Your Zero Waste Questions, Answered (Invitation to an Interview with La Nature)

I was invited by Hayley of La Nature, a zero waste store based in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for a Q&A on zero waste living! This was a great opportunity to answer some questions from the community about barriers to low impact living and how people at different stages of their journey can get started. Read more below!

This Q&A is reposted from the La Nature blog.

Belinda Chiu, creator of sustainability blog A Healthy Blueprint, is an expert when it comes to practicing a healthy and waste-free lifestyle. The road to zero waste can be a long one, but for most, it begins with small, easy to manage steps.

We asked La Nature’s customers to submit their questions about sustainable practices for us pass on to Belinda, as well as some of our own. Read her answers below to learn more about making the switch and how to navigate some of the most common challenges associated with waste-free living. And don’t forget to follow Belinda’s Instagram for more tips!

Q: For a generation not used to shopping zero waste, the lifestyle change can seem daunting. What are some of the easiest “starter” items they can be recommended to make the transition smooth?

The EASIEST starter items I would say is a reusable water bottle and bag. I almost never leave home without my water bottle and bag. In fact, I bet everyone already has a few reusable bottles and bags accumulated over the years from conferences, events, or from work that are waiting to be used. I make it easier for myself by sticking one folded tote in my most-used backpacks or purses so I’m never without it, and I try to leave a reusable bottle somewhere visible so I don’t forget to bring it when I leave the house.Some other starter items I’d recommend are a reusable utensil set (which you can make from utensils in your kitchen for free), a reusable straw if you typically use them for beverages, bar soaps in your bathroom and kitchen, and of course reusable cloth masks since we’re doing this interview during a pandemic!

Q: When considering which clothing to buy, how do you determine whether or not a company is properly adhering to waste-minimizing practices? What kinds of things do you look for?

I actually haven’t been in a fast fashion store in a while! I wouldn’t call myself fashion-forward so I don’t keep up with the latest clothing brands who are all for sustainability, but I will say that I was impressed with Girlfriend Collective’s website and had purchased a pair of their leggings (made from recycled plastic water bottles) a year or two ago and liked that they shared a sustainability report detailing how many water bottles were diverted from landfill, how many pounds of CO2 was prevented, and how much energy was saved. If more companies showed some form of transparency regarding their production and waste customers can make more informed decisions.I don’t add many pieces to my closet these days, but when I do I tend to browse on thredUP, an online thrift store, that way I’m doing my part to give secondhand items another life 🙂 Another thing I would recommend is if you can, try to look for clothing that’s made with one material rather than mixed (which can make it difficult to recycle).

Q: There seems to be confusion on composting certain items, wherein the product manufacturer marks it as compostable, but most centers won’t accept it. What kinds of things generally won’t be taken at compost centers, despite the label?

This gets tricky…it really depends on where your organic waste is ending up! For example, if you’re dropping off your food scraps at a community garden, they may have rules like no cooked food, meat, dairy, fish, or bones. This is to minimize any issues with pests and rodents! If you have a service where your scraps are going to an industrial composting facility, they may be able to accommodate these items. A best practice in general is to always check and ask questions–whether you are dropping off scraps at a local site, if you have a service or are participating with a program. When it comes to compostables, there’s inconsistency around what the green bags and serviceware are made of, and I’ve even heard that some of these compostable bowls had PFAS (also known as a forever chemical which is bad for us and the environment) in them! If you think about the lack of clarity around the materials used to make the materials, and the potential for contaminating what would end up becoming finished compost, it’s no surprise that composting facilities would rather play it safe and not accept them.

Q: For folks that are out and about for most of the day, what are ways they can stay sustainable even when away from home?

Bring your reusable bottle and utensils (and maybe even a takeout container)! My mom always gets upset with me because a lot of the time if I forget to bring my water bottle I will just dehydrate until I find a fountain or get back home. Now I’ve cut myself some slack and will buy something if I’m in dire need, but I will hold onto the empty container until I find the right place to recycle or dispose of it.I remember when I went upstate and ordered takeout, I was able to get my food packaged in my stainless steel container and I felt SO good about eliminating waste for that meal. When you go out to restaurants, you can try to remember to decline your straw if you don’t need it, and bring a container for leftovers if you tend to order larger meals, too.

Q: Some items seem to be impossible to substitute, such as the plastic containers holding essential vitamins or OTC meds. Is there any solution to get around things like these?

