Despite good intentions, or perhaps because of generous intentions, the holidays tend to be a time when waste of all kinds abounds. And this year, it might be a little more challenging to go low waste as the COVID-19 protocols at some grocery stores do not allow reusable bags or personal containers for bulk items.
We asked Cindy Villaseñor—an LA-based low-waste educator and environmental advocate known as CeroWasteCindy on social media—to share some tips on creating less waste this holiday season (and year-round). Villaseñor’s approach is practical and nonjudgmental, and she’s honest about the fact that no one (herself included) can do this perfectly. “There is no such thing as truly zero waste,” she says. Villaseñor calls it a “sustainability journey.” Whether you’re beginning that journey and are interested in learning about avoiding single-use plastic in food packaging or you are ready to delve deeper and reduce food waste in your home, she’s here to guide you. If you do follow her, you will appreciate how real she is on Instagram—she’s not afraid to be vulnerable or silly, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see her and her husband dancing to house music while cooking dinner together.
Villaseñor’s journey started in college, after she took an environmental science course. “My professor opened my eyes to many environmental problems,” she says. She decided to minor in sustainability. In her personal life, she tried to make her impact on the environment a more gentle one. 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’s also a certified master gardener and worked as a garden ranger in schools). For the last few years, she’s shared her strategies for low-waste living online—everything from how to do low-waste vanlife for a weekend to how she threw a low-waste wedding.
LOW-WASTE TIPS FROM CINDY VILLASEÑOR
PLAN MEALS DIFFERENTLY
Start by looking to see what’s available package-free when you’re shopping. Villaseñor suggests things like potatoes, butternut squash, and onions, for example. (If you’re a meal planner, Google recipes that use those ingredients and go from there.) Farmers’ markets have lots available package-free, but regular grocery stores will have options, too. If you have to buy something in a package, look for options in reusable glass jars or recyclable aluminum containers.
Be realistic about meal prep. Meal prep can be a great strategy but can also lead to waste if you overestimate how much you’ll eat. “We tend to cook dinner for that night and make sure it’s at least enough for another meal the next day,” Villaseñor says. She does big batches of things, like a pot of dry beans she’ll cook with throughout the week. Prepping smaller batches more frequently can still be time-saving—and you’ll get a better sense of what your needs are.
Think about what’s on your plate. “When I look at my plate, I think about how much water and how much labor it took to get that food to me,” she says. These are things we rarely consider if we don’t work within our food systems: “I always try to finish what’s on my plate because of that.” Villaseñor says leftover scraps become vegetable stock, compost for the garden, or feed for the vermiculture worm bin. “We make sure that all organic matter that comes through our house gets composted,” she says.
BUY IN BULK
Buying bulk doesn’t always mean buying huge amounts. Some grocery stores offer bulk bins as a package-free way to shop dry goods like grains, beans, coffee, nuts, and more. You usually pay by weight and have the option of bringing your own reusable bags or containers. (Many supermarkets are understandably restricting self-service options temporarily.) There are two bulk stores in LA that Villaseñor relies on: “I’ve been so grateful to have Tare and Sustain LA.” Both these package-free stores have pivoted during the pandemic, switching to compostable or returnable glass options, instead of bring-your-own ones. While it’s not a bulk store, Villaseñor also notes that Cookbook Market, an independent grocery store, has also been a great resource for buying certain items, like loaves of bread, package-free, and customers can pack their own groceries in their reusable bags.
Villaseñor always brings her own reusables. When going out to a party or BBQ (before COVID), she’d bring her own cups, plates, cutlery, and napkins. If she’s going to a family dinner and knows she’ll be sent home with leftovers, she comes prepared with reusable containers. This strategy allows Villaseñor to avoid single-use items with little effort, and it’s also a way for her to show that the low-waste lifestyle is cool. “My in-laws are now starting to offer reusables rather than disposables,” she says. Her mother-in-law has also started saving her food scraps for Villaseñor’s compost pile.
“Accessibility is a big part of this,” says Villaseñor. “The zero-waste world can tend to focus on matchy Mason jars and stainless steel containers. And I think that can be a barrier for some people. It shouldn’t matter what you have. Using what you have on hand is more important.” For example, repurposing the glass jar from the marinara you used up the other night or the plastic tub you saved from last week’s takeout order might be better than buying a trendy set of containers. Extending the life of something that might otherwise be thrown out is a good way to start without having to make a big investment. “You don’t have to buy those things in order to live a low-waste lifestyle, because a low-waste lifestyle is also about not buying new things and using what you have already,” she says.
JUST DO YOUR BEST
Forget perfect. “During this time, it’s harder to live a low-waste lifestyle,” Villaseñor says. She encourages people to go easy on themselves and, again, to work with what they’ve got. She’s still optimistic about a low-waste future, even with some of the setbacks she’s seen during the pandemic. “I do believe that if we continue to take these steps—whether it’s supporting farmers’ markets or shopping the bulk section—we can expand to more places, making it more accessible to others,” she says. “We can also inspire other individuals and big companies to make changes along the way.”