Sperling Elementary student Smith Hemsley just graduated Grade 2, and is the youngest of the City of Burnaby's Environmental Awards winners this year. (Laurie Dawson / Contributed)

Feed a Zombie, Not a Landfill: Meet the 8-year-old leading the way in Burnaby’s sustainability efforts

From Grade 2 students to lifelong activists, Burnaby residents and groups were recognized by the city for their environmental efforts.

By Curtis Seufert | July 4, 2022 |5:00 am

Several Burnaby citizens, groups and organizations were honoured at the latest city council meeting for their efforts in protecting the environment and fighting climate change.

The Beacon spoke with some of the winners of the City of Burnaby’s annual Environmental Awards, ranging from Grade 2 students with a passion for recycling to lifelong experts who’ve dedicated their lives to making an environmental difference in Burnaby.

Smith Hemsley – Feed a Zombie, Not a Landfill

Having just turned eight years old, Smith Hemsley was the youngest winner of the Environmental Star award this year, which recognizes smaller initiatives that can inspire greater change.

Hemsley’s award-winning project was his Feed a Zombie, Not a Landfill initiative: a recycling program which reduced classroom waste by collecting used pens, pencils, markers, crayons and other classroom supplies.

Hemsley had been thinking about the recycling idea for about a year before learning that Staples and waste management company TerraCycle had a recycling program that could make it work.

“I just had a thought of it. And then when mom found out about the Staples, we’re like, ‘Okay, we’re in business,’” said Hemsley.

Hemsley and his fellow Grade 2’s at Sperling Elementary went from class to class this year collecting the school supplies in recycled shoebox disposal bins, covered in decorations inspired by Hemsley’s favourite video game: Plants vs. Zombies.

Environmental Awards
Hemsley shows off his class’ decorated ‘Feed a Zombie, Not a Landfill’ collection boxes. (Laurie Dawson / Contributed)

Hemsley’s mom, Laurie Dawson, said his project has diverted nearly 2000 individual items, or over thirty pounds of material, from landfills.

She said Hemsley is looking into bringing his initiative to the rest of the Burnaby school district. But Hemsley hopes the project can go even further.

“My real goal is to make it all around the world, like the blue box,” said Hemsley.

“I hope to make it [where] individual houses have a smaller bin to put out… and a truck picks it up fortnightly,” he said. “That’s what I wish.”

Casey Lo – Food sustainability

Casey Lo was the sole youth winner of a full-fledged Environmental Award, which recognizes large-scale or long-term commitments with a bigger impact.

Lo was awarded for leading a number of different food sustainability projects at Burnaby Mountain Secondary, her high school. She revitalized their greenhouse that hadn’t seen use in recent years, developed a low-maintenance self-watering system for its gardening bins, and partnered fellow highschoolers with elementary schools to teach younger students about gardening and plant maintenance.

For Lo, the projects were an opportunity to practise concepts of food sustainability she had been learning about for years.

“I [thought], wouldn’t it be really cool if I could use the garden as an entry point at my school to get interested in environmental conservation and plants that naturally thrive on the West Coast,” said Lo. “And it would also be a really cool pathway for elementary students to connect to the high school.”

Environmental Awards
Casey Lo led the revitalization efforts of her high school’s indoor greenhouse. (Casey Lo / Contributed)

Lo said that she and other high schoolers would first lead hands-on lessons to elementary students about seed germination and planting, then bring the seeds back to the high school to grow, and finally return to the elementary students with fresh food to use in their cooking classes.

Lo said that projects like these were valuable not just for enacting sustainable food practises at her own school, but for encouraging others to learn about it as well.

“That was really the whole idea. It was getting more people wanting to be involved in the garden, in nature, and seeing all these cool things happen,” she said. “It would mean a lot to me if these ideas end up being spread to other schools.”

Pablo Vimos – Developing a connection with land

Pablo Vimos was also awarded for his teaching efforts in community-focused food sustainability this year. He’s a garden manager with Embark Sustainability at SFU, a non-profit focused on practical education on food systems, gardening and culinary skills.

He said that one of the most important lessons he teaches about gardening is how to do things sustainably. For SFU students who’ve taken workshops with Vimos recently, that means focusing on water conservation, which Vimos says is all too easy to forget about.

“We talk about water conservation practises mulching, keeping weeds down and trying to do intensive planting. All of that in order to optimize the space and reduce water waste,” said Vimos.

Vimos also leads age-appropriate workshops for elementary students with the Roots2Grow program, teaching them about the fundamentals of sustainable gardening and ecoliteracy.

He said that for younger kids, it’s especially important to develop a connection with nature for lessons to stick.

“When that relationship doesn’t exist, as much as you try to educate it goes nowhere,” he said. “But if you build strong roots, wherever you are, wherever you move, you will be able to develop a sense of care and relationship with land and with nature.”

Sara Ross – Community Finding Nest Network

Sara Ross was awarded for cofounding the Community Finding Nest Network, a volunteer-led effort that searches for and documents bird nests along the proposed Trans Mountain expansion route.

Combining her past experience working as a nature educator with her activist work against the pipeline expansion, she realized how valuable nest-spotting would be not just for building a relationship with nature and her community, but also for how impactful it could be in delaying the expansion.

“Federal laws protect every migratory bird’s nest, so it means you can’t harm or interfere with or destroy a nest,” said Ross. “So if there’s a nest in a place where they want to cut trees or clear, they can’t. They have to protect the area.”

Ross said it only takes one nest of a protected bird species to delay clearing the way until the fledglings leave the nest. And while species like robins might hatch and leave the nest after just a few weeks, she said woodpeckers like the Red-breasted sapsucker can take closer to two months to complete their nesting cycle, which delays tree clearing, and the pipeline expansion, for that length of time.

While the nest-finding network is primarily based in Burnaby, Sara said that the network goes wherever the pipeline goes, noting that their efforts recently delayed the pipeline’s expansion near Bridal Falls.

She said she’ll continue her efforts until the project comes to a halt.

“My city didn’t want it, my province didn’t want it, the First Nations whose land I live on don’t want it,” she said. “It’s not okay with me, so I’m doing something.”

Curtis Seufert

Curtis is a summer editorial intern with Burnaby Beacon.

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