Solving huge problems with a critical approach
Hello, friends! It’s Jenna, and this week I am sharing a post that will benefit you not only when pursuing your environmental endeavours but in all aspects of life.

Whether you face a problem in school, with a relationship, with your job or income source, having strong problem-solving skills are essential. Chances are, you have faced a problem where you quickly came up with a solution, only to realize that you overlooked an important factor and are still stuck with the problem (or in many cases, stuck with an even bigger problem).

This happens because we don’t know how to properly problem-solve. Today I am going to teach you how to do just that. I will use a problem in environmental management as an example, but you can apply this idea to anywhere in life where you face a problem that you need to overcome.

Saving the planet from environmental destruction is by no means easy. Tremendous effort goes into problem-solving for this type of issue, requiring a countless number of steps along the way. Environmental issues are especially challenging because many of them are fairly new (having emerged in the last few decades) and we do not have enough information or resources to find a sustainable solution.

Here’s an example: This past Sunday I went on my weekly plog around the neighbourhood. In 40 minutes, I managed to pick up 4 bags worth of litter. Of these four bags, two were from the area between Dixie Road and Fairport Road on Finch, which is a distance of only 800 metres. I couldn’t even pick up half of the litter there, mainly because I didn’t have enough bags or arms to carry it all home.

Airport to Dixie Road

Why is there so much litter accumulating in this area, and what can we do to decrease littering here? This is the type of question that would be sparked in an environmental manager’s mind when identifying an existing problem like this one. The next step would be to study the area, do some research about the neighbourhood and collect enough data to make your head hurt.

 

Here is the data I mentally collected just while I was on my walk:

  • When passing the area on my walk, I observed that a well-known grocery store sits at the corner of Dixie and Finch. The store faces the street, with the loading docks hidden behind, nestled right up beside one of the many forest patches in Pickering.
  • Trucks were exiting the loading dock, carrying all the products brought into the store and sometimes leaving behind the packaging. Employees also sat outside in this area, beside the dumpsters, smoking cigarettes.
  • Along with Finch’s sidewalk, as you head West towards Fairport, the forest is blanketed in plastic produce bags, cardboard pieces, packaging tape and food wrappers. There were also plenty of plastic water bottles, coffee cups, pop cans and newspapers. All of these products are sold at the grocery store.
  • Along the stretch of sidewalk, there are no houses directly next to it. The backyards of houses on the neighbouring street are set at least ten to twenty feet deep in the forest, submerged in the canopy of trees. In the fencing around these houses, litter was caught in the mesh wires and wooden boards, facing the side of the fence with the street. This means that the litter is likely coming from the street side, not from the households.
  • Most of the litter is caught in the bushes and trees along the sidewalk, closest to anthropogenic (human) disturbances.
  • The forest and nearby stream act as important ecosystems for terrestrial and aquatic life, both of which were filled with litter. This litter may be impacting the quality of life for the plant and animal species in this area.
  • There are no community garbage or recycling bins lining this stretch of sidewalk.

 

As you can see, my mind was constantly observing and analyzing my environment. I can easily identify a problem like this and collect data about it just from studying my surroundings. From my gatherings, I’ve concluded that a significant amount of the litter is coming from the grocery store, and due to poor waste management and disposal practices in the area, it is directly impacting the local environment in a negative way.

I wouldn’t have noticed this problem if I wasn’t engaging with my surroundings. This is why it is so important to observe and interact with your environment. It saddens me to see people walking down the street, blasting music on their headphones while scrolling through social media. We no longer breathe in the sweet smell of freshly cut grass, basking in the glowing sunlight beating down on us, letting our eyes roam over the vibrant flowers and electric blue sky. By zoning out, we are unconsciously ignoring the problems we face in our everyday life. In this case, the problem is litter. There’s so much of it, yet we hardly see it.

4 bags of litter filled in 40 minutes. Thats a problem!

40 minutes, 4 bags of litter.

While I was on my walk, I passed by several people who were shocked to see the amount of litter I was carrying. I stopped to chat with a few of them about what I was doing and why I was doing it. They were completely mind-blown by how much litter I had collected in such a short time, in their very own community.

I get it; when you walk down the street, distracted by music or Instagram or even your own thoughts, you don’t notice the plastic water bottle leaning against a tree trunk, or the candy wrapper wedged in the cracks of the sidewalk a few metres away. It doesn’t seem significant, so we don’t pay attention.

On the contrary, that bottle and wrapper are very significant. When you actually start picking up litter and placing it all in a confined area, you can see the problem literally growing before your eyes. A few pieces of litter lying around make it easy to feign ignorance; dozens or even hundreds of pieces make the problem a heck of a lot harder to ignore.

Once you identify a problem, you naturally want to solve it, right? Of course, I want to solve the litter problem. The sad truth, though, is that solving any problem is much easier said than done.

