Sorting Through Waste
September 21, 2021
In 2017, Scarlett Manor, a Toronto Community Housing neighbourhood in Etobicoke, experienced a series of devastating floods that caused extensive damage to 3 of its 13 stories. Upon inspection, it was determined that items such as, “flushable” wipes, personal hygiene products and small pieces of material, hair and other miscellaneous items were the cause of the flooding.
For Zamani Ra, a resident in the community, this and subsequent floods opened up an opportunity to educate residents about what garbage should go where, and, ultimately, why it matters. Watching families most impacted by the floods navigate through damage and destruction inspired Zamani to do everything in her power to prevent this from ever happening again.
Zamani’s insights led her to establish a training enterprise called Circular Environmental Education (CEED) Canada. Park People hired Zamani to employ her model to help educate Sparking Change communities on how to create low to zero waste park events.
In addition to being a resident, Zamani Ra is also the building’s tenant representative. Using her leadership and training experience, Zamani coordinated a group of motivated residents, to create an innovative eco-awareness program to help Scarlett Manor residents examine their own waste practices, understand residential waste better, and ultimately build a culture of caring about waste management.
Born in Jamaica Zamani was influenced by long-time farmers who she refers to as “land people,” matriarchs in her mom’s family and Rastafari culture. This life experience helped Zamani understand some of the knowledge gaps her community faced.
Zamani tells me “I know what composting is because my grandmother used to do it. But my idea of composting had nothing to do with this plastic green bin I see in my building.”
Armed with an empath’s sense for user-centric learning, Zamami built a waste training program based on two insights:
- You have to meet people where they’re at, and,
- What you do over here matters to someone else over there.
Intercepting the Flow
Zamani and a team of volunteer residents turned their buildings’ lobbies into classrooms. They used the building’s 2 main entry points (the main floor and basement lobby) to run what they referred to as an “E-Blitz.” Of course, figuring out how to intercept someone’s rush to/from the elevator to learn about a scintillating topic like recycling or waste disposal took some serious creativity.
Photo credit: August 24, 2017, Zamani Ra
Volunteers engaged residents by asking them the simple, skill-testing question: “Do you know where this goes?” Engagement was immediate as residents faced the challenge of trying to deposit waste in the correct bin.
A deeper connection was established as volunteers spoke to residents about their waste sorting decisions and the impact these small decisions had on GHG emissions. These conversations invariably led to conversations about climate change and its impact on their respective home countries.
“My background in training taught me that you need to take the contents of the curriculum and make it personal,” Zamani says.
“I wanted people to understand,” says Zamani “that the effects of climate change, which our family members at home are complaining about, are something we are creating up here.”
Sorting is Believing
Each day of the week, the volunteer team invited residents to sort various waste items into the appropriate bins – green bin, recycling/blue bin and garbage etc. The key to the volunteer team’s approach is that there are no wrong answers, just awesome learning opportunities. The other key is repetition.
In my conversation with Zamani, I timidly confessed that I’m not sure what to do with oil other than bacon grease. This isn’t something I’d readily share with many people since it’s one of those things I feel “I should know by now.”
Zamani confesses “Listen, I also make mistakes, I’m also learning to do the right thing when it comes to waste because things change all the time based on new information and technology”. So, I feel like I’m welcome to learn too.
Volunteers assessed the residents’ waste disposal decisions using a learning mindset. For example, if a resident put black takeout packaging in the recycling, the volunteers celebrated the error as an opening to share why black plastic goes in the garbage (you may be surprised to learn the reason). By engaging residents in a hands-on exercise, the volunteers make the experience fun, memorable, relevant and more easily integrated into their lives and practices.
Highlighting participation was paramount to the E-Blitz. So whether the answer was right or wrong, the resident received the correct information and was still given a stamp on their report card for participating.
On Friday, the team focused on green bin waste by celebrating and sharing food. The finger foods served on a now-soiled napkin had residents wondering: “what happens to items like this?”
Sorting the same items over the course of the week helped residents build their confidence in recycling and helped their learning progress. Reinforcing positive feelings through the exercise made it more likely they’d retain the information they learned and return to sort again the next day.
The repetition is also a form of what Zamani calls “conditioning:”
“The exercise is conditioning people to know and to care about recycling effectively. Over time, the people who decide not to care become the outliers and eventually become the minority who refuse to adjust their recycling behaviour.”
“I used to work for an environmental company that assisted homeowners in doing retrofits using incentives from the government. Once the retrofits were complete, the savings on the household bills eventually led to the retrofit paying for itself. I thought we should be able to use worthwhile incentives with people who live in housing to address waste for climate action” Zamani says.
Based on this insight, households with report cards with a week full of stamps were eligible for grand prizes that residents said would influence them to participate: meaningful incentives that benefited the entire household.
Zamani is clear: Real incentives create real results.
Over the course of a week, over ½ of all the residents in Scarlett Manor participated in the waste sorting exercise. Overall waste volumes went down 7%.
Zamani’s brilliant waste exercise has much to offer communities battling waste issues. A user-centric focus and a shift in mindset are two of the main steps required to making the waste matter more to more people.
Cover photo credit: August 27, 2019, Zamani Ra.
Generously Supported by The Balsam Foundation with additional support from