Montreal·First Person

How I helped my university community get off autopilot to reduce its waste

What we are learning is 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.

Even radical change is possible in a very short amount of time. What is missing is credible leadership

Keroles (second from left) started the Waste Not, Want Not initiative at Concordia to help the university community reduce the amount of waste it generates. (Submitted by Keroles Riad)

This First Person article is the experience of Keroles Riad, a student in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I was born with a chronic genetic condition that requires me to get blood transfusions every three weeks. People with my condition have energy levels that are much lower than average. This meant I grew up constantly being told what I can, and cannot, do. But the problem is, I am also very stubborn.

I'm interested in how a few people can make an outsized impact on the world around them. For the past five years, my small team of students at Concordia University have made a positive institutional change on an issue as big as the waste crisis. At a time of widespread anxiety due to the sheer scope, magnitude and urgency of the climate and waste crises, I feel it is important to cultivate a sense of credible empowerment — not to be confused with toxic positivity, unaccountable virtuous self-proclamation or blind optimism that borders on complacency.

In 2016, I started the Waste Not, Want Not (WNWN) initiative to help the 50,000 people who are part of the Concordia community compost, sort and reduce waste. Since then, we've doubled our annual composting, and each Concordian reduced their annual overall waste by 16 per cent — that is the equivalent of two months' worth of garbage that simply disappeared per person every year. This waste reduction is driven in part by a significant decrease in recycling paper and plastic.

Before the pandemic, waste ambassadors were stationed by compost bins helping students understand where to put their garbage. (Submitted by Keroles Riad)

It turns out that when people try to reduce waste, the items least necessary go first — printed pages and single-use plastic that winds up in the blue bin. In the academic year before the pandemic, on-campus printing decreased by five per cent when compared to three years earlier.

WNWN started as a collaboration where the administration increases the number of compost bins on campus, and my team runs a massive education campaign that helps the community learn how to use them. Just between August 2019 and the shutdown in March 2020, 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 teaching people where to put their waste!

In the 2019-20 school year, the WNWN team gave waste-sorting tutorials to 4,800 students via class presentations — that is 40 per cent of Concordia's average annual enrollment (for now, our tutorials are continuing over Zoom). What we are learning is 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.

The Waste Not, Want Not team also conducts in-class visits (done over Zoom for now) to help students know where to put their waste. (Submitted by Keroles Riad)

This is not another feel-good story. We have a massive waste crisis, and solving it takes a lot of hard work. I am also convinced that we can do that work, if we take credible evidence-based action together. Canada is the largest generator of waste per capita in the world. We throw away 58 per cent of the food we produce, almost twice the global average. Each Canadian family throws away an average of $1,800 worth of food they could have saved every year.

And due to the prevalence of single-use materials, you are eating plastic even if you are a vegan, infant or an unborn baby

We have long rationalized our wasteful consumption by thinking that recycling responsibly takes care of our waste. But recycling is a greenwashing myth. Only nine per cent of what Canadians put in a recycling bin gets recycled, even though recycling collection is widespread. 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. 

I am constantly humbled by the limits of what I can do, and I am also regularly reminded of the power of a committed team and community. There are no magic tricks, but we know what needs to be done. The biggest misconceptions my WNWN team and I have encountered are that people do not care and that change takes time. Neither are true. As evident in the pandemic, change — even radical change — is possible in a very short amount of time. What is missing is credible leadership.

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Keroles B. Riad is a Ph.D. candidate and public scholar at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. Keroles holds a BEng in mechanical engineering and an MSc through the Individualized program. He is a recipient of the Quebec Lieutenant Governor Youth Medal. He leads the "Waste Not, Want Not" compost initiative at Concordia University. He is on Twitter (@Kerologist) and Waste Not, Want Not is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (@CUcompost).

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