Lifestyle New York

Zero waste grandmas: The sustainable legacy

It took me a while to get into this sustainability thing. In general, I don’t like trends or, more precisely, I am suspicious of trends. I always feel that, even if they are good in essence (like aiming for a sustainable life and a greener planet), there is often something hidden, in this case, many people making a business out of it. I don’t even know why I would think that this has to be necessarily bad but, earlier, I perceived businesses aimed at sustainability were somehow a fraud, like fighting violently for peace. As if this meant making the cause less pure. I know this does not make a lot of sense, but this is how I felt a few years ago. 

Maybe because I feel sustainability is part of a system, for years I resisted shopping in Whole Foods Market, for example. This supermarket (bought by Amazon three years ago) was for a long time considered the heaven for healthy food, responsible, ethical and sustainable grocery shopping in the US. It is expensive, located mainly in privileged neighborhoods and accessible mainly to a certain type of (again privileged) populations. This made me feel there was something wrong about it. Why cannot everyone have equal access to healthy food and responsible, ethical, sustainable grocery shopping? Similarly, the fact that to generate less waste I had to buy “things”, things that were expensive, looked fancy and, again, were not available and accessible to everyone, also made me feel like this sustainability business was a fraud. I guess I was looking at this from a very emotional perspective. 

I now understand the value of Whole Foods, and I have to confess I have my reusable water bottle, bees wax wraps, reusable coffee cup, bamboo utensils, mooncup for my period and many other material things that have helped me reduce my waste enormously in the past few years. So no regrets at all in buying these things. 

What I think made me feel so uncomfortable was that label of “sustainable”, “ethical”, “green”. That judgement of what’s wrong, what’s right, who’s good and who’s bad. I am not sure indeed if this judgement was external (from others, towards others, towards me) or internal (from me, towards me) but, it was there. 

As I read the words and personal confessions above, I realize it is a bunch of unconnected expressions of feelings that, for some reason, I felt were necessary to introduce what comes next. 

The home where I grew up had pretty sustainable practices and led us all to a pretty sustainable lifestyle. I feel people who care, who care for others, for what happens around them, for a better world, in general, are also able to notice, even if unconsciously, that the planet is getting sick and that we need to take care of it and do something serious about it. 

I have spent a couple of months at my mom’s home and I have tried to pay attention to all those things that I have been observing my mother do, and that I have been internalizing, since I was a little girl. My mother is a loving person, someone who cares about whom and what is around her. Maybe some of her sustainable practices were the result of wanting to save money, but this meant saving energy, saving food, and saving resources (lots) as well. These practices were, are, examples of acts of care. As simple as this. Nothing sophisticated. Not the result of mastering statistics, or any kind of new alternatives. My mother would not use cloth diapers now if she had a baby, neither the mooncup or cloth sanitary pads if she had her period. But she still marvels me with some of her less-waste practices. 

This is why I wanted to share a few of the things I have again observed these past two months, and throughout my childhood and life at home. This is practical wisdom. To me, indeed, common sense. 

1- Who said you cannot reuse single-use plastic? 
Avoiding a plastic bag is not always possible. But it is possible to reuse it. Think of those bread bags, for example. Can we reuse them for our kitchen trash? Also, some people, like my mother, don’t like the more sustainable alternatives to plastic wrap and aluminum foil. But they like reusing it as many times as possible. And it is better to throw away to landfills 1 meter of plastic wrap than throwing away 2 meters. Isn’t it? This is what happens when you reuse.  You can cut your waste to half. 

2- What prevents you from recycling if the recycling bins are just out of your apartment door? 
As soon as my hometown established the recycling programme and installed recycling bins in almost every corner and street, we started recycling at home. There was no reason for us not to. Similarly, as soon as I moved to NYC and found that the farmers market, four blocks away from my home, collected compost every Saturday, I started bringing there my fruit and vegetables scraps and tea leaves every Saturday. I saw no reason not to. 

3- Can we wait until the dishwasher is full? Can we wait until we have a full load to do our laundry? 
I still receive advice from my mother on how to set up the plates, glasses and pans in the dishwasher, in order to fit the maximum possible and, ultimately, get to maximize its use and save energy by reducing the number of times a week I press the ON button. I also grew up with the advice of putting the clothes to wash only when they need to be washed, and not with every single use, and waiting until the washing machine is full, in order to do my laundry. It makes absolute sense to me, doesn’t it? 

4- Why would I throw away this overripe banana? 
Can I use it to make a cake, or a smoothie? Or perhaps a popsicle? My mom used the banana below to make a cake. 

5- Why would I buy new clothes if I can swap clothes with my sisters and my mother when I see them?
There are clothes that still look great, but I am just tired of using because I have used them for years. Maybe someone in my family wants them? Or a friend? Can I swap them for that coat that I love, that still looks like new and that you must be tired of wearing? My mother got an old dress of mine to use at home. I got two pants from my mother and one shirt from my oldest sister, that my mother had got from her earlier. My youngest sister got tons of shirts and sweaters from my mother. The swap session was fun!

6- Can we regulate the home temperature with the curtains, blinds, and shutters, to save some energy? 
There is always something I can learn about this! In summer, during the hot hours of the day, my mother closes the curtains, or pulls the blinds down, to prevent the sun coming into the house. When it is cool later in the day, we open the windows to let the cold breeze in. In winter, she closes everything as much as she can to prevent the cold coming in. I know this is not possible everywhere (in some places there are no cool evenings in summer) but it helps a lot when possible! And we may get to use less energy from our heating and AC. 

7- Why would I drive my car into the city if I have a subway stop five minutes from home, and trains run every two minutes? 
I grew up in Algorta, a town approximately 8.5miles/14 Kilometers from Bilbao, in the Basque Country, north of Spain. My mom always encouraged us to use the train, the bus and later the subway to go to Bilbao or anywhere else we could go by public transport, rather than driving the car. Driving often meant traffic jams and time wasted looking for parking, so unless necessary to drive because we needed to go to a place that was not reachable by public transport, or at a time when trains were not running, or when we needed to carry something heavy, we always took the train, the bus or the subway. I also have fond memories of long walks to run errands, or just for pleasure and to enjoy the sea or the cliffs. Walking to be beach in summer was pure joy, and much nicer and healthier than driving there. Still today, in NYC, where I don’t have a car but taxis are not insanely expensive and are a relatively common mean of transport, and where Uber and other companies alike work well, I always prioritize a subway, bus or bike ride over a car ride, when walking is not possible. 

8- Why would I throw this away? Look how much there is still to be used!
Have you ever used your scissors to cut your moisturizer, toothpaste or hand cream tube? I have seen my mother do this always, and this helps prevent wasting so much product we would not be able to use otherwise. 

Let’s learn from the practical wisdom of our moms, grandmas, papas, grandpas. Let’s rescue that legacy, and let’s be thankful for it and commit to pass it on to the next generations. 

I wanted to end by sharing a photo of my mom Paula and her husband Jaime, who welcomed me these past two months and whom with I have enjoyed beautiful long walks in the countryside.  

New York

4 thoughts on “Zero waste grandmas: The sustainable legacy”

  1. Lovely piece Juncal! My grandmother also has many “sustainable” practises without calling them that. Like she composts everything she can, she always uses up everything in the kitchen for example leftover bones for making soup and she goes to the market or supermarket every 2 days to only buy what she really needs. She doesn’t buy any processed food and makes everything fresh and from scratch. I think for her it’s coming from a post war/post war generation where things just weren’t always available all of the time.

  2. Verdad! Me encanta pensar en esas costumbres de nuestros/as mayores. Gracias por las reflexiones, Juncal!

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