All air is not created equal - and nothing exemplifies this more than South Baltimore’s Curtis Bay neighborhood. When Shashawnda Campbell was just 15 years old, she co-founded “Free Your Voice,” a student-led group that worked for 5 years to shut down the largest incinerator proposal in US history set to be built less than a mile away from their school.
80% of incinerators are located in low-income communities of color - and that fact is not a coincidence. Tune in to hear Shashawnda break down why incinerators and other pollution-heavy industrial operations don’t belong in anyone’s neighborhood, regardless of race and income.
Don’t forget to subscribe/follow People Over Plastic on all major podcast apps and follow us on Instagram and Twitter @peoplexplastic, happy listening
Check out South Baltimore Community Land Trust to support Shashwanda’s work in Curtis Bay.
To get a deeper understanding of efforts to end waste incineration around the globe, check out the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. For more information on “chemical recycling” and plastics-to-fuel technology, view the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers’ overview of burning plastics as false solutions.
And that’s a wrap for season 2 of People Over Plastic’s podcast series!
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL, SOUND BYTE [00:01]: You are as tall as you believe you are. You are as big as you believe you are. And so I think when we were kids, we didn't even know how big this battle was. We didn't care about this system of, like, profit. We cared about is what we seen on the ground.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY - HOST [00:21]: Welcome back. Shilpi Chhotray here ringing in our season finale. In this episode “Not a Coincidence,” we're heading over to South Baltimore to talk with community organizer and activist Shashawnda Campbell. When she was just 14, she mobilized her peers under the Free Your Voice campaign to stop the largest incinerator proposal in U.S. history to be built less than a mile from her school. She's now 25 years old and continues her advocacy with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust.
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SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [00:56]: Curtis Bay as a community, it's in South Baltimore. It’s what we call the forgotten part of Baltimore. So if you Google South Baltimore, you're not going to see Curtis Bay, Brooklyn, Cherry Hill.
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Curtis Bay is a community of color and low-income. Also a lot of Spanish speakers. It's really diverse. But most of the people that live there have lived there for a long time, so many years of their lives. But it is a community that face a lot of environmental injustices when it comes to, like, systems that's placed in the community. Even though all of these forces are coming against them in a negative way, it's still managed to fight back.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [01:31]: Curtis Bay is home to the largest medical waste incinerator in America. The EPA indicates that Curtis Bay is in the 95 percentile for hazardous waste.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [01:46]: Curtis Bay has a trash-burning incinerator already, which is - literally, it burns trash, so all of the trash that's collected in the city and it's actually also being poured from some counties. Whatever you can think of is being burnt there. And so when it comes to the medical waste incinerator that's also in the community - that burns everything and, like, what you would see in a hospital, right? It would go there and would be burnt. And you can think of all the things that's in the hospital and, like, they'll stop your mind. Yes, it's being burnt there. We also have an open air coal pile that's across from a rec center where kids play. And then we also have a landfill, which is a quarantine landfill, which is where a lot of the waste still goes to be buried. And so it has become home to a lot of these industries. And it's really harmful. Get out of our community because it's a home for actual people to live in.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [02:32]: How far does your family live from these facilities?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [02:37]: For the coal pile, it's about a cool 5 minutes and then a medical waste incinerator is about probably 10 minutes too.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [02:43]: You're literally encased by chemical poisons. Are you comfortable talking to me about what you're seeing in your friends and family in terms of health conditions?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [02:55]: I think the first thing that we noticed, even as kids, was the health impact. We go to give presentations to some of our friends and family. We say things like, “Who has asthma?” 90% of the hands go up. Going back to the school, we seen that it was getting worse because one of our guidance counselors talked about how they couldn't have a basketball team because none of the students can run for long to actually finish a game. That was normal. We've been to blocks where they talk about cancer being, like, throughout the block. Some residents have just moved into the community and then they’re also seeing the effects because they started getting sick. And they talk about the smells in the air. They talk about upper respiratory issues that just keeps happening. They're always sick. But they don't understand why.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [03:36]: Do you think race has a factor to play in the siting of these toxic facilities?