Updated: Dec 27, 2021
A Chapter About Drawing in the Reigns of Environmental Problems to Effect Change
“Think globally, act locally”
It was 5:50 p.m. when I was walking down Michigan Avenue on New Year’s Eve 2020. The coronavirus pandemic was in full swing, leaving the streets bare as bone. Rotting and splintering sheets of wood were plastered to store windows as a weak fence against looters. In search of a warm beverage to shield against the Windy City chill, I opened Google Maps and searched: “coffee shops near me.” Over thirty contenders popped up within walking distance; 90 percent of which were blatantly labeled in bold red font temporarily closed or permanently closed. The most gut-wrenching part was the majority of these scarlet-lettered shops were not international chains like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. They were stores like Café Marie-Jeanne or Finom Coffee; shops with character and culture, defined by the diverse populations traversing through the downtown; shops that put care and love into their creations, with shopowners who did a little dance whenever they got a new regular or released an updated menu item; shops that were local.
If nothing else, the pandemic has shown us how important our surroundings are. During this time where most (responsible) people are unlikely to be caught more than ten miles from their home, it was the people in our communities who keep us sane and hopeful. It was the local farmer who supplied us produce when supply chains were destroyed by sanitation concerns. It was the local UPS driver who transported us puzzles, books, video games, or cooking gadgets when we were bored at home looking for a creative outlet. It was the local restaurant who gave us a taste of what life used to be like before we were all locked up inside, when we could go out and enjoy an evening meal with loved ones.
The magic of community is indisputable.
As the pandemic has undoubtedly reminded us, there are a lot of reasons why community is important. Whether that be to fuel our hyperlocalized economies or to seek comfort from our shared experiences, we must remember that even in a digital, globalized age our physical community is immensely valuable. One particular issue that community best addresses is sustainability — and particularly recycling.
Despite the robust public education that has been instated on the importance of recycling in many areas, the actual practice of it and understanding which materials can be effectively reprocessed is surprisingly not well understood.
I have had first hand experience with this consumer confusion through an honors research project that I conducted my freshman year of college. The goal of my research was to better understand the principles of behavior change on pro-environmental behaviors, and recycling in particular. To accomplish this, I set up a booth on the Main Quad of campus to encourage passersby to sort a heap of materials into recyclable and non-recyclable materials based on my municipality’s standards. Unfortunately, not a single participant out of the 50+ visitors of our booth was able to properly sort all of the waste — not even our professor.
Experiments such as this one are quite useful because they allow us to understand the particular materials of confusion in our own community, and in turn, how we can best address them. There are countless factors, including public education, local government initiatives, proximity to landfills, population size, consumption habits, and so many others that might affect recycling rates in a given city — both on the household and industrial level. That being said, case-by-case community-oriented approaches to analyzing the socioeconomic and technological hurdles of pertinent waste streams by community is an effective strategy to circularity.
However, this fact is not only relevant to researchers or civil servants. The private sector can make great use of this information as well. By deeply understanding the social and environmental complexities surrounding waste management in a given area, you can formulate tailored solutions to properly cope with those. Some companies that have spearheaded some similar initiatives include:
tonle: a zero waste fashion brand formulated as a result of Fulbright research on the social and environmental inequities of textile manufacturing in Cambodia
Lean Orb: a “sustainable disposable” cutlery and food packaging company partnering with the hospitality industry and local schools in Miami to keep beaches clear of plastic pollution
Patagonia: an iconically-sustainable activewear company with untainted political activism and several community-based grassroots initiatives through their Patagonia Action Works platform.
“Although these initiatives may seem too microscopic to be impactful, the reality is that without passionate, concentrated might, change will never happen.
At some point, there is nowhere left to hang responsibility but on oneself, which is why we need community-oriented entrepreneurs and businesspeople to instigate domino effects. Time and time again this arrangement has proven effective, from the hospitality industry of Miami to artisan groups in Cambodia. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is — and where the heart is, there is a clear solution.”