In 2011, I was getting ready to graduate from the University of Waterloo in Geography and Environmental Management. My dream job was to be a high school gym and geography teacher. My days would be spent playing dodgeball, looking at maps, and wearing sweatpants! Why not? I spent many years preparing my application for teacher’s college by running school age camps and volunteering as a field hockey coach. But when the time came to apply, I got advice from teachers saying there were too many teachers, and not enough jobs. I decided to hit pause on applying to teacher’s college and see what else was out in world.

Olivia Kwok wearing UW hoodie and smiling with green hill and lake scenery in the background

I landed my first “grown up” job at the City of Guelph before graduation. My role was to conduct research, give tours of the waste management facilities, and encourage participation in the City’s new waste cart collection program. Who would have thought this was the start of my career in waste management! I spent a few years working for my hometown but decided to break out of the bubble and move west.

Olivia beside garbage bin I learned that no matter where you lived, waste exists and there was always a need to educate the community on the programs. I now oversee the waste and diversion programs for the City of St. Albert in Alberta. My work days are never the same. I may start my morning conducting waste audits on a neighbourhood street, then head off to a meeting about budgets, and finish my day presenting a report to City Council.

Over the last year, waste and recycling issues have been dominating the news and social media feeds. People are now wondering what they can do to minimize the amount of waste going to landfills, why global recycling markets are not taking our materials anymore, and what happens to the clothes we “donate.” I’m so happy that trash talk is becoming normal talk!

Here are a few tips I’d like to share if you’re looking to reduce waste in your daily life:

  • Keep a set of reusable utensils in your backpack or purse for meals on the go. Plastic utensils are not recyclable and go in the garbage.
  • Bring reusable containers to pack leftovers when dining out, instead of taking plastic or Styrofoam takeout boxes or trays.
  • Use a travel mug or bottle for beverages on the go. Some retailers even provide a discount for customers that choose to reuse.
  • When shopping, bring reusable produce and grocery bags to cut back on single use plastic bags. Wash your reusable bags in the laundry if they’re getting dirty.
  • Use reusable beeswax wraps in the kitchen, instead of saran wrap or plastic zip baggies.

Olivia on mountain

I’m glad that I didn’t end up going into teaching, because I’ve realized I am a teacher in the waste world! My classroom and students change every day, but I’m able to share my passion about waste with a different audience each day. I’m also lucky to be able to experience another side of Canada on my days off. I’ve spent many days exploring different parks, trails, mountains and golf courses in British Columbia and Alberta. I’d say this is much better than a school gymnasium!

Olivia Kwok is the Supervisor of Waste & Diversion Programs at the City of St. Albert. Outside of work, she serves as a member of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) Northern Lights Chapter, the Recycling Council of Alberta, and the Edmonton Region Waste Advisory Committee.