Diverting community waste
Indigenous grad champions waste management program in We’koqma’q
Date: May. 23, 2023
Story at a glance
Carrie Anne Michael, a graduate of the Natural Resources Environmental Technology program, has been a driving force in bringing a waste management program to her community in We'koqma'q First Nation. Every household is receiving a complete waste management starter kit, and Carrie Anne is gathering insights on ways to improve the program through waste audits and other research.
Sorting through garbage isn’t exactly glamorous, but it’s something Carrie Anne Michael is passionate about when it comes to climate action. The NSCC grad has been the driving force in pioneering a comprehensive waste management program that includes every household in her community, the We’koqma’q First Nation
“When I advocated for better, proper waste management, a lot of community members said to me, ‘Do it then. Don’t just say it. Put some action to your words and do it.’ I took that literally and here we are,” says Carrie Anne, who is now employed as the community’s first waste management coordinator.
Resilient and determined to succeed
Carrie Anne found her path into the environmental sector through a combination of a love for the outdoors and an insatiable curiosity to understand the world around her and why things are done in certain ways. “Ever since I learned to ask who, what, why, when where and how, I kind of apply it to everything,” she explains.
In 2015, after 10 years of working as a fisherwoman, and with a desire to make positive changes in the world for her then six-month-old daughter, Scarlett Blaire, Carrie Anne enrolled in NSCC’s Natural Resources Environmental Technology program at the Strait Area campus in Port Hawkesbury. Carrie Anne and her classmates participated in an annual campus waste audit; they sorted through a full day of waste to find out how much trash was being generated, and how many recyclable and compostable items were being tossed into the general trash collection instead of being properly sorted and diverted from landfills. The students then helped make suggestions on how to improve overall participation in waste reduction and sorting within the campus community.
Carrie Anne says that the waste audit made her curious about waste management in We’koqma’q. “I was asking myself, how come in my community we only have dumpsters, we don’t separate our trash, everything goes into the dumpster. Why? Why isn’t recycling offered for us too? I decided I was going to keep going to school, keep learning, and I’d figure out the answers to these questions,” she explains.
After graduating with a diploma from NSCC, Carrie Anne went on to obtain a Bachelor of Engineering Technology, Environmental Studies from Cape Breton University (CBU) in 2018 through an articulation agreement. “I very much struggled with culture shock at CBU,” says Carrie Anne. “Some nights I would stay there until 9 or 10pm, then drive an hour and a half home just to go back the next day. I wanted to learn everything I possibly could about management, leadership, and the environment.” Throughout this time, as she studied and learned more about the environmental impacts of improperly managed waste, Carrie Anne began to advocate for better waste management in her community on social media.
Gaining experience to make change
Carrie Anne applied for jobs in Cape Breton after completing her degree, but had difficulty finding one in the environmental sector. “They all said I needed 5 years of experience, so it was either cry about that or go out and get that experience,” she says.
She applied for a position with the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq (CMM) in Millbrook, several hours away from We’koqma’q, which was further than she had ever lived from home, but she was able to stay with her boyfriend’s mother in Pictou Landing for a year to be close enough for a daily commute. At CMM, Carrie Anne learned about proposals, funding applications and working with Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) to gain knowledge that she could take back to her community.
“I learned so much and loved it there. I love the people, I love the knowledge, the lessons, learning about best practices, every minute of the day I was learning something new and useful at work. And I learned that for myself, as long as I am willing to learn and accept change, anything is possible,” says Carrie Anne. She enjoyed her first year working with CMM so much that she was able to extend her position into a second year, where she worked from a satellite office in Pagtnkek so that she could be closer to home.
Carrie Anne credits the team at CMM for uplifting her and inspiring her to initiate an American eel monitoring project for that second year, because the species is declining and is culturally significant to the Mi’kmaw people. “I wanted to help be a part of that data collection to potentially help the species and protect them because they don’t have a voice like we do,” she says.
Indigenous partnerships in waste management
After completing two years with CMM, Carrie Anne returned to We’koqmaq more determined than ever to find out the answers to her questions about waste management in her community. She found out that Indigenous communities are often excluded from municipal and provincial programs like waste management because they are under federal jurisdiction. “Government has put our First Nations through centralization in Canada, and the impacts of that are still being felt today. Part of the reconciliation process is government trying to fix these mistakes, and I did some research and found out about a federal program with funding allocated to First Nations for solid waste management because it is an issue right across Canada,” explains Carrie Anne.
Now officially employed with We'koqm'aq First Nation as the waste management coordinator, Carrie Anne worked with CMM to prepare a federal funding proposal for a waste management program in her community. The initial application was approved, and the program has received an additional 7 years of funding. We'koqma'q has partnered with G-Man Waste Removal, an Indigneous company from Millbrook, for waste management starter kits and waste collection in the community.
“We contracted them because they have experience with other First Nation communities across Nova Scotia, they come with awesome recommendations and they’ve already done research on best practices for waste management in similar communities,” explains Carrie Anne. She points to the Indigenous-specific research G-Man has provided as the first steps to making the program successful. “For example, in First Nations communities, they see better uptake in participation if they do waste collections at 8am instead of 7am, details like that.”
Climate action for the future
After completing a baseline waste audit last June in a partnership with Inverness County, Carrie Anne is rolling out waste sorting ‘starter kits’ to every home in We’koqma'q this spring and summer and will do a follow up waste audit in the late fall to get initial data on how well the program is working for the community. From there, she’ll continue providing community education to bridge any gaps and monitoring progress through waste audits.
“The whole reason I wanted to do this is for my daughter. I want her to have a good life, and a good future,” says Carrie Anne. She stresses the importance of taking responsibility for our waste now to protect and rehabilitate the environment for future generations. “Through this process, I’ve learned about a concept called extended producer responsibility (ERP). That means that companies have a financial responsibility to contribute to recycling the products and packaging they create. That’s something I want to see for the future.”
Carrie Anne’s drive to learn, understand, and improve environmental practices is stronger than ever. “I just keep asking questions,” she says. “I don’t care if they sound dumb. If it’s something I don’t understand, then explain it to me in a different way so that I do understand. I am not a dumb person; I ask questions because I want to understand.”
Waste management 'starter kits'
The household starter kits that Carrie Anne ordered from G-Man Waste Removal include the following items for each household in We’koqm’aq.
- In-home waste sorting station
- Outdoor blue, black and green carts with aluminum rack
- Battery bin
- Stainless steel compost bucket
- 100 green lid disposable compost containers
- Blue and clear bags, 250 each
- 2 bungee cords
- Reusable canvas bag
- Fridge magnet sorting guide
- Educational kits on proper waste sorting