This is another toughie! I personally think the supplement industry gets people to spend SO much money unnecessarily, and much of the vitamins we need can be obtained from seeking a balanced diet. If we ate more fruit and veggies, and asked our doctors what other foods could help make up for deficiencies, we could avoid buying 15 different vitamin bottles. I do recognize though that not everyone has consistent access to fresh food anytime they want based on what exists in their built environments which needs to change. Sometimes prescription medicines are essential, and what I do for my prescriptions is I will ask to get my medicine ordered in 3-month supplies so all of it will come in one bottle instead of monthly. We actually have bags full of orange prescription bottles that we’ve collected from my family members that is just sitting at home until we figure out what to do with them. In the meantime I’ve sometimes used these bottles as propagation vessels for my plants, for saving seeds for gardening, and I know other folks have used them for holding onto their jewelry! You can also check out this website to see potential solutions for your bottles.

Q: This idea comes from one of our Instagram followers: “the biggest barrier to entry for zero waste living is the cost.” Can you share any thoughts you have about this sentiment?

Mainstream media can portray the zero waste aesthetic as intimidating for a lot of people. We often see companies and marketing campaigns show the latest products that customers “need” to buy in order to practice a zero waste lifestyle, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth! When I grew up, I saw my grandparents and my parents practice sustainability without many of the products we see advertised. I think for them it might not have been for the environment, but more about ways we could save money and prioritize other essentials like making sure everyone was fed and that the lights were on at home.Instead of feeling the urge to buy everything that is advertised to us, I would encourage us to assess what we have at home and only think about purchasing things as they need to be replaced. Additionally, we can be resourceful like our parents and grandparents by saving items we’ve already bought for reuse opportunities or getting creative by finding other use cases for things we already have around the house.

How to Reduce Pumpkin Waste this Season

More than 1 billion pounds of pumpkins end up in landfills every year, peaking the weeks following Halloween. There are plenty of pumpkin-related activities such as pumpkin carving and exploring pumpkin-filled recipes in the kitchen, and plenty of opportunities where perfectly good pumpkin goes to waste! However, there are just as many ways we can meaningfully use every part of this wonderful squash. Here are some ways you can use all the parts of your pumpkins.

Decorating (whole pumpkin)

Pumpkin carving is a favorite past time for many people in the United States. From the traditional jack-o-lantern face, to extravagant pieces of art, try your hand at this family-friendly activity.

If art isn’t your forte but home decor is, pumpkins, squash, and gourds can be used to bring some fall flair both indoors and outside for curb appeal.

Cooking (seeds, pulp, fibrous strands)

I don’t think I have enough fingers on my hands to count the number of recipes that exist using pumpkins! You can keep it simple by roasting pumpkin seeds, indulge your sweet tooth by baking some desserts and pastries, or try your hand with savory dishes for a hearty meal. Some of my favorite foods that incorporate pumpkin include pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, and pumpkin soup! When we were younger, I remember some of my family members always enjoyed roasted pumpkin seeds as a snack.

Skincare (pulp, fibrous strands)

Pumpkins are good for your health and surprisingly are more versatile than serving as decorations or food. There are many recipes out there that incorporate leftover pumpkin so you can treat yourself and reduce your food waste! I’m particularly interested in the pumpkin body scrub and fresh face masks.

Growing (seeds, all parts of the pumpkin)

So you’ve used your pumpkin for decorating, food, skincare, and you’re wondering what ELSE you can do? What about the stem and leaves? What about the seeds if you’re not interested in consuming them? You have two choices here: for your seeds, you can either save them to grow your own pumpkins, or you can compost them with the rest of the pumpkin that you did not end up using.

If your pumpkin is ready to have its final rest, the last thing that’s left to do is compost! Depending on where you live, there may be community events that offer pumpkin smashing to help break down the pumpkin and prep it for the composting facility — try searching “pumpkin smash + your city” to see if there is an event near you.

Why We Should Replace Our Lawns with Gardens

A well-maintained, manicured green lawn has notoriously symbolized wealth and status in the United States. Not everyone has the “privilege” to own extra outdoor, decorative real estate, or the resources (time and money) to preserve the immaculate appearance to preserve its property value. However, I challenge this commonly held belief as someone who grew up with this amenity. As a child, I enjoyed playing on the playground set in my backyard, and as an adult find the convenience in taking my dogs out to the yard, but I fail to embrace the idea that my green lawn makes me “better than”.

