Infographic provided by Seattle Public Utilities.
Infographic provided by Seattle Public Utilities.

“There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw something away it must go somewhere”

—Annie Leonard

No matter what part of the world we come from, the cycle of food is relevant to all of us, conservation of resources affects all of us, and successful recycling needs all of us.

This is a message that Socorro Medina carries as Seattle Public Utilities’ (SPU) Community Recycling and Engagement Program Manager.

As part of a collaboration between the Customer Service Branch and the Environmental Justice & Service Equity Division of SPU, Medina is reaching out to communities in Seattle to create awareness, provide useful tools and information, and encourage participation in recycling and composting. Targeted efforts are currently being made by SPU to reach out to communities of color and partner with community-based organizations that work closely with refugees and immigrants in Seattle.

Every summer, SPU releases a report on the City’s “recycling rate” during the previous year. The recycling rate is calculated by looking at all the garbage that is generated by residents and businesses and figuring out what percentage is diverted from the landfill by recycling and composting.

“The 2014 report shows that the overall recycling rate was 57%,” Medina said. “On the residential side, there is a big difference between the recycling rate of those living in single family homes (71%) versus those living in apartments (35%). I believe that the motivation and the interest in recycling are similar between these two groups but that there are other factors that make it less convenient to recycle for people living in apartments. For example, there can be a long distance between the kitchen and the common containers. This year, we are going to be working on figuring out what are the main barriers that prevent people living in apartment buildings from recycling more effectively and in finding out ways of addressing those barriers.”

According to SPU, language barriers are some of the biggest obstacles to recycling  that certain communities of color face. Over the next few months, SPU plans on reaching out to different communities to assess specific needs.

SPU currently has brochures and other informative resources available in 18 different languages including, but not limited to, Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Hindi, Somali, Tagalog, and Amharic. These can be printed directly off of their website, ordered online, or over the phone.

Socorro Medina
Socorro Medina is the Seattle Public Utilities’ Community Recycling and Engagement Program Manager. • Courtesy Photo

In addition to addressing language barriers, SPU has been engaging the community through various partnerships and activities.By partnering with community groups such as Chinese Infomation and Service Center, Got Green, and Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, SPU hopes to get input from different communities about effective choices of communicating and cultural appropriateness.

“Our community partners are key in helping us disseminate information and also [to] receive feedback from the different communities, because this is a two-way conversation,” Medina said. Examples of activities between SPU and partner organizations include experiential learning tours, a youth media project where immigrant youth prepare and present projects on food waste and recycling, and training through fun exercises like a “sorting game” where participants divide into groups and go through a box of household items that need to be recycled/composted.

“For the most part people are very receptive,” Medina said. “I’m always amazed at how many people are interested and willing to hear you out.”

The main challenge, Medina said, is to find the right channels to communicate with every audience, to figure out what method works best whether it is going door to door or reaching out through advertisements on buses. People are also more likely to listen to and connect with speakers from within their own community.

“The most effective outreach takes place when there is common ground between the audience and the person providing the information,” Medina said.

For many communities conservation matters, so SPU’s message resonates with them, according to Medina. Recycling is a natural part of living and is always present in various communities in some form or another. For certain immigrants, for example, recycling in Seattle may seem more formalized than from where they come from but that does not mean it does not exist in their home country. Recycling can be as basic as reusing plastic ice cream containers to store leftovers, or having a very conscientious culture of not putting more on your plate than you need. Older generations may compost and recycle more for ethical reasons as they are used to not wasting food and younger generations seem generally more conscientious about specific environmental concerns, Medina said.

However, there are still those who need more encouragement. People may hesitate to compost because they are either afraid of doing it wrong and/or are wary of the compost being smelly or attracting insects—what Medina referred to as “the icky factor.” Medina’s message to the public is to “try it and you may find that your garbage is actually less smelly because most of the wet food scraps are kept together in a different container.”

“For some people, it may be a bit intimidating to start collecting their food waste. However, our fliers and newsletters are full of tips and suggestions to make it easier,” Medina said. “If you want to remember just one rule, remember to keep all plastic out of compost.” Plastic, especially plastic bags have been contaminating compost.

Compostable bags are a good option but they are not required; use inexpensive alternatives like brown bags or newspaper lining. Medina points out that if you do want to use a bag, be wary that though compostable bags are usually green, not all green bags are compostable.

To tackle issues of smell and pests, store compost in your fridge or freezer till you need to dispose of it and rinse your container regularly. It’s as simple as that. Composting actually makes your garbage cleaner and easier to manage by reducing liquid and soggy material.

Medina reminds us that the cycle of food is relevant to all of us no matter what part of the world we may be from. Compost goes into the soil, produces new food again, and the cycle of life continues—nothing “icky” about that!  

Medina welcomes comments and suggestions for improving SPU’s outreach to various communities via e-mail at [email protected]. The phone number for ordering information material/brochures is (206) 684-8717.

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