The answer to my problem is far greater than just picking up litter. It is also far greater than just placing a new garbage bin by the sidewalk; while it certainly helps, this is a “quick fix” and does not address the problem directly. In fact, it will likely create new challenges that you will have to work even harder to overcome. To illustrate, here are some of the new challenges that would come up if we placed a new garbage bin on the stretch of sidewalk between Dixie and Fairport:

 

  • Is there a trend in the people who are littering? For example, is there a specific age group dominating this category? Are the people littering mainly grocery store employees, customers, truck drivers or those passing by the street?
  • How long has the litter been there for? Has it been there for years, meaning that once a piece is caught in a shrub, it’s there for good? Or does it continue to invade other parts of the environment, being moved by wind, rain and other natural systems?
  • Who would empty a new garbage bin every week? Garbage trucks will have to redesign their routes to include this bin. This will take more time, and in any industry time is money.
  • What type of bin will it be? Will it have an open lid, so it is easier to put waste in? This may cause debris to fall out during strong winds or heavy rain. A closed lid may make it harder to put waste in, and it is more likely that individuals will dispose of the litter incorrectly (if it has garbage and recycling) if they cannot clearly see which bin is which.
  • Finch has two driving lanes, one going East and one going West. If a large truck stops in the one lane heading West, it will be an obstruction in the road and block traffic. The City of Pickering would need to be contacted to grant permission for the truck to temporarily restrict traffic flow.
  • Who will pay for a new garbage bin? The city, the garbage companies, the community, the grocery store? What if they don’t want to pay? Who will make sure it is not vandalized or damaged? Will it have recycling, too? If so, there would need to be garbage and recycling pickup, two separate instances where the road would be blocked.
  • What other garbage could be thrown in the new bin? Would it create an unpleasant smell in the area, upsetting the nearby residents?
  • Where, exactly, would the bin be placed? What is the optimal location that is close enough to the grocery store but still be available to someone heading West towards Fairport?
  • Even if there are garbage and recycling bins, how much litter would still end up on the ground? People litter even when there are proper disposal methods all around. How can we actually stop people from littering? Can we stop them?

 

As you can see, there are so many questions that must be answered during not only the environmental management process but for problem-solving in general. I could ask so many more, but you get the picture. Do I know the best solution to this litter problem? No, I don’t. But if I ask myself more questions, collect more data, speak to the stakeholders involved, maybe I could find a solution.

The litter problem

So, what is the point of this post? I’m not telling you what the solutions to our problems are. What I am teaching you is how to approach the problem-solving process, and to understand that problem-solving is about more than just getting a new garbage can. There are many negative externalities associated with the litter on our streets. A negative externality is something that is creating previously unconsidered displeasure, meaning we do not directly see the problem we are creating.

Here is how my ecological economics professor described a negative externality: someone who is smoking in a restaurant may be enjoying their amazing meal. Meanwhile, the couple at the neighbouring table cannot enjoy the same meal nearly as much because their lungs are being filled with the stench of second-hand smoke.

While a garbage bin will help reduce the litter on Finch between Dixie and Fairport, it may inconvenience city workers that have to redesign their waste collection route, interrupt traffic, or create unpleasant smells. It may create previously unforeseen negative externalities if the proper problem-solving approach is not taken. On the other hand, litter can harm the local environment and depreciate the visual appearance of the community. There are always at least two sides to every issue, usually many more sides than what initially meets the eye.

If you do manage to find a functioning solution, use it as a learning experience. What and why did it go well? How can you implement what you learned from this success to future problems you may face? Even if you didn’t resolve the problem, what could you improve on from this experience, so you can do better the next time? To me, nothing counts as a failure, because for everything I “fail” at, I always learn something else that will help me perform better later on. That, in my opinion, is a victory. With this mindset, you can be confident in your problem-solving abilities.

Critical thinking to solve global problems I hope that you can now see how challenging it can be to approach solutions to environmental issues, or social or economic issues as well. When we want to solve a problem, we first need to identify the problem. Next, we must gather information: key stakeholders (stakeholders don’t have to be humans; they can also be animals, insects or the environment), historical data, related issues in the area. After that, we can work with stakeholders to hypothesize potential solutions.

We must consider the impacts, both positive and negative, of every solution we come up with on each stakeholder. Problem-solving usually involves a lot of banter between parties, many long hours debating what will do the most good for the most people, and many trials to find a compromise that is just right. Sometimes it takes years, sometimes only days, sometimes a solution is not found.

However long, everything will be okay—all you need to do is keep on trying. Baby steps are essential to ensure that you do not miss any vital information. Working consistently and remembering what motivates you to find that solution (saving marine life from plastic debris, for instance) is the best way to keep moving forward. Only then can we begin to tackle the problems facing our planet today.

If you liked what you read here, be sure to check out my other posts on PickWaste’s blog, or visit my own blog at thisisjennasjourney.com. Enjoy the rest of your week, and I will see you next Wednesday!

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