I was born (a very long time ago) with a genetic condition that has required me to spend a day at the hospital every three weeks. It also meant that I grew up constantly being told what it is I can and cannot do. So I have developed a bit of a stubborn streak with a determination to prove people wrong of whatever it is they think limits me. That idea of “disproportionate power” – outsized influence – is very energizing to me.
In 2016, I started the “Waste Not, Want Not” (WNWN) initiative at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) with the goal of helping the community compost and reduce their waste. Demonstrating that a small team of students can have an institutional impact has been what is getting me out of bed every morning. Indeed, ever since WNWN started, the 50,000-member Concordia community doubled its annual composting, and each Concordian reduced their annual overall waste by 16%. That is the equivalent of two month’s worth of garbage per person that simply disappeared every year.
The biggest misconceptions that we have encountered over the past five years are that people do not care, and that change takes time. Neither is true. As evident by the pandemic, change – even radical change – is possible in a very short amount of time. Indeed, the biggest waste reduction we have observed at Concordia took place in the first year of WNWN. We are learning that when we help people take the first small step of sorting their waste, they will take the bigger steps of reducing their waste on their own. This gives me confidence that the waste crisis is manageable if we work together and take credible action.
Canada is the largest generator of waste per capita in the world. We throw away 58% of the food we produce, almost twice the global average of 30%. Each Canadian family throws away an average of $1,800 worth of food they could have saved every year instead. Instead, you are eating plastic even if you are a vegan, toddler, or an unborn baby!
Scientists recently obtained pictures of microplastic beads in the roots of lettuce and wheat. Edible root vegetables include carrots and radishes. Another study found that plastic baby bottles release millions of microplastic particles after going through procedures typically used to prepare baby formula. Dozens of dyed microplastic particles have been found in the placentas of babies of four healthy women.
We have for too long rationalized our wasteful consumption by thinking that recycling responsibly takes care of our waste. But recycling is a greenwashing myth. Only 9% of what Canadians put in a recycling bin gets recycled, even though recycling collection is widespread. The recycling stamp regulations are so unclear that companies put the recycling symbol on unrecyclable products (read greenwashing). Canadians remain poorly informed on how to sort waste. Further, systemic environmental racism has led to toxic landfills being built where marginalized communities live including indigenous peoples.
Canada announced plans to ban some single-use plastic by 2021, Quebec recently revamped its consignment system, and Montreal has launched a zero-waste plan that makes significant investments in composting infrastructure. We must learn from the mistakes of recycling. These legislations and infrastructure improvement must be coupled with effective broad-impact education.
Kenya already implemented the world’s toughest plastic ban three years ago enforced by hefty fines and jail time. Despite the many successes of the Kenyan plastic ban, Kenya is still drowning in plastic because people simply switched to other plastic types not included in the ban. In addition, western countries (such as Canada) are dumping their plastic waste in Africa and Asia. No plan can succeed without addressing the fundamentally social problem at the root of the waste crisis.
I believe that the driver of the Concordia community’s success in increasing composting and reducing overall waste is our model of coupling top-down infrastructure improvement with grass-roots broad impact education.
We started as a collaboration where the administration makes compost bins more widespread, and my team runs a massive education campaign that helps the community learn how to use those new compost bins. We have been active since 2016, but just between August of 2020 and the shutdown in March 2021, over 35,000 people attended events where the #CUcompost waste ambassadors were present. That is the equivalent of the entire Concordia undergraduate student population.
The #CUcompost waste ambassadors stand next to waste stations and help people learn how to sort their waste. There is nothing glamorous about standing next to garbage bins, but it is incredibly fun! Last year alone, our team gave 5-min waste sorting tutorials to 4,800 students via systematic class presentations. That is 40% of Concordia’s annual enrollment.
But let’s be honest. All the new compost bins and our presentations could have ended up being just clutter and noise if the community did not care to respond.
But they did.
Drastic change can happen very quickly.
My team and I are determined to scale our impact beyond Concordia. We recently incorporated a spin-off company to replicate our work in other institutions. Demonstrating that a student initiative can scale to make a tangible contribution in the fight against the waste crisis is now what gets me out of bed in the morning.
There are no magic tricks, but we know what to do. What is missing is credible leadership that treats the waste crisis as such. If you have the same energy as I do, I invite you to join our community starting with engaging with us on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I also invite you to participate in our #CUcompost picture campaign from home and publicly share your sustainability values with your community.