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These Teens Are Cleaning Up Their Community And Making Canada A Prettier Place

Photo Credit: PickWaste

90 community cleanup days. More than 1,000 bags of trash. 15,000 fellow students engaged in environmental issues. PickWaste is two teenagers — Sam Demma and Dillon Mendes — at the head of one incredible cleanup project. We aren’t shocked that Contiki chose them to join the list of their 35 Under 35 Changemakers for 2019. The pair was already included on Canada’s list of Top 25 Environmentalists Under 25. Their goal is to lead the way for other activists to make big differences by starting small. We talked to Sam Demma, one half of this environmental movement, about changing Canadian attitudes towards trash and cleaning up our communities.

 

F&W: When did the idea strike you that your community was in need of a cleanup and why were you the two guys for the job?

Walking home from high school in March of 2017 — but if it weren’t for my grade 12 World Issues teacher, Michael Loudfoot, and my good friend Dillon Mendes, the thought would have never entered my mind. In my second semester of grade 12, Loudfoot taught us a lesson about how figures in history all had one common trait that enabled them to make a difference. He said that if we chose to embody that trait, we too could make a massive change. So, what was it? Loudfoot believed that the most important thing was their relentless commitment to thousands of small consistent actions. He spent the next week breaking down their lives to prove his point that impact is a simple equation, Small Consistent Actions x Time = Massive Changes.

This was the one and only time I’d ever heard someone talk about making an impact through small tangible actions that everybody could do. I left class that day asking myself, “What small action can I commit to in my community?” I became conscious of all the trash and litter that I walked past every single day. Realizing that picking it up would be a small action I decided to put Loudfoot’s theory to the ultimate test. When I explained Loudfoot’s theory of small consistent actions, Dillon was intrigued. At that moment PickWaste was born. Since our inception, we’ve filled over 1120 bags of litter, picked up over 23,000 cigarette butts, and completed 90 community cleanups.

 

Litter sucks to look at but there are bigger environmental issues, too. Other than the eyesore factor, what worries you about the thoughtlessly tossed trash in your community?

What is extremely important to understand is that picking up litter is not the solution to this complex problem we refer to as pollution. Picking up trash is a great way to clean up and raise awareness, but the real solution will only come when consumers, producers, governments, and schools all work together to ensure responsibility for the education of our youth and the implementation of a plan that leads to a circular economy.

What worries us about the thoughtlessly tossed trashed in our community is the mentality that accompanies the action. As a community, if we can’t responsibly dispose of our waste and recycling, how are we going to come together to solve the much larger issues facing our world today? Tobi Atkins said that how you do one thing is how you do all things. We believe that littering is like the “gateway drug” into much larger issues if it is not nipped in the bud in its early stages.

 

In countries like Japan, people get together to do volunteer cleanups on the regular. There is literally zero litter. Why isn’t this the norm in Canada? Is something lacking in our civic pride? How do we change that?

Japan has a structured system encouraging individuals to foster a zero-waste lifestyle. One of the many ways they do this is simply removing a significant amount of public garbage bins. If you go to Japan, it is more difficult to dispose of your items as opposed to Canada. This is because the status quo in Japan is to clean up your mess and take your garbage home. The country has developed a social norm of caring for their common home and taking responsibility for their actions.

Litter is a symptom of a much larger issue. The current mindset the majority of Canadians share is a throwaway mentality due to the abundance of resources that we have. To change this mindset, it’s necessary to help people understand that their actions matter. Committing to a small positive, consistent action can lead to an amazing global change. The exact opposite is also true. Committing to a small negative action could have a terrible ripple effect as well. Empowerment and the use of social proof are what this country needs to challenge our status quo and help people understand every small action matters.

 

Photo Credit: PickWaste

What’s your strategy for motivating students to get involved in environmental causes? How do you convince them it’s crucial?

Speaking in schools is the foundation of how we motivate students to get behind any social cause that they are passionate about. Because we’re only 19 , we have a real advantage right when it comes to influencing our peers. Students often feel like we’re talking with them and not to them.

To convince students that the environment is a crucial topic, we make sure they understand it’s a connection to human health. There are too many people that view the environment as something that is separate from humans. To ensure students understand the connectivity, we make it clear that the three resources we need to survive — food, water and oxygen — all come from our environment and when we neglect our environment these three resources get destroyed which ultimately leads to a decline in our health. In addition, we explain to our youth that we are left to deal with the consequences of the actions from our previous generations. We need to come together as one community to solve this global issue, because if not us, then who?

 

Do you have plans to export the idea of PickWaste to other towns and cities?

Absolutely. We currently have two cleanup crews in operation that meet on a weekly basis to complete cleanups. There’s one in Montreal and another one in Pickering. We’re currently setting up a cleanup crew in Ajax, Ontario, that will kickstart in the next few weeks. The more people we can get cleaning up, the better. Whether it’s once a week or once a month we welcome any inquiries about starting more teams.

In addition, we’ve recently started reposting all the cleanups completed by people around the world who tag @pickwaste on their social media posts. Because our blog reaches people from all over the world, we’ve had people cleaning up in Brazil, Argentina, France, and Australia. If people aren’t willing to start a consistent cleanup but want to play their part in cleaning up once or twice the tag is a great way to participate in our movement and engage with our community.

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