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [03:42]: Oh, absolutely. One statistic I always talk about is that 80% of incinerators are in communities of color and low income. And so that is a fact. That shows that this is something that's not a coincidence. It's systematic. That's saying they do not value those lives. And that's not okay.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [04:00]: Maryland is not a poor state. It's actually considered to be one of the wealthiest states in the U.S. I was curious to hear why Curtis Bay has been so blatantly forgotten about by elected leaders.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [04:13]: I think that for many years this system has been this way. Every day it wakes up, business as usual, right? And I think that the work that we are doing is disrupting that. And I think they need to see that disruption. They need to see this in press. They need to see all of people standing up, not just our communities. Because if it's our communities now, it could be years later. It is globally. There are so many fights of gets these incinerators polluting these communities and causing health damages. Incinerator that's in Baltimore costs $55 million a year in health damages to residents. And that's a cost that people are paying with their lives. And I think that it's time for people to acknowledge that our environment is killing us.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [04:53]: BRESCO (B-R-E-S-C-O), the incinerator, is the city's worst air polluter. $106 million contract was signed by the city to put this into action.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [05:06]: We have our mayor that's saying, yes, we want to see zero waste. We want to get- start with food, getting food out the waste stream, which is currently being burned and buried. What we see them doing is saying a lot of stuff, but we do not see the movement. We don't see it. And when it comes to us talking about new infrastructure, what we want to see is standards, real life standards. That's community benefit agreement with host communities. That is a real thing. Community governance over some of these facilities that's coming in our communities. We want to see a compost facility because that takes 40% of what’s being burnt and buried and killing us.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [05:37]: Organic waste should not be thrown away. Period. Composting our food and yard waste is not only cheap and effective, it's also a proven measure to reduce methane emissions, which desperately need to be cut by at least 45% by 2030 to stay below a 1.5 degree warming planet.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [05:58]: Our government should want to see the same thing, and they should be standing on the frontlines fighting with us. But what we see is like, “Well, we don't have the models. We don't have the funding.” You do have the funding because you have the funding and you're giving it consistently to these bad things.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [06:13]: Let's talk about this concept of zero waste. So it's kind of been hijacked by the affluent millennials. Zero waste as an infrastructure issue is what is really compelling to me.
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NEWS CLIP, REPORTER NARRATION [06:30]: The average American makes more than a ton of trash every year. Most of us seem to like this toss-and-go lifestyle. But Lauren Singer is not most of us.
NEW CLIPS, REPORTER [06:40]: What are we looking at here?
LAUREN SINGER IN INTERVIEW [06:41]: Yeah, this is my- this is my jar of trash from the past two years.
NEWS REPORTER IN INTERVIEW [06:45]: Two years of trash.
LAUREN SINGER IN INTERVIEW [06:46]: Two years of trash. I use stainless steel straws-
NEWS REPORTER IN INTERVIEW [06:50]: Cups?
LAUREN SINGER IN INTERVIEW [06:50] I'll bring a mason jar.
NEWS REPORTER IN INTERVIEW [06:52]: Paper towels, paper products?
LAUREN SINGER IN INTERVIEW [06:54]: I use cotton napkins to clean my home. I make all my own cleaning products.
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SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [07:00]: I think the first thing I want to do is bring it down a level. Like, you’re talking about a lot like. Zero waste as a concept has been whitewashed for so long. And it has also been made like it's a privilege. It's like you have to have a privilege to be involved in zero waste or to care about their environment. Whose lives are being sacrificed are people of color, right? And people of color has been doing this for many years. I'll give this example. When you go into your aunt's house or your mom's house and you go into that cookie jar and there is no cookies. And so it's like they have reused that << laughs >> and that is a system of zero waste. And that's a system that's not valued. Like people with less money, they actually make it do and they make it work. And that's not being talked about when we talk about zero waste. But there is also investment that has to happen to help these communities that has been suffering from this bad infrastructure for too long.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [07:53]: Hearing Shashawnda talk about this, I wanted to hear what type of greenwashing she's experiencing with incinerators in her community.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [08:01]: One of the things that we talked a lot about is around, like, state policies that's happened that has literally named them as a renewable energy source. Like this is the same as wind and solar. That's what they're saying.
NEWS CLIP, PRIYANKA BAKAYA IN INTERVIEW [08:14]: Our mission is to renew waste.
NEWS CLIP, REPORTER [08:16]: Priyanka Bakaya, the CEO and founder of Renewlogy, is passionate about turning our old yogurt containers, soda bottles, and plastic bags into fuel.
