Talking Trash: Waste Blog

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Uncomfortable Conversations: Cities aren’t speaking the same language when it comes to communicating environmental messaging with minorities


One of my favorite stories to tell my students is about the recycling logo I have tattooed on the inner part of my wrists. What was originally a horrible life choice became a funny anecdote – I explained that when my relatives visiting from abroad first saw the tattoo, they had no idea what it was. “How can you not know what this symbol means!?” I would ask them incredulously, “It is the universal symbol for recycling!”. They simply shrugged their shoulders, and said that they didn’t recognize it. The three arrows that were so ubiquitous and what I assumed to be universal, weren’t as recognizable as I first thought.

This incident would ultimately serve as the inspiration for one of my first studies – differences in self-reported recycling behaviors among first and second generation immigrants in Ontario, Canada. Part of that study asked first generation immigrants (people born abroad) if they recognized the mobius loop, and its relationship to recycling – 62% of respondents said no. Not only was this a genuinely shocking result, it was also extremely problematic.

At the time of conducting the interviews, the City of Toronto was running a promotion and education campaign on public transit subways and buses – the advertisement featured the Mobius loop prominently, with the text “Get with the program”…. With no mention of what that program actually was. It was simply assumed that people would understand the context of the advertisement, given the presence of the three arrows. To make matters worse, a significant percentage of the ridership for the TTC was made up of first generation Canadians – what was intended as a savvy targeted message, was virtually meaningless.

I was reminded of this story when I looked online for my region’s waste calendar – what was once a physical mailer, was now moved to the city’s website (where it was accompanied by a number of very informative and engaging waste related resources). While the region should be applauded for developing and providing these resources, I can’t help but wonder if we have learned our lesson about the way we engage with the community.

In order to effectively access information related to my region’s waste management programs, I need to:

  • Have internet access and be tech savvy enough to navigate to the appropriate resource
  • I need to be proficient in English
  • I need to have a smartphone with access to an android/apple app store to download the “Waste App” (for more advanced information related to residential waste programs)

Now, I know most of you are thinking “Who doesn’t have access to the above?” – not as many people as you would think. Being the curious person that I am, I decided to try and find out exactly how many people fit that profile, specifically, first generation immigrants. It should be noted that the city I live in is made up of 52.25% first generation immigrants (while the Greater Toronto Area is made up of approximately 41% immigrants), so potential issues surrounding access are much more acute in my neck of the woods.

In total, 815 first generation immigrants were surveyed, with 319 participants between the ages of 18-35, 221 between the ages of 35-50, 186 between the ages of 50-65, and 89 ages 65 and older. Participants were asked questions related to English proficiency, access to internet and internet proficiency (comfortable using the internet), smartphone ownership/access, willingness to download and use smartphone applications, and access to city resources/information.

The results of the survey are summarized in the figure below

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English proficiency was highest among younger demographics, peaking at 73% for ages 18-35, but falling to less than 37% for ages 65 and older. Smartphone Ownership and Internet Access/Proficiency were high for all age groups under the age of 65, but willingness to download applications dropped precipitously for respondents aged 50 or older. Perhaps of greatest interest, knowing where (or how to find) city resources was relatively low for all age groups, peaking at less than 60% for ages 18-35, but dropping to 5.6% for respondents aged 65 or older.

What is the key take away from the above? The tools and resources that we have access to, do not effectively engage immigrant minority groups – an identical finding to my original study conducted eight years ago. While we have done an amazing job at developing interactive and informative tools, and sharing those tools using the latest online platforms, we are continuing to target the same audience we have always targeted (English speaking, Canadian born), while neglecting the audience that we *should* be targeting (new Canadians who have made their homes in the city).

The primary issue is that the message about the “the importance of recycling” is already out in Ontario—for second- and third-generation Canadians who have grown up with the Blue Box program, recycling is largely habitual. Developing online tools and resources, while helpful, are targeting a group that are already participating at an extremely high rate – you don’t have to convince them of anything, they are already doing it. That’s why when city’s measure the success of their online initiatives in terms of likes, or unique views, I question whether that’s a legitimate benchmark for accessibility.

