"Canversation": Net Impact Fellows explore the relationship between social inclusion and environmental sustainability in NYC

As a part of the Net Impact Fellowship Program and the Net Impact Chapter at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in NYC, Ishita Jain, Chapter Leader, and Chuyao Geng, Chapter Member, started Zero Waste SVA. This project sparked their interest in the recycling systems in New York City and inspired them to work directly with informal recyclers to reduce the criminalization they face and spark conversations about the relationship between social inclusion and environmental sustainability in New York City.

In New York City, more than 7,000 "canners" are working hard everyday to divert recyclables from the landfills but they and their contribution are invisible to the average person. Canners are informal recyclers who earn their daily bread by collecting cans and bottles from New York City streets and redeeming them for five cents apiece. Ishita and Chuyao's project uses a user-centered approach to problem understanding and research to creatively tackle the challenges that canners in NYC face. 

Canners are not a "recognized group," so there is no study on canners in New York City. Even though we see canners diverting recyclables from landfills, the contributions are not quantified. Canning has the potential to create jobs, reduce poverty and save the city money. However, there is no research on these social and economic advantages. Secondly, there's no communication to share a new perspective, so people continue to harbor misconceptions. Public attitudes and public policy are based on misconceptions like canning has no positive economic and/or environmental impact. 

Modern recycling systems only focus on technology and often overlook decentralized and informal systems like canners or waste pickers. This problem is not unique to New York and exists in some shape or form all over the world.

To fill these gaps and to show that canners are contributing members of society, Ishita and Chuyao built "Canversation," an interactive walking tour led by canners with a mission to introduce New Yorkers to their canners.  The audience is students and professionals in sustainability, policy, and design who value recycling, do research projects, and can influence policy in the long run. The students believe that if they can shift the public attitude and show the contribution canners make, they will have a better chance to influence public policy and government perspective enough to ultimately advocate integrating canners into the waste management system as local recyclers.

The response the team received exceeded their expectations. All three tours with 25 participants got great reviews. The tour was written about by Untapped Cities, a sightseeing tour agency in NYC. The participants were inspired by the tour and are already working on projects such as unionizing canners and making a short film about the canning ecosystem. People confessed that this tour made them see canners differently. One participant said, "I used to think these people were homeless and drug addicts. This has changed everything I knew." The rich interactions and demand that the tour generated shows that it has the potential to change the way New Yorkers see canners as well as the potential to be financially sustainable. 

Ishita Jain Chapter Leader School of Visual Arts

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