12 May 2020

Millennium Fellow Zulaikha Zainal Efendi: Project Tote

United Nations Academic Impact and the Millennium Campus Network (MCN) are proud to partner on the Millennium Fellowship, a semester-long leadership development program that helps students design and implement community-level initiatives to promote sustainability and help others in need.

Over 7,000 young leaders on 1,209 campuses across 135 nations applied to join the Millennium Fellowship Class of 2019; 69 campuses worldwide were selected to host the 1,092 Millennium Fellows. The Class of 2019 is bold, innovative, and inclusive, and their work is projected to positively impact the lives of nearly 1 million people worldwide this year.

Zulaikha Zainal Efendi, a Millennium Fellow for the Class of 2019, started Project Tote in her community to reduce single-use plastic waste from plastic bags by bringing local people together to share and donate tote bags. Her Millennium Fellowship Project focuses on SDG 13: Climate Change.

Read below how a simple question jump started Zulaikha’s journey to be a force for change in her community.

“What are you going to do about it?” An interviewer posed this question to me when I applied for a summer internship.  I will always remember it because it unlocked a door in my mind, and inspired me to be part of the solutions to the problems our society faces.

One thing that I learned from my journey as a volunteer and project leader is that small, local projects that focus on behavior and mindset change are the most impactful. I am a huge believer in behavioral science; regardless of the amount of resources and technology at our disposal, without individuals and communities demanding change and utilizing them efficiently, it is impossible for meaningful change to happen.

Project Tote is the result of my interaction with my professors, friends and family. I started by questioning why people persist in using single-use plastic bags at grocery stores. My professor asked me to be empathetic, pointing out that sometimes people do unplanned shopping, and are forced to resort to using plastic bags. Coupling this observation with nudge theory, the idea that you can change people’s behavior using simple prompts, I began designing Project Tote, which aims to tackle climate change through a behavioral shift at the local level. Through this project, shoppers can borrow and donate tote bags at specified stations, located strategically either at small grocery stores or at residences. It aims to solve the issue of forgetfulness and provide easy access to reusable bags, the nudge to create new habits in the community that enable people to proactively help tackle climate change with very little effort. When I first started the station at my residence, I was told that if it did not get support from the community it would be removed within 3 months. It has now been there for 6 months. I am proud that not only is the station still standing, it is growing rapidly and overflowing with donations. Seeing it being used and maintained by the residents is truly satisfying.

The Millennium Fellowship was vital to the success of this project. The support and network inspired me to continue when things were tough. The fellows on campus, who have now become my dear friends, helped me refine my ideas and come up with solutions to the problems I was facing. I will forever be grateful for the chance to be part of this community.

My advice for future fellows is that no project or initiative is too small. In fact, small projects are the most sustainable, easiest to spread across communities, and achieve grassroot change the quickest. If there is a problem in your local area, why not start a small project of your own? I assure you the ripples you create will be felt worldwide.

To learn more about Zulaikha’s work, visit her Millennium Fellow page or reach out to her through LinkedIn.