Help youth see how their decisions affect their environment with this zero-waste challenge created by Amer Jandali, Founder of Future Meets Present.
Ask youth to keep all of their trash—everything except food and drinks—in a bag or backpack for one school week (or 2-3 days for younger kids).
At the end of the challenge, ask youth:
• What did they learn about how much trash gets thrown away in one week?
• How much trash do they think gets thrown away by their class or their family in a week? In a year?
• How can they use what they learned to make more sustainable choices?
• What actions are they willing to take to support the planet?
• How can they change their behaviors to support zero waste?
Read on to find out how Amer Jandali implemented this challenge in his workplace—and what happened when he did.
“I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized I was somebody!” – Lily Tomlin
Here’s the deal. We are facing a species-wide global problem: the atmosphere is warming at an unsustainable rate. If it warms more than 2 degrees Celsius, natural and biological systems will collapse.
Warming is caused by greenhouse gasses which come from many sources like agriculture, burning of fossil fuels, and landfills. Here in New York City they come from three places:
1. The electricity and fuel used to heat/power buildings
2. Fuel that’s used in vehicles to drive around the city
3. From the creation, removal, and disposal of solid waste
I’m interested in the latter.
In nature, one organism’s output is another’s input. Molecules are in constant circulation and never lose their value. Waste is an essential part of nature that connects all life on earth. It keeps nutrients/resources flowing from one organism to the next in a constant balance (known as homeostasis).
The problem with the waste that humans create is most of it cannot be reabsorbed back into nature. On the contrary, our waste is disconnected from natural cycles. It’s sent to a landfill and contributes to global warming. If we can reappraise our relationship to the items we use, maybe we can reappraise our relationship to each other and the natural world. This is truly the heart of the problem and it’s from this context we can begin to create solutions.
I work at the Centre for Social Innovation, a coworking space of 200+ social impact organizations in the Starrett-Lehigh Building, one of the first in New York to sign on to the Mayor’s Zero-Waste initiative. They’ve already started by offering free building-wide composting to all tenants, plus a giant retro fit of its 8-miles worth of windows to make them more energy efficient. Which is huge considering it’s the 11th largest building in NYC.
With NYC Climate Week approaching, I decided to start small and start local: I ran a Low Waste Challenge for members of the CSI.
The challenge goes as follows: participants contain all their trash in a little drawstring sports pack for one work week (five days). The bag goes home and back to work. Anything that’s thrown away goes in the bag (except for food/drinks).
We don’t often think about our trash and what impact that actually has on people and the planet. Landfills are the third leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and I find sometimes it’s hard to make that connection. It’s too abstract.
So, the idea behind this challenge is to make the invisible visible. The goal here is not necessarily to create an army of zero-wasters, rather, foster sensitivity to our waste output. When we’re sensitive to our impact we become more receptive to solutions.
And it worked.
Mitch Grant is the Operations Manager with RXR Realty, which owns the Starrett-Lehigh Building
Me: What are your thoughts?
Mitch: I became conscious about my production of waste. I was conscious about my meal consumption. I went down to the 2nd floor cafeteria and looked at the to-go container and I realized, ‘I know when I finish with this it’s gonna go into my bag.’
Me: Why did you do this?
Mitch: First, as the property manager, I wanted to participate and share my story — if I’m doing this, look at what we’re all doing every day. And I wanted to experience my contributions to our waste.
You notice your second nature — it’s like a reflex, you don’t even notice that you’re throwing something out, just to throw something out. For the first two days I noticed when I would go to throw out a wrapper or something, I would stop and realize, no, this has to go in my bag.
It made me very self-conscious. It made my wife self-conscious. Now she scrubs all of the tinfoil, which we used to keep dirty and go into the landfill. She read up on recycling and learned if you scrub it you can recycle it. I used to use it just because I don’t wanna clean that pot, like, just use the freaking tinfoil. But now we just clean it.
Me: What kinds of conversations and interactions were you having?
Mitch: I would go into meetings with it on my back and people would be like, what are you doing with that? And it made us have a conversation in the property management office. So it brought awareness to other individuals.
Realizing my pile of waste, going into the loading dock, compounded 5,000 times. That’s what’s happening here. And I don’t think we’re making that connection. We lose the connection to the responsibility to the waste stream. Our trash goes away into the trash can in the office, and then that goes away into the floor’s garbage bin, and then you never see it. Out of sight out of mind.
But I think doing it myself, I’d buy into recycling, as an employee of the building, easier now after having done this experiment without a question.
It’s important to mention here that the responsibility of reducing environmental impact through waste does not belong entirely to the individual. The responsibility is shared with the companies that manufacture our products. They need to be held accountable to use harmless materials, initiate take-back programs, and nudge consumers towards a sustainable economy. Our low waste challenge brings to light the amount of waste we come in contact with so we can see what we have control over.
The experiment was a success and offered tremendous room for improvement. On one hand, we’ve proven that yes, people will carry their waste for a week, and yes, it does raise consciousness as well as a sense of camaraderie. On the other, what do we do now?
Upon completion of the week, I’m left with the following questions:
• Can we suggest trying a reusable bottle, cup, bag, container for a week?
• Can we provide a list of restaurants that are low-waste? Companies that are using recycled materials?
• Could we map out the cost and environmental savings of adopting low-waste habits?
• How can we design for lasting solutions at the individual level, and furthermore, quantify the metrics and design for solutions at the production and infrastructure level?
If we can design the experience in a way that connects us to our waste, fosters sensitivity, and offers solutions at the individual level, then we can make the case to create solutions to fill the gaps at the office-wide level, to a group of 5,000.