Sophia Hosain Co-Creates Community Waste Solutions in Baltimore

Sophia Hosain, a Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, previously was a fellow with the Baltimore City Office of Sustainability, where she served on the National Resources Defense Council’s Food Matters program, and she worked for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance as the Baltimore lead for the Composting for Community Initiative.

Willona Sloan, Freelance writer

June 11, 2024

5 Min Read

In this Q&A interview, Sophia Hosain, Zero Waste Manager, Baltimore City Department of Public Works, discusses how she works to advance Baltimore’s zero waste initiatives using a community-focused lens.

Hosain, a Waste360 40 Under 40 award winner, previously was a fellow with the Baltimore City Office of Sustainability, where she served on the National Resources Defense Council’s Food Matters program, and she worked for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance as the Baltimore lead for the Composting for Community Initiative. She also managed the National Community Composter Coalition and the Baltimore Community Composting Network.

This interview has been edited for length.

Waste360: What are your major responsibilities?
Sophia Hosain: I manage the Office of Waste Diversion, which oversees our recycling and waste diversion programs. That includes school recycling, residential curbside recycling, and the various offerings that we have for residents at the convenience centers, which includes textile recycling, electronics, household hazardous waste, food waste, and durable plastics.

Waste360: What would you say, in your opinion, are some of the city’s commitments to zero waste? What are some of the major initiatives?

Sophia Hosain: Right now, we have a big focus on food waste. Our current mayor, Mayor Brandon Scott, has established a framework for governance that he calls the Mayor’s Pillars. A few of those pillars fall within the zero waste category.
Some of them are geared towards moving away from incineration as a means to process our waste. Some of them are geared towards diverting all of our food waste. We do feel like the momentum is in the food waste space. We just expanded our food scrap drop-off program. We’re taking a decentralized approach to food waste rather than a curbside collection program. That looks like decentralized locations throughout the city, including with partnerships at universities where we host food scrap collection containers that are collected by a local hauler to process at a local facility here in Maryland. We host food scrap collection at the farmer’s market, and that is one of the efforts that we’re making towards food rescue.
We got a grant, not too long ago, from the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] to support food rescue organizations in the city. We’re in partnership with a couple of the food rescue organizations who are working to address food insecurity in the city through rescuing and distributing food for free to our residents. We’re grateful that we have such good community partners in the rescue space.

Waste360: What are some of the challenges you tackle in your role?

Sophia Hosain: I think one of the things with zero waste and food waste work, in general, is that we are in the process of building awareness. It feels like something that is new, something that people aren’t nearly as familiar with, as much as they are with concepts like recycling. Making the connection and addressing behavior change can be challenging, especially when traditional marketing methods are so expensive. Finding the budget in publicly funded organizations, taxpayer dollars, to do that type of communications and outreach that would target behavior change is challenging.

We find ourselves having to get creative on how we get the word out there; how we build the public understanding of food waste, food rescue, food waste diversion; how to minimize it; and how to minimize the environmental impact. That’s just the public facing communications.

The other thing that we face is that internal to government, we are also training our employees on what zero waste is. Zero waste within the Bureau of Solid Waste, within the Department of Public Works, is very new, and we’re building fluency.

We’re hoping that being out there face-to-face in the community, giving people the opportunity to be in dialogue with each other, and connecting with other residents about food and wellness will build the momentum that we need to drive that behavior change.

Waste360: What has been a big learning curve or a new skill set that you had to acquire to succeed in your role?

Sophia Hosain: I think one of my biggest challenges has been that I am very passionate about this work. I have been working in food systems for almost 10 years now, and I think one of the most challenging aspects of this job, for me, is learning how to communicate the importance of this intersectional issue with people who aren’t familiar with the intersections yet.
For example, when we talk about recycling and circular economies, there’s an intersection with business development, there’s an intersection with energy, there’s an intersection with public infrastructure. Zero waste encompasses so much of these things, and so many of these functions exist across the government. Communicating those points of intersection and finding the places where we can weave our work together has been really challenging, but also really rewarding because I think some of our collaborative efforts are the most successful.

Waste360: How do you keep your skills fresh and how do you keep learning?

Sophia Hosain: I definitely carve out time for professional development on my team, and I make sure that we’re providing opportunities for people to grow their skills. I think the most important skills for us to learn have been connecting to people and communicating with people. I find that as long as I’m grounded in community, I’m always learning new things and learning about new initiatives and making connections that I can tie into my work.

We started the Zero Waste Coalition, where we are essentially acting as a convener for organizations who are interested in practicing zero waste within their fields. It is about being connected to the community. Through that, it presents me with a lot of opportunities to build collaboratively and to build programs for people by people.

I can’t emphasize enough how challenging it is, but it’s also so rewarding when we get to do good things and really build our foundation in community solidarity and empowerment and environmental justice. All of that comes from community-driven, community-designed solutions.

So, I’m always learning.

I’m always inspired by the incredible residents of Baltimore who are so passionate, who lead the way in so many ways in the zero waste field in the city. They push for government accountability and for progressive programming, and their support makes our work thrive, and it makes it worth all the challenges.

About the Author(s)

Willona Sloan

Freelance writer, Waste360

Willona Sloan is a freelance writer for Waste360 covering the collection and transfer beat.

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