Women4Climate Toronto embraces the idea that big changes often start with grassroots ideas

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Looking  back, Kim-Chi Tran remembers a childhood filled with hiking and a love of being in the wild outdoors. When the Toronto-based surgeon and mother of two takes her kids out into nature today, she’s keenly aware that the world has changed, and not always for the better. 

“Now when we go for hikes in Ontario, we have to be so careful about things like Lyme disease and ticks,” Tran says. “That’s not something that I grew up with. I grew up in Deep River and Petawawa. We were surrounded by trees, lakes and hiking trails, but we never had to worry about ticks or Lyme disease. There was never a pandemic when we were growing up. Now, these are things that are projected to continue, in part because of human encroachment on forest land and environments where we’re in close contact with animals we weren’t previously in close contact with.”  

To spend time talking with Tran is to be reminded that, often, world-changing action starts with small, grassroots ideas. She’s one of 14 women – with backgrounds in everything from politics and business to non-profits and community groups – chosen to be part of the second cohort of the City of Toronto’s Women4Climate Toronto (W4CTO) mentorship program. 

Through its Women4Climate Toronto program, the City of Toronto connects a small group of  women who have climate-focused initiatives and projects with mentors to help support and advance ideas that contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and help create a greener future. Tran’s climate-related initiative is called MUST (Multi-use Storage Technologies), and it’s designed to cut down on the waste generated by the manufacturing and use of takeout containers in the restaurant and food industry. Through third-party QR code labelling, businesses and customers can not only track reusable restaurant containers, but make sure they are indeed reused. 

Women4Climate Toronto, created in conjunction with C40 Cities (a global network of mayors pushing for urgent action on climate crisis), supports the objectives of the ambitious TransformTO Net Zero climate strategy adopted by Toronto City Council last December. With the goal of reducing community-wide greenhouse gas emissions in Toronto to net zero by 2040, Toronto’s climate strategy is one of the most ambitious in North America. 

Jen Cerullo

Tran’s idea for MUST sprouted from something small: while picking up takeout at a restaurant during COVID-19, Tran was struck by the amount of plastic and polystyrene waste generated by each container of food. 

“The takeout industry really took off with the pandemic,” Tran recalls. “I was like ‘Okay, what can we do to decrease our footprint, while still supporting our restaurants that are struggling?’”

That led her to the idea of putting QR codes on takeout containers, enabling users to track how many times a container has been used, and more importantly which restaurant to return containers to so they can be used again.

MUST is currently finalizing a website, and Tran hopes to roll out a pilot program later this year. Getting things from the drawing table to implementation is where the Women4Climate Toronto program and its various mentors are proving to be a major help.  

“With the Women4Climate mentorship program, one of the climate mentors is linking me to the Toronto Circular Economy group,” Tran says. “They’re working to promote sustainable circular economies within Toronto, and I’m hoping – with Women4Climate’s help – to get a little bit of a foothold within the group. That will help us launch our pilot program.”

In addition to supporting the development of grassroots initiatives, Women4Climate Toronto is also providing guidance to women who want to make large-scale events more environmentally sustainable. Toronto’s Jen Cerullo has spent the past decade producing athletic and consumer gatherings that include triathlons and international road races. Increasingly, she’s found that everyone from organizers to athletes to fans are interested in leaving a better world for future generations.

“I’ve definitely seen the shift in the past couple of years to a more sustainable mindset,” Cerullo notes. “When you go on websites these days, a lot of companies have sustainability mandates. From an event standpoint, partners want to know about the event’s sustainability initiatives.”

Cerullo, who fondly recalls loving nature at summer camps in rugged northern Ontario, couldn’t be more pleased about that shift. She’s quick to note that tackling climate change requires rethinking our lives on a number of fronts. With the mentors in the Women4Climate Toronto program ranging from City staff to business-sector leaders and members of progressive social organizations, there’s an invaluable pool of knowledge and resources for the mentees to draw from. 

Kim-Chi Tran

“The thing about sustainability is that it’s not just environmental responsibility,” Cerullo stresses. “It encompasses diversity, it encompasses inclusion, it encompasses equal rights and equal pay and accessibility – a much broader range of topics than just what we’re doing to our physical planet. It’s also social, and it’s about community.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, she suggests, gave us all a bit more time to step back and think about what really matters. Cerullo includes herself in this. Where in the past organizers might have focused on the big day of a marathon, now the goal is to look at how to reduce the carbon footprint from the earliest stages of planning an event. 

“You’re looking at the whole circle, from ideation and planning all the way to execution, and what’s occurring at all the steps along the way,” Cerullo emphasizes. “Looking at how we can reduce the impact of our actions in every step of the cycle. And making sure that there is a full cycle. If you’re talking about event swag, for example, there’s more to it than just ordering something, it shows up at your door, you’re giving it away to volunteers or customers, and getting rid of the excess.

 “You’re more learning about the process of creating, what’s involved in creating it, where’s it coming from and what are the emissions involved in getting it to you. At this point a lot of it is understanding that process, and then finding ways to reduce the impact. There are so many little ways that you can make a big difference.”

And that, quite understandably, is something echoed by her fellow Women4Climate Toronto mentee Kim-Chi Tran. 

“Global events like floods, tsunamis and hurricanes are all increasing because of climate change,” Tran observes. “So there’s a real fear of ‘What kind of world are we leaving to the generation after us? And how can I do my part to safeguard things and limit these issues as much as possible?’”

One of the answers to that? Learn more about the Women4Climate Toronto mentorship program, or even think about getting involved with the ongoing program as a future mentee. And with the world changing rapidly, that’s something best done today if we’re hoping to create a better tomorrow. Have an established climate-related project or business start-up that you’d like to take to the next level? Visit Women4Climate Toronto for more info.

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