The Path to SF Environment
In support of Climate Action Month in April, we want to highlight a community partner, co-educator, and mentor-supervisor for the McCarthy Fellows in San Francisco. Huy Le is the Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) and Used Oil Program Coordinator on the Toxics Reduction & Healthy Ecosystems team with the San Francisco Department of the Environment. He is also a proud alumni of the MS, Environmental Management program at USF. Le sat down with Angeline Vuong, Assistant Director of Public Service Programs, to discuss the importance of his work and his experience in government.
Tell us about yourself and how you got involved working on policy in local government?
I got started in local government by accident. My major was Biological Sciences and then my last year of college, I had an opportunity to intern with the City of Elk Grove. The position was to help create a collection program and to implement a statewide bill that passed requiring universal waste batteries/household batteries and a host of lower hazardous waste items like lightbulbs for example. I’ve always questioned, “What do you do with batteries?” They don’t belong in the trash, what should we do with it? And that’s a question that always lingered with me and drew me into my first foray into local government. From there, I worked at SF Recology and started really hands-on, working at the facility managing the waste of hazardous materials, seeing that system and process. So my entry point was gradual but it was good timing and now I’m in an amazing policy role in my position at SF Environment.
Something that is interesting I know about you is growing up in a large immigrant Vietnamese American household. You don’t waste anything! How did your lived experiences inform how you thought about your place and role in preserving and protecting the environment?
That’s a great point because within Asian families like mine, the topic of environmentalism is not really high on the top of the agenda. We’ve always grown up with this idea of reuse, not because it was the right thing to do, but because it was to save money. At the time when my parents came here from Vietnam with nothing, they made their way up and clothed my siblings and I with second-hand clothes, shopped at the cheaper grocery stores. I would say it had a pretty big impact on me on how I view waste and drove me to be more cognizant of my environment and cautious about the things I do and how I dispose of waste safely and responsibly.
What’s your experience like working at SF Environment as a whole?
It is always changing and impacts you in a great way, making you think about what you do at home with your family and friends. The most rewarding part of working at the department is the opportunity to identify so many changing issues and problem solve topics that always evolve. For example in my role, there are so many emerging waste items that we don’t know what to do with. I have the autonomy to solve the problem, manage some alternatives, and tackle what is most important. Whether it is looking at the deep level of and root of the issue of steps on how testing of these chemicals become law. From how to get rid of these toxic chemicals in the environment and empowering constituents and businesses to do so as well safely and responsibly. We have such important opportunities to problem solve and opportunities to grow in the department and in our role as civil servants.
What are some new exciting priorities this year at SF Environment that you can share about your team and that we can highlight for Climate Action Month?
A lot of our outreach funding goes toward community partners and one of our goals is to have the best public reach, so we are consistently identifying different ways to reach our community and partnering with various non-profit organizations around the City. The relationship building is incredibly important and a priority for us. For example, one particular partner is Project Wreckless, located in Bayview Hunter’s Point—it’s an organization that supports youth through an after-school program where they work on classic American cars. It’s a program that teaches them skills, capacity development tools through an immersive curriculum to improve upon social mobility. Another project is how to tackle pollution in San Francisco as it relates to the usage of oil. We partner with Fumoto Manufacturer, a local company that manufactures oil drain valves that captures oil and minimizes spills in the environment for the consumer. A lot of oil just ends up in the environment on your disposable glove that you throw away and ends up in a landfill somewhere. These valves are such a simple design that you attach and minimizes the spill and is a really small and smart way to reduce these waste hazards. These examples just provide a glimpse of some of the innovative ideas that come through our department when we work alongside community partners and organizations. We’re collecting information, understanding our demographics, and it goes back to how we respond to constituent identified needs.
You work on creating policies to manage waste responsibly, specifically hazardous materials. What do you think is the biggest challenge that you see in your role to inform the public about this very important issue?
Honestly, it’s just that—informing the public and our constituents that these programs are available to them. It’s like that lingering question from before “how do I dispose of something simple like a battery?” When I speak to people at tabling events or at panel presentations, I’m surprised to see the number of people who don’t know that we have a program where SF Environment can go to your house and pick up your hazardous materials–chemicals that you no longer use, pesticides, cleaners, aerosols, oils. All of these things do not belong in the trash and we try to make it as convenient as possible to know that there are ways to dispose of these materials responsibly, and that the City is making it convenient as possible for you. Knowledge is really important, along with access and the information that these services are available to you. We can go to your house or you can drop it off at one of our 100+ drop off locations–you don’t have to drive to the Bayview!
It’s Climate Action Month in April–not just Earth Day! What’s your advice to young people today and how they can plug in, take steps, and take advantage of and participate in climate action initiatives?
It’s so important to preserve our climate and to protect our environment. Connect with folks at the University of San Francisco who work on these issues, pick up trash at Ocean Beach, work with community partners who work in this space, attend some of the Climate Action Month events through SF Environment. Be knowledgeable about how to get rid of household hazardous waste materials responsibly and safely is a great first step! It’s incredibly important to inform yourself. If you find this interesting it’s a good start and start building your toolkit from there.
To learn more about the Recicle su aceite y filtros de motor campaign
To contribute, engage, and join events in the community for Climate Action Month sponsored by SF Department of the Environment
To learn more about safe disposal of household hazardous waste