While multiple studies indicate that green spaces help reduce stress (see Hedblom et al, Tyrväinen et al, Ewert and Chang for examples), there are many more environmentally friendly ways we can achieve this. Green lawns are incredibly resource-intensive and have a negative impact on the environment—at the most basic level of maintenance, they require almost 3 trillion gallons of water per year, but many do not consider the other detrimental effects to keeping a pristine, green lawn. In order to present a perfect, grassy appearance, pesticides may be used to keep weeds at bay, harming the habitat for local pollinators and creatures, and runoff from these pesticides pollute our waterways. A perfect lawn needs to be cut regularly, and fuel-powered lawnmowers contribute to our continued dependence on fossil fuels (and our punishment: air pollution).

Earlier this year, I watched Rob Greenfield’s video on how he transformed his yard into a food garden and was fascinated. What if we replaced our lawns with food gardens? I say this with so much enthusiasm because since the pandemic, I tried my hand at growing my own food indoors and outside in my backyard from seed (thank you The Free Seed Project and Slow Food USA). Here are four examples:

  • Pause and reconnect with nature
    We traditionally live fast-paced lives and juggle a busy work-life balance, so when was the last time we had a chance to pause and appreciate the food we have on our plates? As a New Yorker I am used to being always “on the go” so it has been a joy to intentionally slow down, learn patience, reduce my stress, and watch my plants grow and produce the very things that I will eat in my meals!
  • Eat healthier
    By growing our own food, we get to decide what kind of fertilizers and pesticides to use in our garden. Additionally, we may feel a sense of pride and think “I grew that!” and feel inclined to experiment with more dishes and eat more greens.
  • It’s good for the planet
    Most of us have to commute by public transportation or personal vehicle to get to our nearest grocery store, and right now in the US, we haven’t made a full commitment to electric-powered vehicles, so traveling to the grocery stores uses fuel, which contributes to greenhouse gases! Another thing to consider is the distance that our produce travels from farm to supermarket, and the gas it takes to make that trip. If we are able to grow something in our yard (or even indoors), we are able to lessen our footprint, even if it is a small amount!
  • Homegrown food just.tastes.good.
    Did you know that a lot of the produce we buy at the supermarket are picked before they are ripe, and lose nutrients in the time it takes before it ends up in our meals? By growing our own food, we’ll be able to enjoy it at peak ripeness and enjoy the full nutritional value.

The next time you see a green lawn, I invite you to reimagine how this lawn could be repurposed: for the family living there, for the community, and for the environment.

To get started (and for some great tips overall), visit Rob Greenfield’s guide here.

How I Started My Climate Journey

In 2012 the veil from my eyes was lifted and I realized my privilege as someone who lived in NYC, a city that boasts having some of the cleanest water in the world on tap. I spent a month volunteering in Ecuador outside of Quito and stayed with a host family during this period. As an English as a second language (ESL) teacher, I woke up bright and early, matching the morning routine to my host mother, but our routines diverged with one particular action: she had huge vats of water boiling on the stove for the household to use for the day ahead.

It was this experience that revealed one of the many public health issues that people face in this world. Over 2 billion people in the world do not have reliable access to clean water and sanitation services, a statistic that is exacerbated with the global climate crisis.

This issue is intersectional and disproportionately affects girls and women. They are traditionally the household members responsible for fetching water, and face numerous physical and psychosocial stressors related to water and sanitation, including but not limited to safety when accessing the restroom and taking care of their menstrual hygiene.

Public health plays a significant role in my climate story; my volunteer experience in Ecuador propelled me into studying public health. It was through my experiences working abroad that I saw other examples of how the consequences of inadequate infrastructure and climate action could exacerbate the climate crisis:

The lack of free, accessible sanitation services in municipalities force residents to incinerate their trash on their properties, contributing to air pollution and harming their own health.

House in a rural village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia

Natural disasters occur more frequently and with increasing strength, and tear through neighborhoods and destroy homes. Low-income community members are hit the hardest, and must resort to creating makeshift roofs using tarps and walls using metal sheets in anticipation of the next storms.

Flooded field outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia

Rainy seasons extend for longer periods of time, disrupting schedules and routines across many instances. Workers in agriculture must adapt to erratic weather and anticipate impacts to their yields, and people working in office settings barricade their entry points in hopes that their buildings do not get flooded, among other examples.

Right here in NYC, I see the intersection between public health and the climate crisis through the pandemic. The health effects of air pollution combined with contracting COVID-19 can be fatal, disproportionately affecting people living in low-income neighborhoods and Black and Brown communities, who already face the brunt of environmental racism and systemic injustice.

While these examples may paint something bleak, I find hope in knowing there are others out there who are committed to tackling the climate crisis. As a young person, a woman, an Asian American, a feminist, I am emboldened by my peers who share the same ambition and look forward to our collaboration in solving the biggest challenge of our lifetime.