NEWS CLIP, PRIYANKA BAKAYA IN INTERVIEW [08:25]: Our solution is to chemically recycle the plastics by taking the plastics back down into their basic building block. [08:31][6.1]
NEWS CLIP, REPORTER [08:32]: Renewing plastics into fuel.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [08:36]: Waste-to-energy or waste-to-industrial-pollution? Unfortunately, even tech startups are capitalizing on false solutions when it comes to getting rid of plastic waste. Let me be clear: plastic does not disappear through incineration, and no matter what industry calls it - waste-to-energy, chemical recycling, or advanced recycling - these processes result in the same thing: burning plastic. Now, some of the waste going through incinerators can actually be recycled, like paper and aluminum, or composted, like food and yard waste. The problem is the pollution from burning waste is literally killing people who live near these facilities.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [09:24]: BRESCO began running in South Baltimore in 1985. The average lifespan of a trash incinerator is about 30, 31 years.
<< sound of fire burning >>
I just sort of get chills thinking about if you didn't stop that other incinerator from coming into your community when you're already dealing with BRESCO.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [09:42]: Honestly, there would be a lot of deaths. There would be a lot of health problems. I can't even express the amount of impact in health that we would have seen in community if that incinerator was created. But I can also talk about right now we have so many, it's so many health impacts, so many people are sick. And these are the communities that don't have a lot of money, right, but they're wasting so much money in health care because of these issues. There are people, they’re missing work to take their sick kids to the hospital because of this system that's in place.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [10:14]: You were so young when this started. And I want other kids in high school here or New Delhi, what can they do? What are the things you want to teach them?
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SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [10:24]: You are as tall as you believe you are. You are as big as you believe you are. And so I think when we were kids, we didn't even know how big the battle was. We didn't care about this system of profit. We cared about is what we seen on the ground. We seen health problems. It was a food desert. The community didn't have markets. We were so undervalued that we couldn't have food stores. But what we did see was McDonald's. It's- it is still like that. << laughs >> And we’re still trying to get grocery stores. We also see housing issues. Right. So like the homes weren't good, but they cost so much money to pay for it, and it just didn't make no sense. There was mold in the homes or their roof was leaking. It was just so many issues that we seen when we were growing up.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [11:08]: Youth-led Free Your Voice framed their fight against the proposed incinerator in terms of equity backed by a lot of research.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [11:17]: It was a lot of students that were really passionate about this. And I think that when we were in the room talking a lot, it just felt more like that's what we wanted to give. We wanted to give that space for people to be able to tell their stories, to really talk. And so I think Free Your Voice came out in that way of saying like, whatever you have to say, it's value. So when we found out about this proposal, we did a lot of research, and then our next thing was like, Oh my god, we got to tell, like, everybody.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [11:41]: Was it desktop research where you were interviewing doctors, policymakers? Did you talk to this incinerator company?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [11:50]: All the above. We were teaching each other as we go. We were like, okay, what does LAD do? What does that- how much would this be giving our bodies? We were doing a lot of that type of research to then be able to go back to talk to people about, when they say, What is the health impacts that's happening. We were also doing a lot of, What does this contract look like? Who's in on this contract, what this incinerator that's going to be buying energy, that's important.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [12:10]: That’s important. You got to name the players and then get to them. Go for the jugular!
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [12:16]: Oh, yeah. And the one that we went for actually was- the Baltimore public school system was in on that contract.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [12:23]: What?!
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [12:24]: Ohhh yeah. That was like our number one knockdown pin.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [12:27]: Your school system was supporting this??
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [12:30]: It was going to be buying energy from it. But the thing is, this facility was given a red carpet layout. And so they were saying jobs. They were saying that it was going to create wealth in the community. And, like, even politicians was coming out and telling us, Oh this is a good thing, everybody. << laughs >> Yeah. So we were like, It's not a good thing. And so we started to just do a lot of educating them. We even educated them. And I can say that some of them honestly did not have that education that they should have had. And then they turned around. And that's how they became our champions. They were like, Oh, snap, I really messed up on this one. Then the school board, we would do marches there, there was poetry, there was song, there was dance. Like, we took over every meeting to tell them about, like, what they were doing was killing us.
<< audio of protestors chanting >>
AUDIO OF PROTESTORS [13:19]: What do we want? Fair development! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Fair development! When do we want it? Now!
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [13:27]: And we were like, We are the students you're supposed to protect! You're killing us! We went to Black museums that was in on that and we talked about race. So we were like, Hey, you value Black people, this is not valuing in Black lives. You can't buy energy from this thing. I think that for a long time, what we can see is even the injustice that's happening in police brutality. That is something that is always put on the news. But our lives are also being attacked by our environment. Your environment is killing you, like. And that is something that might be a slower death, but it is killing you, you know what I mean? That's what they don't talk about.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY [14:05]: You're a very passionate, bright young woman. I feel like you could live anywhere. Why do you choose to stay in Baltimore and fight for this city and for this town and this community?
