Despite good intentions or perhaps because of generous intentions, the holidays are usually a time when all kinds of waste abound. And this year, it might be a little tougher to use little waste as the COVID-19 protocols don’t allow reusable bags or personal containers for bulk materials in some grocery stores.
We asked Cindy Villaseñor – an LA-based pollution educator and environmental advocate known as CeroWasteCindy on social media – to share some tips on reducing waste this holiday season (and all year round). Villaseñor’s approach is practical, non judgmental, and she is honest that no one (herself included) can do it perfectly. “There isn’t really zero waste,” she says. Villaseñor calls it a “sustainability journey”. Whether you want to start this journey and learn how to avoid single-use plastic in food packaging, or you’re ready to dive deeper into your home and reduce food waste, she is here to guide you. If you follow her, you’ll appreciate how real she is on Instagram – she’s not afraid of being vulnerable or silly, and if you’re lucky, you and her husband will house her and her husband cooking dinner together – Watch music dance.
Villaseñor’s journey began in college after taking an environmental science course. “My professor opened my eyes to a lot of environmental problems,” she says. She decided to take a minor in sustainability. In her private life, she tried to make her impact on the environment more gentle. She ate less meat and eventually went vegan. She developed a nuanced understanding of the plastic crisis, food waste and composting. And she learned how to grow her own food (she is also a certified master gardener and worked as a garden guard in schools). For the past few years, she’s shared her strategies for a low-waste life online – from how to live a low-waste life for a weekend to a low-waste wedding.
LOW WASTE TIPS FROM CINDY VILLASEÑOR
PLAN MEALS DIFFERENT
First, see what is available free of charge when shopping. Villaseñor suggests potatoes, butternut squash and onions, for example. (If you’re a meal planner, Google Recipes use these ingredients and go from there.) Many packages are available free of charge at farmers’ markets, but there are options available at regular grocery stores as well. When you need to buy something in a pack, look for options in reusable jars or recyclable aluminum containers.
Be realistic about meal preparation. Meal preparation can be a great strategy, but it can also lead to waste if you overestimate how much you are going to eat. “We tend to cook dinner for that evening and make sure it has at least one more meal the next day,” says Villaseñor. She does a lot of things, like a pot of dry beans that she will cook with all week. Preparing smaller batches more frequently can still save time – and you get a better feel for your needs.
Think about what’s on your plate. “When I look at my plate, I think about how much water and how much work it took to bring me the food,” she says. These are things we seldom consider when we’re not working in our food systems: “I always try to finish what’s on my plate.” According to Villaseñor, leftovers are turned into vegetable broth, compost for the garden or fodder for yourself Worm container for wormwood. “We make sure that all organic matter that gets through our house is composted,” she says.
BUY IN LARGER QUANTITIES
Bulk buying doesn’t always mean buying in bulk. Some grocery stores offer bulk bins as a no-parcel way to shop for dry goods like cereals, beans, coffee, nuts, and more. You usually pay by weight and have the option to bring your own reusable bags or containers. (Many supermarkets, understandably, temporarily limit self-service options.) There are two wholesale stores in LA that Villaseñor relies on: “I was so grateful to have Tare and Sustain LA.” Both non-parcel stores turned to compostables during the pandemic or reusable glass options changed instead of bringing your own. While not a bulk store, Villaseñor notes that the Cookbook Market, an independent grocery store, was also a great resource for purchasing certain items such as unpacked loaves of bread and allowing customers to pack their own groceries in their reusable bags.
Villaseñor always brings its own reusable products. If she went to a party or a barbecue (before COVID), she brought her own cups, plates, cutlery and napkins. If she goes to a family dinner and knows she will be sent home with leftovers, reusable containers will prep her. This strategy allows Villaseñor to avoid single-use items with little effort, and it’s also a way for them to show that the low-waste lifestyle is cool. “My in-laws are now selling reusable rather than single-use items,” she says. Her mother-in-law has also started saving her leftover food for Villaseñor’s compost heap.
“Accessibility is a big part of it,” says Villaseñor. “The world without waste can concentrate on suitable mason jars and stainless steel containers. And I think that can be an obstacle for some people. It shouldn’t matter what you have. It’s more important to use what you have on hand. “For example, it might be better to reuse the jar from the marinara you used last night or the plastic tub you saved from last week’s take-away order than to buy a trendy set of containers . Extending the life of something that might otherwise be thrown away is a good place to start without making large investments. “You don’t have to buy these things to have a low-waste lifestyle, because a low-waste lifestyle is also about not buying new things and using what you already have,” she says.
JUST DO YOUR BEST
Forget perfect. “It is more difficult to lead a wasteful lifestyle during this time,” says Villaseñor. She encourages people to take it easy on themselves and get back to work with what they have. She is still optimistic about a low-waste future, even though she has seen some setbacks during the pandemic. “I believe if we continue these steps – whether it is helping the farmers’ markets or the bulk shopping – we can expand into more places and make it more accessible to others,” she says. “We can inspire other individuals and large corporations to make changes along the way, too.”