The health of our communities is dependent on the health of our environment. This is the message that Charlotte, NC, is sending to residents as part of a campaign to reduce pollution and waste – a campaign that was so effective that the Solid Waste Association of North America recently recognized Charlotte’s contribution to the industry.

Solid Waste Services is a department in the City of Charlotte. They have a mandate to reduce waste, not just improve recycling. To do so, Brandi Williams uses cultural context and everyday tasks to help residents understand how to reduce waste. Her secret? Storytelling.

Brandi Williams is the Community Affairs Manager of Solid Waste Services. She directs the community outreach function of the division. Their efforts to improve recycling rates in communities that are otherwise disengaged with services have been impressive. By helping build awareness and providing practical steps toward living greener, Williams has built not only a successful program, but a healthier community.

Watch the video on Healthy Communities homepage 

Getting the Message Out

Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services has been working on a Healthy Communities initiative for almost 2 years. In that time, they’ve learned a lot about impact. In the last year and a half, they reached more than 5,000 people through presentations at schools, neighborhood association meetings, community presentations and through community partnerships with nonprofits, other government agencies and corporations. On the web and social media, they have received over 2 million impressions in that same time.

Brandi Williams and the Solid Waste Services team of 4 has had incredible success. And it’s based on a simple formula. What can make people really care about reducing waste? It’s not just education.

What can make people really care about reducing waste?

Education is at the heart of the Healthy Communities program. But there’s more to it than getting the information out: education unto itself does not stick without two things: cultural context, and practical steps to follow through.

For education to work, you need a story that resonates with people personally. So, Williams says, she focused the initiative around this key question:

How can we tell this story in a way that matters to the person?

Williams noticed that residents in her area had become more health conscious, and were spending more time and money on becoming healthy. She decided to write messaging that connected landfills with health. In her research, she found that methane gas in landfills are the third largest contributor to climate change and contribute to air pollution. This was a good start: it spoke to concerns that residents already had. But there was one more necessary step…

How a practical step by step approach helps reduce waste

It’s one thing to prioritize recycling education. It’s quite another to design an education program.

Charlotte’s residents wouldn’t go to a recycling seminar, so Solid Waste Services hosts cooking demonstrations. They focus the program on teaching how to cook and enjoy meals with lots of fruits and vegetables. During the cooking process, they emphasize how to reduce food waste, and how to dispose of scraps. This goes beyond the kitchen. Brandi and her team will talk about composting, and share a full story about going to the grocery store. At the grocery store, they say, ask for brown paper bags instead of plastic. They demonstrate by putting compost in a brown paper bag on the table, a nice clean package to take outside. Then she pulls it all together: “That area in your yard, where you put that bag, you can use that to do your part to grow fruits and vegetables next year.”

“We’re talking about rebalancing the ecosystem,” Williams says, “but I just showed you how making a few practical changes. Take these steps, make those lifestyle changes, and you might not be trying to be environmental, you might be trying to be healthier, but you’re succeeding in both.”

Using a Web of Partnerships

Solid Waste Services would not have been able offer all their programs without a deep web of partnerships. The team at Charlotte SWS took an educational approach to reducing waste, but to do it well, Williams says, they first had to educate themselves.

“Partnerships are truly important. We would not have been able to do what we were able to do without partners.” They build gardens at a schools in partnership with police department and Pop Up Produce, a local non-profit that nurtures relationships to cultivate community planting hubs through the education of food systems, for instance. Pulling the logistics together, Williams says, “we had a huge learning curve. We knew nothing about gardening. To move forward, we wanted to learn ourselves and then go out and train residents.”

Using Technology to Improve Recycling Rates

Charlotte sits within Mecklenburg County, and in 2016, Mecklenburg County Solid Waste reported that nearly 40 percent of residential garbage could have been recycled. To help improve recycling rates, Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services introduced an online tool to help residents determine the best way to dispose of unwanted items.

Citizens can now use their phones and computers to check what goes where. They can look it up on Charlotte’s Waste Wizard or play The Toss Is Right game to test their knowledge. The Waste Wizard and Toss is Right teaches residents how to properly dispose of mattresses, wood, old paint, furniture, light bulbs and much more.

Waste Wizard allows citizens to search for instructions on how to dispose of items they no longer want. With one search, citizens learn how to prepare wood, leaves and tree trimmings for yard waste collection. They can also learn that paint can be recycled at full service facilities and should not be placed in trash carts.

The tool provides monthly reports that assist Solid Waste Services in the creation of targeted education for upcoming campaigns.

Charlotte, NC SWANA Award

Storytelling is the method behind Charlotte Solid Waste Services’ Healthy Communities Education Program. It has been so successful that SWANA, the Solid Waste Association of North America, recognized Williams and her team for connecting with residents.

In their submission, Solid Waste Services stays consistent with their messaging. They write:

“Environmental factors contribute to 23% of all deaths worldwide and 36% of all deaths among children 0-14 years old (Global Results of the Analysis). Cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease are taking over communities. These diseases are the top chronic diseases impacting minorities in Mecklenburg County, of which 84% is the City of Charlotte.”

Charlotte has conducted much more programming than what we narrate here. For more information about their programming, check out their award winning submission.

The Most Important Thing? Be Human

Charlotte’s Solid Waste Services have conducted a lot of different projects, which Williams says was difficult but helped them focus. Thinking back, she says the most important thing to do is to “really think about your focus, your true outcome” and to cut programs that don’t make sense right away. Certain school partnerships, for instance, were helpful but ended up not fulfilling short term goals. After evaluation, they decided to focus on adult education first.

Williams also stressed the importance of culturally appropriate teachings. “Really use culture to reach people in a way that is truly authentic to them,” she says. Connect with Radio DJ’s, for example, and host culturally relevant events.

But the most important message, Williams says, is how you say it. “A lot of times what we do doesn’t feel like governement,” she explains, “a lot of the time people are surprised. We have to maintain our integrity as an organization, but we don’t have to act like we aren’t people.”

Striking that balance, it seems, has won Charlotte much more than a SWANA award.