As a girl, Sian Cuffy-Young’s father often took her to Chaguaramas.
Swimming was her favourite pastime. But this all changed when she was ten. One day at the beach, she was hit in the face by a floating diaper which was loaded. She asked her dad to never take her to Chaguaramas again, so he never did.
“That experience really transformed me.
“At ten, I was thinking that people were too nasty. How could you bring your child to the beach and don’t have a bag for the pampers? I just couldn’t understand,” said Cuffy-Young, 38, in an interview with WMN at the Botanical Gardens, Port of Spain.
She said her father taught her to always leave a place cleaner than she found it. So, it’s no surprise she is bothered when people dump waste indiscriminately.
“I have been picking up (garbage) after people my whole life and not understanding why they would leave all their garbage behind,” she said.
What happened with the diaper inspired her to ensure others understood that how they disposed of garbage impacts the environment.
As an educator and social entrepreneur, Cuffy-Young created her consultancy – Siel Environmental Services Ltd – five years ago. She has done extensive studies on environmental management, ever since obtaining degrees in physics and environmental engineering from UWI, St Augustine, where she teaches a short course on waste management.
She worked for four years, until 2009, as an environmental officer at SWMCOL in the Environmental Projects Department. In 2007, she went to Israel on a month-long diploma programme in environmental management at Galilee International Management Institute, covering topics such as project management, water resource management and waste management.
“In Israel, I learnt the country is very good at managing very little resources. At that time, water was scarce, and they found ways to have an agriculture sector which managed water efficiently.”
In 2011, she went to Cornell University in New York on a one-year Hubert Humphrey fellowship, studying natural resource management and climate change. She is also a member of the International Solid Waste Association’s Women of Waste (WOW) group – a fellowship of women waste management professionals.
In 2014, Cuffy-Young returned to SWMCOL for one year, as the resource recovery coordinator and project manager of its Beverage Coordinator Collection Project.
She said TT's landfills were overused and that 84 per cent of all waste materials were recyclable. Proper waste management is possible, she said.
“My work is important because I want to divert as much waste away from the landfills as possible. It doesn’t even need to end up there.
“I want to show people that waste does have value and it can be used for greater purposes.”
For example, she said people can use food scraps to create compost to grow crops organically.
TT’s litter act also needs to be updated, she said. She said the laws do not account for waste streams such as electronic waste which has developed over the years.
But improving TT’s waste consumption and management practices isn’t a one-man show.
“One of my long-term goals is to have environmental education as part of the school curriculum so that everyday our children can learn something about protecting the environment.”
She plans to reach out to the Ministry of Education to discuss how environmental management and sustainable development can taught in schools.
Cuffy-Young believes in setting the example.
When she hikes to places like Rio Seco Waterfall, which is her favourite trail, she removes all the garbage along the way.
“If I go on a hike and there’s garbage there, there’s no way that I’m leaving it behind.
“If I go to a fast-food restaurant, and a box is on the table, there’s no way it’s staying there.
“People take the time to eat their snacks and fast food so, why not simply walk over to a bin and throw your garbage away? That always bothers me.”
Cuffy-Young doesn’t think she’ll ever outgrow the habit. And she is teaching her children – Keyv Junior, 16, Kya, seven, and Keyondre five – to do the same.
“I take those same lessons that my father would have taught me, and I teach my children it.
“I teach them to pick up after themselves. My daughter has taken on the recycling collection role in the house.”
She said Kya once asked her why there was litter in an area, and now knows how to separate waste by type, and what the items are called.
“I felt very proud as a mom. I started inculcating those values from early, when they could have understood what a plastic bottle is.”
Cuffy-Young encourages parents to teach children how to discard waste and recycle where possible. She recommends they turn waste collection and recycling into a fun game.
It's the kind of advice on waste management she gives to people at Siel Environmental.
“The company is all about transforming the way individuals and organisations act towards waste. The company has been growing from strength to strength.”
Siel’s Environmental operates in three areas: school-based waste education, training people on proper waste management techniques and a waste efficiency programme for businesses.
The company had to scale back in-person workshops which were moved to virtual sessions because of covid19 public health restrictions.
The school-based activities were put on hold but online consultations, such as the at-home composting workshop, continue.
Cuffy-Young credits her husband Keyv for his support when she felt like giving up.
“My husband has been my biggest cheerleader. There were times when I felt like I couldn’t do this kind of work anymore. He was the one who kept me going and always reminds me of the power I have.”
One of her goals is to teach children how to be responsible and care for the environment. She is writing a three-part children’s environmental series called Kay’s Magical Adventures.
The first book, Where the Garbage Goes, is due for release in December.
“I have many dreams but this one (the book) is the one closest to my heart because it involves children.
“The book is about a little girl finding out what happens to her waste when she throws it away in a garbage bin. She goes on a journey to discover what happens with certain items when thrown away.”
The other two books on responsible waste consumption are to be released in 2021. She said the book series was a 14-year idea that is now blossoming. In 2006, she designed a children’s activity book for SWMCOL but it was never published.
“I always decided that when I had the opportunity, to do a book again, I would definitely do it better and in my own way."
Sian Cuffy-Young’s children book is available for pre-order and she has a crowdfunding page to raise funds for her environmental advocacy work. She can be reached via Facebook at Siel Environmental Services Limited, Instagram @sieltt and at firstname.lastname@example.org