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SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [14:16]: So when I was in school, I got into a lot of colleges. People were like, Leave, you can go, you can be great, you can didida, you never have to come back! But when I left, I felt like I was doing something wrong. Okay, we can all leave, and we've seen a lot of people leave and grow. The problem is that no one stays. That's the problem. The problem is that people have to stay because even when you leave, the injustice is still happening. That's still your friends. That's still your family. That injustice is happening to the next generation that's going to be born in this community, and that's not okay. We have to stay because we have to fight for the voiceless first off. Second off, we have to teach the ones that actually have a voice to use it. We have to take back these spaces to allow those voices to speak because for a long time they were blocked out of these spaces that was making decisions about us. And so I couldn't leave knowing that this is what's happening. Do I want someone to follow in my steps and do this? Heck no. I wish that no one had to do this because no communities should be sacrificed in the way that they are treated as a dumping ground. It's not a job anyone wanted growing up. No one said, I want to go fight for my community and environment. We thought that we were all good human beings and we wouldn't sacrifice anyone.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [15:31]: Your family must be so proud of you. How have they responded to your work?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [15:37]: << laughs >> At first they were like, You're naive, that’s not going to do anything. But then they were like, But keep doing it! And now they're like, Oh snaps. So I think that it also changed just, like, the mindset, I think of, like, valuing youth input. And the power youth can create when they actually care about something and they want to see it through.
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We want to see is safer communities, is safer environment. We want to see that investment into communities and we want to see new infrastructure that can deal with the waste that's not sacrificing communities. Because when you talk to residents on the ground, that's what they'll tell you. They don't want to see coal piles literally exploding and throwing coal into their homes.
<< sound of sirens and truck horns >>
There was an explosion at the coal pile that spit tons of coal onto people, like cars, their windows, went into their homes. One of the oil companies that had a fire that literally ended up in a death of- of one resident. But that one could have been anybody, especially just knowing that that explosion could have went further, like, the homes are literally - probably go down one block next to where that fire was - there is a home. There is people that live on that block.
NEWS CLIP, REPORTER #1 [16:51]: We're told it happened just before 11:30 Thursday morning. Fire officials say contractors were moving coal on a conveyor belt. That's when the coal dust combusted and caused an explosion, leaving behind a charred mess.
NEWS CLIP, PERSON #1 BEING INTERVIEWED [17:05]: And I looked out here and I could see all the smoke billowing from the coal place over there. I
NEWS CLIP, REPORTER #2 [17:11]: Ivan says he saw other people running down the hill, and that's when he realized the petroleum management facility on Curtis Avenue was burning.
NEWS CLIP, PERSON #2 BEING INTERVIEWED [17:19]: Just black smoke filling the sky. I mean, the building was up in flames and they had that one tank they said was up in flames.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [17:28]: We think about zero waste and a just transition. It's to not see those things. It's to not see the transition between this oil company and down the block, there is a home, this coal pile, and across is a rec center, this incinerator, and across is homes where people live at. That's what we don't see in a just transition. We care about workers and jobs, but it's not a war on jobs. It's a war on a systematic approach that has oppressed communities of color in low income for too long.
