her efforts to bolster worker rights as president of the MassCOSH — Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health — Worker Center in Dorchester.

CERO was an opportunity for economic justice — for workers to be the main beneficiaries of their efforts, while also controlling their own working conditions — within the new green economy.

The latter organization supports immigrant workers, who are mostly low income and Black or Brown, in fighting dangerous working conditions and organizing for good jobs and healthy communities. Luna, who is in her 70s, was an organizer there in 2010 when she began hearing that Massachusetts was seeking to require businesses to separate their organic waste from their trash — an effort to reduce the amount of garbage produced and incinerated at polluting facilities in the cities. She and others began building CERO as a recycling co-op in 2011, and launched it in 2012. The following year, MassDEP announced the organics waste ban, and by the time it came into effect in 2014, CERO was already well positioned to seize on the new market opportunity. 

Their entrepreneurial foresight was partly fostered through MassCOSH’s participation in the Boston Recycling Coalition, which formed in 2010, and also includes the Boston Workers Center, Clean Water Action, GAIA (Global Action for Incinerator Alternatives), and the Community Action Works (formerly Toxics Action Center). Lor Holmes, who was a BRC organizer before becoming CERO’s start-up manager, explained that the coalition was focused on "how important it was to protect workers as we fought for environmental protections and increased recycling," she says. 

"Sorters in the recycling plants, and in the waste hauling business, are among some of the most dangerous jobs, and filled by a lot of workers who are least able to stick up for their rights, either because they’re from immigrant populations, or are low-income folks who rely on their jobs and can’t speak out," she explained. CERO was an opportunity for economic justice — for workers to be the main beneficiaries of their efforts, while also controlling their own working conditions — within the new green economy. 

Holmes now leads CERO’s financial development efforts. And she said that the Coalition is still pushing the city of Boston to undertake a Zero Waste planning process that will ensure living wages for green economy workers; that contracts are awarded to small, local businesses like CERO and not just the lowest bidder; that community and worker interests are accounted for; and that the city invests in better infrastructure and facilities to process large volumes of organic waste. (As of 2019, CERO was transporting all of its waste to Concord, New Hampshire, 65 miles away.) 

"It’s an uphill battle in Boston because development is so crazy here," she said. Rather than constructing anaerobic digesters for compost, "everyone wants to build unaffordable housing." But CERO is growing — both their customer base, and hopefully their roster of member-owners. And this is great for Luna. 

"I’m doing the best I can, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to keep my daily routine," she said. "Some people are getting older and tired. Like me."

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