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What is Sustainability research?

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Today we have a guest post from Dr. Erin Redman on our current research in Mexico and what makes Sustainability research unique.

Many people know what ecologists or cell biologists study but what do Sustainability scientists research? First, since I believe that Sustainability is ultimately a human endeavor, 100% of our research includes interacting with people. Secondly, I believe that we cannot hope to Achieving Sustainability, if we only conduct and discuss Sustainability research within the confines of the Ivory Tower, hence, 100% of our research includes community collaboration and input. Thirdly, I believe that Sustainability solutions derived from only one perspective are not solutions at all, so throughout our research, we solicit stakeholders from diverse walks of life—including stay-at-home parents, business women, academics, government employees, etc. These three things make Sustainability research fundamentally different from many other disciplines.

Sustainability scientists are committed to real-world, trans-disciplinary, collaborative research, but the topic areas studied in Sustainability are incredibly diverse, so to get more concrete, I'll share a brief narrative of the current research which we (Aaron and myself) are working on.

Sustainable Strategies for Waste in Leon, Mexico

Aaron Redman & I have a research grant1)Supported by UNAM funding through PAPIIT [3] focused on understanding current household waste strategies and discovering opportunities for making the current system more sustainable. We began this research by contacting the city’s waste provider (SIAP) and asking for an interview with the director. The director of the municipal waste company was very forthcoming with the barriers to sustainable waste collection in Leon—for example, during the interview he noted that there is no transfer station that would enable them to separate and sort recycling, so the infrastructure for municipal-based recycling (what we have in the USA) is still at least a decade off. Currently, 100% of the garbage collected by SIAP goes to landfills.2)Some portion of this is being separated out by the garbage truck workers who sell the items for themselves. These numbers are completely un-tracked by anyone but something we hope to investigate down the road.

The next thing we did was solicit help from our students in order to map the Centros de Acopios (privately-run recycling centers) in Leon. These small businesses (sometimes just someone's house) pay people for PET, aluminum, glass, paper, etc. (although most focus on only one or two materials). We currently have 75 of these Centros de Acopios mapped in the city of Leon.

Currently, we are conducting household surveys/interviews. We do the surveys/interviews as part of home visits in order to visually get a sense of the waste situation and opportunities for more sustainable options (e.g. is there space for compost or even a garden). This process is certainly slow but is also very fruitful. One of the reasons that household data collection is so difficult is because we want to speak to the heads of households (those that are in charge of the household waste) & the majority of those we have surveyed cannot read so we are gathering our quantitative data in a much more qualitative fashion.

Aaron checking out the garbage with one of our research participants.
Aaron checking out the garbage with one of our research participants.
To date, we have finished 35 household visits and hope to complete another 20 in the near future. The overwhelming sense that we get is that everyone handles their waste differently. Unlike in the U.S. where most people put their recycling in a blue bin for curbside pick-up, in Leon, each household recycles different things, separates differently, and perceives the local recycling situation differently. Another interesting difference is that garbage pick-up is 5 to 7 days a week in all neighborhoods we have interviewed, creating a huge barrier to motivating houses to worry about waste reduction or efficiency.

As we continue to investigate and reveal more of the situation and potential for Sustainable waste management in Leon, Mexico, we'll be update you here first at Achieving Sustainability.

Footnotes   [ UNAM funding through PAPIIT [3] 2. Some portion of this is being separated out by the garbage truck workers who sell the items for themselves. These numbers are completely un-tracked by anyone but something we hope to investigate down the road.