Beyond the Bin- How Zero Waste Education Can Shape Society

Waste is a huge barrier for any community that is aspiring to become truly sustainable. Municipalities that take this task seriously are quickly learning that if children and youth are not educated and engage- this cannot lofty goal cannot be achieved. Waste is a sustainability issue that allows cities like  Vancouver to test education that leads to positive environmental behaviors.

“The workshops offered by BTCEA will encourage students to take tangible actions in adopting zero waste behaviours and will help the City achieve the zero waste target set in the 2020 Greenest City Action Plan” says Patrick Chen, the City of Vancouver's lead on this collaborative project.

Can action oriented education help support the creation of a Zero Waste City? BTCEA has received significant support over the years from the City of Vancouver to put our action education model to the test so as to better understand the ecological impact of action oriented education.

Waste Watchers Shape School Culture

‘Waste Watchers’ explored place based learning by having students dig through their schools garbage, asking them to consider how positive environmental behaviors can mitigate the environmental impact of societies current waste issues. Students then took on a variety of individual, home, school, and community projects to mitigate the affects of current waste behaviors, drawing upon the knowledge they gained from the waste audit (a detailed break down of contamination rates and notes of diversion potentialities). 

Some students went on to deliver assembly presentations that asked their peers to consider simple behavior choices that would help their school, households, and communities get to zero waste. Others improved waste bin signage and conducted bin monitoring. 

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Classrooms are Key

The majority of student learning in the course of their careers takes place in side the classroom. When sustainability education is delivered in this space it is being recognized as important to the development of society. New curriculum approaches in BC welcome less prescribed formats that suite BTCEA’s action oriented approach.

The Zero Waste workshops were developed with the City of Vancouver and were delivered to 500 secondary school students in 2017. Science teachers were very interested in making room in their schedule for this offering as it connects well with the content they teach. 

When asked to pledge waste reduction actions, 50% of students committed to reduce their use of disposable items in their personal lives, in their homes, and at school. However, many students reported that they found these actions difficult to complete because using disposables has become part of their everyday lives and alternatives are often not provided, especially in fast food outlets and cafes.

Indeed, one student commented: “Something that was challenging was the fact that almost everything I eat and drink is contained in something disposable”.

Youth Invest in the Circular, Waste Reduced Economy

A move to ban coffee cups in the City of Vancouver could go a long way towards reducing the amount of disposables ending up in the landfill and hopefully also lead the way to significant reduction in the use of other disposable items such as plastic bags or straws. As our workshops and audits have shown, many youth are aware of and concerned about waste issues and are willing to reduce their use of disposables when provided with alternatives. 

Youth are key stakeholders for helping communities transition to the circular, waste-reduced economy. As students learn about the environmental impact of their consumer choices, they also learn how their purchasing power can help in re-shaping how society organizes systems of production and consumption. Transformation and education are inherently linked in this regard. 

Education That Focuses on Impact

Teachers indicated that they would like to receive more education of this type in the future but that even one off workshops, when delivered in an engaging manner, can have a significant impact on student behavior. The results of our assessment suggest that many students will alter their behaviours relating to waste after trying 1-3 actions provided to them during the workshop.

In fact, many students directly reported that they would keep up their actions in the future and ask their families to also take on similar actions. This feedback signifies the potential long-term impact of delivering hands on, action oriented education in a classroom setting. 

It is expected that by improving students’ waste habits, these same youth will also be more readily engaged in other types of sustainability actions. 41% of students indicated that more workshops/ classes around waste and climate change would serve to encourage them to improve their habits out of a desire to be an environmentally responsible citizen. 

How might we start to treat youth as the stewards of the future that they really are? Providing them with education that teaches them this is key. A significant number of students also indicated that extracurricular activities such as a student action groups and more support from teachers and other adults would inspire them to take even bigger actions.

These educational programs were made possible by the support of the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Foundation. If you are a teacher in Metro Vancouver and are interested in zero waste or climate change education, please get in touch as these are evolving offerings. 

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