Recycling Lessons Learned in Global Health Classes

Guest post by Gabrielle Zegers, T’21

This blog was originally featured on Duke Global Health Institute’s Voices of DGHI. Gabrielle Zegers, a junior majoring in Cultural Anthropology and minoring in Global Health and Biology, reflects on her experience in the Student Research Training Program.

When I started my 8-week summer project at Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers, Inc., more widely known as TROSA, I had a few general expectations about how the summer would go. TROSA is a therapeutic community where residents participate in a 24-month program, learning strategies that can help them avoid substance use and how to make better life choices. It was an incredible organization and work experience. I was excited to be a part of tangible action in a global health field. 

Throughout the spring semester, our Student Research Training team – Ashley Wilson, Rachel Baber, and I – met with our advisor, Dr. Sumi Ariely, Associate Professor of the Practice of Global Health, and our TROSA community partners, Rebecca Graves and Karen Kelly. During one of those meetings, we decided that I would work with TROSA to improve its composting (and possibly its recycling) system. 

The original goal of my project was to investigate the possibility of implementing an industrial-style composting system that would reduce landfill use and hopefully provide TROSA with a “green business” tax benefit. Initially, I thought, this can’t possibly take all eight weeks! But I soon realized that my carefully crafted ideas for our summer – and my whole perspective about the project – had to change.

My supervisors and I recognized early on that the community was not prepared to take the first steps required to develop a high-quality recycling and composting system. Initial community assessments revealed that time should first be spent on two baseline issues: encouraging a cultural change among residents coupled with a simple, effective system for reducing waste. We also noted a need to shift our priorities from composting to recycling. The recycling program needed to be kept simple by focusing only on two items across all TROSA sites: cans and bottles. Attempting to generate a cans-and-bottles-only recycling system for an organization of 600 people that spans across five properties in the Durham area turned out to be much more complicated than I envisioned.

Over the course of eight weeks I learned while doing and did while learning. I was humbled by the reality that I needed the help of the TROSA community, as well as other organizations outside of TROSA. The only way to sustain this kind of system was to:

  • Be realistic about an appropriate starting point.
  • Work to articulate TROSA’s goals and the values shaping those goals.
  • Determine a viable intervention.
  • Ask the residents to determine the course of the project based on the current resources available.

During my work on the recycling project at TROSA I learned about diagnosing and bridging gaps between communities and resources, how to better involve all levels of TROSA residents in the decision-making process in order to address local-global environmental challenges, and how to think about generating benefits that matter to different stakeholders involved in the intervention. 

Environmental Justice, Global Disparities, and Disparities at TROSA

While I have always had an interest in environmental science and justice, I had not delved into the subject deeply before working with TROSA this summer. After conducting the initial recycling survey and interviews, which revealed that residents had a desire to recycle, I realized that effective recycling can have numerous benefits and can reduce negative health outcomes and inequalities in our local communities and worldwide.

In general, pollution disproportionately burdens underserved communities around the world. For decades, higher-income countries have exported their plastic waste to lower-income countries, including countries in East Asia and the Pacific, exposing their land, air, and water to toxins and pollution produced during the recycling process. China, a previously popular importer of other nations’ recyclables, has now banned imports due to the negative effects of plastic pollution on its citizens’ health and livelihoods. Communities around the world are impacted by toxic fumes from plastic processing plants and contaminated recyclables. Additionally, trash thrown into the ocean from wealthier, industrialized countries has been found washed up on beaches and in water reservoirs in less-industrialized countries. When vital wildlife in marine ecosystems die after ingesting toxins and fragments from garbage and plastic, communities that depend on fish as a staple can be impacted by lower yields. The plastics not only kill the fish that ingest them, but also settle in the stomachs of all animals in marine food webs, including humans. The health effects of these microplastics on humans are still being defined and measured.

At TROSA, reducing barriers to recycling required a great deal of basic work. For example, some departments did not recycle, not because they were unwilling to do so but because they did not have the bins, space, or a collection company that make recycling possible. On TROSA campuses that did have local collection companies and recycling bins, the bins were often indistinguishable from regular trash bins and TROSA residents who wanted to recycle often did not know how to do it.

In order to make recycling possible for residents and to reduce the negative environmental impacts by the organization, we had to simultaneously convey the importance of the intervention while making it logistically possible for all TROSA residents to recycle. Partnering closely with individual residents and adhering to the community’s goals and priorities every step of the way were priorities throughout our process.

Working Closely with the TROSA Community

Every department at TROSA in which residents and staff work has its own schedule, task list, and leadership system. Early on, I had to learn and appreciate the way each department functioned and collaborated with other departments day to day.

The recycling project at TROSA involved a series of interventions followed by community feedback and revisions based on that feedback. The project continually changed as we worked to identify challenges and solutions. For example, there were often logistical issues between TROSA properties and local recycling collection companies. We sought the help of the kitchen staff to address this problem and together decided that they would transport recyclables from unconnected TROSA sites to TROSA sites that worked with collection companies. 

The identified need for close inter-departmental engagement led to the formation of TROSA’s first Green Team! At its kickoff meeting, staff and resident representatives from almost every department came together, many meeting for the first time. The Green Team’s goal moving forward is to help uniformly promote recycling at all TROSA properties, and to educate the community about why it is important.

Striving for Equitable Outcomes and Ownership

TROSA focuses on positively modifying residents’ substance use behaviors and encouraging healthy behaviors. The TROSA recycling project is one example of how residents can make positive change by being less wasteful and thinking about the impact their daily practices have on the local and global environment.

In a way, recycling at TROSA is a microcosm of the entire recovery process. Accountability is a huge component of TROSA’s culture, and the ultimate goal of the recycling system is to help people become motivated and to follow a protocol. The Green Team hopes to get TROSA residents excited about the benefits of recycling, too — both the short- and long-term values of the program.

The recycling program is only a small piece of TROSA’s overall recovery program, which helps its residents heal from the tragedy and trauma of addiction, but it provides residents and staff with a larger sense of purpose for their actions and the possibility of a better life through behavior modification, personal responsibility, and the support of a like-minded community.