By Xiao Dong Liu
SPECIAL TO NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The first time I taught someone how to recycle, I was 10 years old. My family and I had just moved to Beacon Hill from China. The culture shock was powerful. Of all the new and different experiences, learning about sustainability and recycling was one concept that stood out the most.
I loved the idea of doing my part for the environment, and I was excited to come home and teach my parents what I had learned. I started with the basics — recycling bottles, cans, and paper. In the years since, I’ve successfully taught my mom everything I know about recycling. And my dad, well … we’re still working on that.
A decade later, I jumped at the opportunity to teach more people about those same basics and more. This summer, I interned with the Waste Management (WM) Recycle Corps — a team of 14 college students working for 10 weeks with communities, businesses, and multifamily properties across greater Seattle to reduce waste and improve recycling. We learned what it takes to achieve meaningful behavioral change and then apply our learnings to make the change happen.
Part of what attracted me to this internship is the chance to make a difference in multicultural communities. In all, the 14 WM interns spoke five languages, including English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Spanish. This allows us to bridge language gaps and empower people from diverse backgrounds to waste less and live more sustainably. Recycling can be confusing and even more difficult when there are language barriers. I love being a part of breaking down those barriers.
I was particularly excited to work with businesses in Beacon Hill, where I grew up. I know many businesses are pressed to serve customers quickly, so it can be challenging to prioritize recycling. So it’s important that recycling systems be efficient and simple, with signs that make sense to people. That’s where the WM interns come in!
One day stands out in my mind. I was doing a waste audit at a Beacon Hill restaurant, which is a nice way of saying we were digging through the restaurant’s garbage in search of opportunities for improvement and education. Employees asked what we were doing. I began to explain in English, but noticed they were responding defensively. The man I was speaking with had a familiar accent, so I began to speak with him in Mandarin.
Immediately, he wanted to know more about me and why this was important. As I explained why sustainability and recycling matter — and how to recycle correctly by sorting plastic bags, polystyrene, and soiled cardboard — this employee and others began to smile.
When we left the restaurant, I was beaming. I knew I would remember that moment for a long time. More importantly, I was pretty sure this face-to-face conversation (in Mandarin!) would result in less waste at this restaurant because I had overcome the language barrier and kept my message simple.
The basic message from the WM Recycle Corps is simple.
- Recycle all empty bottles, cans, and paper
- Keep food and liquids out of recycling
- Keep plastic bags out of recycling
I’ve come a long way since teaching my parents to recycle when I was 10 years old. I now know how to teach recycling at multifamily apartment buildings, commercial businesses, and community events. I can confidently engage a 7-year-old student with recycling games or a 30-year-old Seattle immigrant with educational materials.
So, look out, Dad. I’m coming for you next. ■
Xiao Dong Liu is a junior at the University of Washington studying Civil Engineering.