How Recycling Brought Me Closer to My Community

by Xiao Dong Liu

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 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 achieving a meaningful behavior shift meant, using that education to encourage change.

Part of the internship’s attraction was the chance to make a difference in multicultural communities.  All in all, the 14 Waste Management interns spoke five languages: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and Spanish. This allowed 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 loved being part of breaking down those barriers.

Xiao Dong Liu (right) with a fellow intern. [Photo courtesy of the author]
I was particularly excited to work with Beacon Hill businesses, where I grew up. I know many of them are pressed to serve customers quickly, so it can be challenging to prioritize recycling. For that reason, it’s important that recycling systems be efficient and simple, with signs that make sense to people. That’s where the Waste Management interns came in.

One day in particular stands out this summer. 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 quizzed what we were doing. I began to explain in English, but noticed they were responding defensively. The man I talked with had a familiar accent, so I began speaking in Mandarin.

Immediately, he wanted to know more about me and why my job was important. As I explained why sustainability and recycling matter – and how to “recycle right” by sorting plastic bags, polystyrene and soiled cardboard – he and his fellow employees began smiling.

Leaving 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:

  1. Recycle all empty bottles, cans and paper
  2. Keep food and liquids out of recycling
  3. Keep plastic bags out of recycling

I’ve come a long way since teaching my parents to recycle at 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 rising junior at the University of Washington studying Civil Engineering. He hopes to use his degree in the service of energy conservation upon graduation. Xiao speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, and Spanish. He is a dedicated volunteer, having given back to the community more than 250 hours for Key Club.