Recycling in multicultural Victoria: Co-learning for the future

By Dr Harpreet Singh Kandra
Representative image // Photo by Julio Lopez on Unsplash

One of the things I find remarkable about Victoria is that it’s made up of such a vibrant mix of cultures and perspectives. This gives new opportunities to share our diverse thinking and practices and learn from one another for the benefit of future generations.

As a passionate advocate for sustainability, I’m particularly interested in how Victorians can work together to better protect our environment and as a result, support healthy, thriving communities.

In my role as Sustainability Victoria’s Small Acts, Big Impact campaign ambassador, I recently had the privilege of speaking with respected and influential leaders from the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Lebanese communities about how we can collectively adopt more sustainable waste management behaviour, with a particular focus on recycling. We reflected on feedback from multicultural Victorians around knowledge gaps when it comes to Victoria’s current recycling system.

Our conversation revealed something enlightening—while we come from diverse cultural backgrounds with often different waste management systems, common ground and mutual learning can be found in how we manage waste and recycle more.

Overcoming cultural barriers and sharing strengths

Understandably, our past experiences frame our relationship to waste minimisation and recycling in Victoria. For some migrants, domestic staff may have previously helped with recycling in the home. For others fleeing countries in unrest, a sustained ‘survival mindset’ can influence how information about recycling and the future are received. Resettling takes a huge amount of mental and emotional energy—there is so much to arrange and learn, making tailored support and guidance on systems and social responsibilities incredibly important.

“Imagine coming to Australia as a migrant and seeing four different coloured bins for the first time – you wouldn’t know which to use for what until you’re shown,” says Arabic community leader Michael Kheirallah.

However, it is also in this journey of learning that we can find strengths and lessons through ongoing dialogue and encouragement between different groups.

Vietnamese community advocate Tammy Nguyen says, “Reflecting on the habits of the Vietnamese community, so much of what they do at home is helpful to the environment, even if it may not be their primary motivation.”

“For those who came to Victoria to escape poverty or as refugees, being thrifty was a necessity. Those habits have carried on—from using takeaway food containers as storage solutions and vegetable scraps as garden fertiliser, there is a conscious effort to reuse things.”

To me, this shows that while awareness levels of Victoria’s recycling system may be low in some segments of the community, there are great foundations to build upon.

Leveraging good intentions to create positive change

It is great to see that multicultural Victorians show a strong willingness to learn and adapt to new methods of recycling and waste management. In a recent Sustainability Victoria survey, multicultural Victorians on average strongly agreed that “sorting waste correctly is worth the effort,” and it’s the “responsibility of everyone to dispose of waste correctly.”

Supporting this, Chinese community leader Diana Lin believes that positive messaging is the driving force behind behavioural change.

“People are willing to follow instructions, they just need to receive them in a way they understand that is clear, simple and where needed, in their preferred language,” says Diana.

Converting this good intent into positive change will start with small adjustments. We can address this through educational programs like Sustainability Victoria’s Small Acts, Big Impact campaign and its work in sharing digestible, practical information in multiple languages.

But it’s what we do with this valuable information that will really make a difference.

“I think, for many people, sometimes convenience wins out over the potential long-term gain. The sustainable option can often be seen as the more time-consuming one,” says Tammy.

However, Tammy also reflected that “… people often return home from overseas holidays with a greater appreciation for the cleanliness and air quality we have in Victoria. They feel fortunate to live in such a healthy environment and are certainly motivated to preserve that for future generations”.

So, I’d ask my fellow Victorians, what can we do to embed waste minimisation and recycling habits into our daily lives?

I’m motivated by seeing what others are doing to solve environmental problems – for example, tracking the amount of food waste that goes into the food and garden organics bins. I believe that creating a sustainable future must be driven by an openness to learn from one another.

With access to the right resources and an ongoing commitment to co-learning, multicultural communities across Victoria will be able to reduce waste and recycle more.

The youth are our future

In the same way that we can co-learn across cultures, we can also learn across generations. “In our community, the younger generation can have a positive influence on the older generation by helping them understand why recycling matters,” says Diana.

I’ve witnessed my own daughter learn about her environmental responsibility at school and become a vocal advocate for sustainability and recycling in our home. Involving the whole household keeps us accountable in our daily habits like keeping recycling loose, not in plastic bags.

To me, centring the voices and efforts of young Victorians makes a lot of sense given their high stake in Victoria’s future.

(To learn more about small acts to reduce waste and recycle more in 11 languages, visit
(Dr Harpreet Kandra is a community leader and volunteer passionate about social justice, multiculturalism, health and the environment. He graduated from Federation University in 2016 with a Graduate Certificate of Education (Tertiary Education). The views expressed in this opinion piece are solely those of the author)

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