However, when we think about how the demography and “face” of the average homeowner has changed over time, we quickly see that future increases in diversion are going to need to come from new Ontarians (first-generation ethnic minorities and their families).

This may be easier said than done — the motivations for why people recycle (and attitudes towards the environment and sustainability in general), vary across race and ethnicity. There is no one size fits all message, and research has shown that conventional forms of waste promotion and education do not resonate with immigrant groups in any meaningful way (

However, this may also be an opportunity for cityies to adopt new and innovative approaches to waste P&E messaging and delivery. Ontario’s situation is not unique—first-generation ethnic minorities are making up an increasingly larger share of urban populations across the country. As such, now more than ever, there is a need to “think outside the box” and develop campaigns that communicate the what, when, where and why of sustainable waste management in a culturally relevant way. There exist significant barriers in encouraging first-generation ethnic minorities to engage in sustainable waste management, but there is also a great opportunity to galvanize millions of new Canadians to reduce, reuse and recycle. The “next tonne” will not come from Mr. and Mrs. Smith living in a single-family house in the suburbs—instead, it is likely to come from Mr. and Mrs. Singh living in the multi-residential apartment in the city’s core.

Setting goals: Why “dreaming big”​ may be setting us up for failure

I recently penned an article with my collaborators from SPRING exploring the distinction between aspirational and practical goals in sustainable waste management, and why “dreaming big” may be setting ourselves up for failure. While it may seem counter-intuitive to think that goals such as a “circular economy” “100% recyclability” and “zero waste” could ever be bad, there are very real dangers in having both the public and policy makers calibrate their expectations around aspirational (and largely unrealistic) goals.

The intent of aspirational goals is not to literally achieve zero waste, or a closed loop economy with no waste outputs, but rather, it is a conceptual target that we are constantly working towards. Implicit to working towards these goals is a recognition that there are barriers (behavioral, technical, and infrastructural) that make achieving zero waste (literal) and circularity impossible. Unfortunately, stakeholders (at all levels) fail to understand or appreciate the context of what can be achieved and its impact. And this is where the danger lies….

If we are communicating to the public that our goals are zero waste, 100% recyclable packaging, no single use plastics etc., then that is what they are going to be using as the barometer for success. The frame of reference that we use to set our goals is critical in understanding whether we are making progress towards those goals. As an example, all things being equal, if the IC&I diversion rate increased from 20% to 50% over the next 10 years, that would be an enormous success that should be celebrated. However, when looked at through the lens of an 80% diversion target, that may be perceived as a failure.  Context is critical, and a theme that that emerged throughout our research is that people lack context with respect to the way we set and communicate environmental goals. Focusing on aspirational goals is setting ourselves up for failure and diminishing the successes that we are able to achieve. There is also the added dimension of reputational risk – to the entity setting, or expected to achieve the goal.

In many ways, a failure to meet a goal is a self-fulfilling prophecy – people want to know that their actions and efforts matter.  When somebody thinks that what they do is making a difference and contributing to a broader macro objective, they will feel more inclined to engage in the desired behavior. Conversely, if they feel that their actions have no bearing on a desired outcome, they will be discouraged from engaging in the behavior.  Within the context of waste management, a perceived failure to reach a stated goal or objective (i.e. 80% diversion, zero waste etc.) will ultimately discourage diversion behavior. This result has been observed in numerous studies – if there is a disconnect between stated objectives and observed results over time (i.e. declining recycling rates for packaging despite producer claims of a 100% recyclability target by 2025), it undermines both the credibility of the stakeholder(s) setting the target, and the target itself.  This can ultimately discourage consumer participation in the desired behavior (i.e. source separating recyclables), resulting in a perverse outcome where goal setting achieves the opposite of the intended effect.

Developing policies or benchmarks around aspirational goals is both meaningless and dangerous without a clear and actionable plan. With public interest in sustainable waste management and the environment at an all-time high, both companies and governments will be held accountable for failing to meet their goals . It is no longer enough to say “We Tried” – consumers want and demand more.