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SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [17:55]: Just imagine how daunting it must be to fight a coal plant, multiple incinerators, oil companies, and a landfill all in a single community. If you're new to the term “just transition,” what Shashawnda is describing is a principle that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should coexist. Curtis Bay has citywide plans for Black land reparations that would provide meaningful jobs incorporating large scale organics and composting.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [18:29]: What we would see is the new infrastructure right now that we're working on is around compost and was creating so many more jobs. We've also seen- there's a plot of land that in Curtis Bay that we think would be perfect for that infrastructure, that people can walk to, that they can go and get a job to. There is haulers that's hauling a lot of that stuff to the incinerator. They can be hauling that to actual good things, a reuse center. We want to see, what we call, a resource recovery park that will also be where that compost facility is, on that plot of land, which creates even more jobs. << laughs >> So that's what we want to see. And that's some of the things that we're looking forward to and that we're working on. We also face things like gentrification when we're doing all of these good things for our communities. But then people see it's a waterfront property and they're like, We're going to move in on this. We're going to buy these homes. So we're facing that.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [19:17]: When considering a just transition for Curtis Bay, it seems like the priority would be to shut down the 36-year-old trash incinerator BRESCO. This outdated facility causes significant industrial pollution, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and more. Trust me, you do not want to be breathing this air.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [19:42]: We fought tooth and nail for that not to be signed. And it wasn't supposed to be. This incinerator costs so much freakin’ money. It is super expensive. Incinerators are expensive. They did have a new agreement that was added on, which is amount of, like, chemicals that they can pollute, then they have to pay a fee. But they can still do it, it’s just they have to pay a fee. It's just like profit, again, over people, that we keep seeing that dynamic. This incinerator does not need to function. Most of what is burning can be composted, recycled, or reused, and that's 80%. A lot of people say, what's the 20% then? A lot of things we don't need, like plastics that's being burned because they have no endgame- end disposal except burning or burying, which wasn't always around, like plastics were not always around. We can live without them, believe it or not.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [20:33]: According to community recyclers who know these materials intimately, waste-burning technologies are distractions from real policies, policies that should be supporting re-use and recycling and much needed infrastructure designed with community input. Worse, they fix the wrong problem. False technologies like incinerators also enable the mass production of plastic.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [21:02]: There is a myth that's happening that people are preaching about plastics as if they are going to be recycled. And that comes from these corporations that want to keep making plastic. We have to at all times clear that up because people, once you give them the information, people do the right thing. We see the problem is that people just didn't have those numbers. They didn't have that information. And I think that the more we do that, the more we'll see that change. Even when we talk about zero waste as a whole, Oh, you've got to have this type of privilege. Don't blame poor people for buying plastic when you make it cheaper than the things that they should actually be able to afford and get. Like a salad costs more than a burger. That makes no sense.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [21:39]: Shashawnda breaks it down. People who are most affected by pollution, the frontline workers and the fenceline communities, should be the ones front and center when it comes to decision making that impacts their communities.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [21:53]: This is going to take a lot of people to create this new world because it's a new world that we want to see. After COVID, nothing should go back to same at all. What we want to see is that, first of all, that people have access and that people will have a seat at the table to be able to listen to decisions and make decisions about their own community. And I think that government isn't ready for that. They aren't ready for those type of partnership. A co-equal development process with communities, institutions that's in the city, and then the city itself. We have to create a new world that values the type of knowledge that residents have, which is their experience. But we don't live in that world.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [22:34]: South Baltimore Community Land Trust is such a powerful example of what community led organizations can do. What you want to say to the youth in South Baltimore in particular?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [22:48]: Keep your head up, keep trying, keep doing what you're doing, even if you're only one that believe in it at this time. It takes one person to start a movement. Just know that you are on the right side of history because right now, there are a lot of people that's on the wrong. And they might look like they got majority. When you think about real power, that power lands in you, it lands in your community, and it lands in the work that you're doing. And so as long as you have passion and you have that motivation and determination, you will create change. There are so many people in the world, but out of all of them, I want you guys to be someone to do it. And so super impressed by you guys.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION[23:24]: Before we closed, I asked Shashawnda if there was anything else she wanted to share.
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [23:29]: The medical waste incinerator in Curtis Bay actually has not been reporting, so they are not in compliance for 12 quarters.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [23:37]: And nobody is holding them accountable?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [23:39]: No one's holding them accountable at all.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [23:42]: Who is supposed to be - the EPA?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [23:43]: They supposed to go do these tests and check, literally read their reports. But the medical waste incinerator just has not been reported for 12 quarters. There is no consequences for these companies at all.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY [23:55]: If they were to report and the data was transparent and available, what do you think could happen?
SHASHAWNDA CAMPBELL [24:01]: I think it would show that they're not in compliance with what they're supposed to be reporting on. And I think that people would fight them, and I would be that person.
SHILPI CHHOTRAY, NARRATION [24:13]: Shashawnda, on behalf of the entire People over Plastic team. Thank you so much for sharing your story and giving us a real sense of what's going on in Curtis Bay. To learn more about Shashawnda’s work, the South Baltimore Community Land Trust, and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, please check out our show notes. “Not a Coincidence” was produced by Francisco Núñez Capriles. Friends, that's a wrap for Season Two. Thank you again for tuning in. If you enjoyed listening, please consider giving us a review and making a donation. I also want to give a heartfelt shout-out to the Alliance of Mission-Based Recyclers for your thought partnership this season. We have some exciting events planned in the near future, so be sure to stay tuned on Instagram and Twitter. Have a safe and relaxing summer, everyone.
END OF EPISODE
Season and episode cover artwork by Greg Dubois @marvelgd