Most of us have spent the last month or so battened down at home, enjoying the monotonous delights of a pandemic Groundhog Day. If social media makes one thing clear, it’s that we’re all ruminating on just how much time we spend these days washing dishes. But there’s probably something else you’ve noticed while standing at the sink—just how much trash you accumulate when you’re not tossing it in someone else’s garbage bin.
For Cindy Villaseñor, an outdoor educator who goes by Cero Waste Cindy on Instagram, it didn’t take a global health crisis for her to adopt a low-waste lifestyle; she’s been examining her garbage can for years. This interest in conscious consumption first bloomed during a college environmental science course whose instructor offered passionate testimony to the various woes that have long affected the Golden State. Villaseñor, who grew up in Los Angeles, paid rapt attention. “My professor was very brutally honest,” she says. “Sometimes I would come out of her classes crying, because I’d be thinking—How could this be? How can we be doing this?”
After transferring from community college to California State University Northridge, Villaseñor became manager of the school’s food garden and composting facility. After graduation, she began an internship with the Sarvodaya Institute, which runs a sustainable urban farm. There, Villaseñor was exposed to the tenets of regenerative agriculture and low-waste living and realized that even if she couldn’t directly halt the large-scale environmental problems she had learned about in college, she could at least make a dent with her own practices.
“Consumerism is what’s really driving a lot of our issues in the world,” says Villaseñor. “The way I look at it, I’m just trying to be the best steward of the land that I can be and not use too many resources, because the future generation depends on them.”
Lest you wonder if things are about to get preachy, that’s not her style. Instead, Villaseñor takes a joyful attitude and chill approach to her education, preferring to lead by example, posting her low-waste adventures online and engaging with people who are curious about making the shift themselves. “That’s one of the greatest things—you’re able to spark some of these conversations with other people,” says Villaseñor. “You kind of open a little door of sustainability for them to see.”
While her full-time job as a Garden Ranger with Enrich LA, an organization that provides education in school-based gardens, is on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Villaseñor has pivoted to offer gardening consultation online. But she also has a few tips for anyone who’s busy dreaming of future adventures.
CONDUCT A TRASH AUDIT
“A big thing is just seeing how you consume and how you can reduce your consumption,” says Villaseñor. She recommends completing a trash audit in your home—that is, taking a closer look at the overflowing garbage can and even your recycling bin to see what is taking up the most real estate, and then come up with small steps you can make to cut back on that type of item (i.e. assorted plastic, empty bottles, individual snack wrappers, etc.) Food scraps can be composted; other items can be re-purposed: empty pasta jars might store dry goods, spent bike tubes can be sewn into wallets and belts, egg cartons become art projects, retired climbing rope is ripe for weaving into a rug.
RETOOL YOUR GROCERY LIST
As you probably noticed during your audit, food waste (or food packaging waste) often fills our bins. “We don’t live in a circular economy where things are meant to get refilled,” says Villaseñor. “That’s probably the biggest challenge; that we’re constantly fighting against a system that doesn’t let us live a more eco-friendly lifestyle.”
She suggests combating the issue of food waste and excess packaging by first relying on package-free foods, whether they’re from your garden, a farmer’s market, or from the store, and cooking at home—and using seasonal ingredients—as much as possible. Villaseñor also frequents grocery store bulk bins, not just for typical items like grains and legumes, but also to find package-free snacks like trail mix and energy bites for her outdoor adventures.
For camping trips, she cuts waste by thoroughly pre-planning meals. Before leaving for the trailhead, she preps as much as possible, using mason jars, cloth sacks, and reusable zip-top Stasher bags to store everything. For backpacking trips, Villaseñor used to purchase dehydrated meals from a company that used compostable bags, but says that they’re no longer in business; instead, she suggests dehydrating your own meals.
Low-waste can also be low-budget. First, aim to repair your gear instead of chucking it at the first sign of wear. Even if you’re not able to, say, replace a tent zipper, patch a hole in your sleeping pad, or sew up a tear in your favorite jacket, someone else—a local tailor or even the gear manufacturer—can do the job. And while it’s currently paused during the pandemic, Patagonia’s Worn Wear program accepts gear for both repair and recycling.
And if you truly need to replace or purchase new clothing or gear, consider looking for the same items used. Villaseñor has bought everything from high-quality wool base layers to technical rain jackets at thrift shops, but she’s also scored big at REI’s famed Garage Sales and their online used gear site. Facebook users also have several options, including its Marketplace feature, which tracks items for sale near the zip code you input into the site; Bearfoot’s Hiking Gear Market, a page that helps facilitate peer-to-peer outdoor gear sales; and local Buy Nothing Project groups, which promote a hyper-local gifting economy.
Many folks need to travel in order to access outdoor recreation. If human-powered travel (walking, running, cycling, skateboarding, cross-country skiing, and beyond) isn’t possible, Villaseñor recommends using public transportation like buses and subways. If you have to drive, however, she suggests carpooling, driving, or renting a hybrid vehicle (she’s a Prius owner) to cut down on gas consumption. Her favorite option, however, is a bit slower, but more scenic. “I definitely recommend taking the train where possible,” says Villaseñor. “There are all of these beautiful places that you can visit along the Amtrak tracks.”
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
“Don’t beat yourself up. See what’s accessible to you,” she says. “Don’t to be too worried about being completely ‘zero waste,’ because in reality, nobody is. I’m not completely zero waste. It’s not perfect.”
“Baby steps” is perhaps Villaseñor’s most important advice. The goal isn’t perfection; the goal is to rethink our lifestyles and make change incrementally. Villaseñor began her low-waste journey with the simple decision to stop buying paper towels for her home. Everything else has built upon that one tiny step. She’s come a long way, but she admits that some things are still difficult for even her. “I’m trying to see what the alternatives are to chips,” says Villaseñor, laughing. “We really like chips.”
Top photo: Loco Steve