6 Self-Care Tips While You're Social Distancing

Effective the evening of Sunday, March 22nd, all nonessential businesses in New York need to close and residents should stay home in efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 (see details on the New York State on PAUSE Executive Order). It has been a week since my organization implemented a work-from-home policy, and many other companies* are doing the same to promote social distancing and reduce the burden on our health care system. I don’t know about you, but I am already getting some cabin fever, so I have some self-care tips to help you pass the time over the next few weeks.

Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day.

With most of us staying inside, it will make it even easier to be sedentary. I struggle with making sure I get up every 30 minutes or so to walk around and drink water when I was working in an office, so I have to be even more diligent now that I am at home. There are many mobile apps and plug-ins for your computer that remind you to fix your posture, take a break from your computer screen, and drink water, among other examples.

Since gyms are considered nonessential businesses and even some apartment complexes have closed their communal gyms, there are plenty of free online workout videos to check out (my fave yoga ones are from Blogilates and Yoga with Adriene). If online videos aren’t your thing, you can also exercise outside, as long as you practice social distancing from others!

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nurture your green thumb and practice gardening.

There is no such thing as not having enough space to grow your own food or plants! You can grow some of your favorite herbs, or try container gardening and sprout some microgreens and other veggies. If you have a yard or balcony, this indoor period is perfect to get them ready to plant outside in a few weeks.

Break out the cookbooks and try some new recipes.

Are you the type of person who collects cookbooks but never looks at them for inspiration? I am definitely one of those people, but I am taking this time at home to continue playing around in the kitchen and seeing what new things I can make with whatever I have in my pantry and fridge.

Screenshot from the movie Ratatouille

If you can’t cook, no judgment here! Most restaurants are still open for delivery and takeout, and your patronage can help keep some of these mom and pop shops in business. Here are some more resources on how to support local businesses during the outbreak.

Do some spring cleaning.

If you are stuck at home, you might as well get be productive and do some spring cleaning. I like to work in a tidy environment (contrary to how my desk at work looks like), so I found it immensely gratifying to deep clean my kitchen this past weekend and have the bathroom cleaned too!

Catch up on reading.

Time can move incredibly slowly if you have nothing to do, but getting into a good book can really make the time pass!

Stay in touch with your friends and loved ones.

Humans are social by nature, and being isolated at home with minimal interaction can be really challenging for some. Make sure you stay in touch with your friends and family, whether it is by text, call, or video chat. I had a video call with some of my friends on Thursday for lunch and while it isn’t the same as seeing them in person, it was nice to hear from them!

Photo Credit: Unsplash / Rawpixel

Remember that the rules put in place to stay at home unless you need to go out for essentials are for public health measures to protect you and the ones around you. The next few weeks will be tough, but we will all get through this. Do your best to stay positive, work on some of the things you always thought you never had time for, and the time will fly by!

*Note: I am aware that I am one of the fortunate individuals who has the privilege to work from home, as the US is one of the countries that does not guarantee paid sick leave, and many people are unable to afford taking time off.

5 Tips to Protect Yourself from the Coronavirus Disease

It feels surreal that in our lifetime we are experiencing what public health professionals would define as a pandemic. Many people around the world are being flooded with information from public health experts like the WHO and CDC, but what is concerning is the volume of misinformation that is shared through traditional and social media, including but not limited to news outlets perpetuating racist associations with the disease through stock photos and labeling the virus “Wuhan” or “Chinese”.

Due to misinformation and fear, there has been a rise of racism-fueled acts of violence against the Asian community, unnecessary deaths due to the circulation of false cures, and people flocking to their supermarkets and big box stores to stockpile as a means of preparing for the worst.

Can we all pause for a moment and take a deep breath? You have agency to reduce your chances of getting sick! The WHO and CDC shared basic hygiene behaviors and practices that you can do to protect yourself. So what can you do?

Pro tip: wash your hands with soap and water frequently, just as you would during cold and flu season.
  1. Wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds. Here’s a helpful tutorial on proper hand hygiene, and if you are bored of singing Happy Birthday, this was a fun article with alternative songs! (Please remember that soap and water is always preferred over hand sanitizer, but if you will not have access to either, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol)
  2. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze with a tissue or with the inner crook of your elbow. I can not stress this enough! Your hands touch huuundreds of surfaces, so you should avoid touching your face as much as possible too.
  3. Practice social distancing. This basically means to avoid close contact with others if you can help it (avoid traveling during peak rush hours, going to a crowded venue, etc.). One of my colleagues shared this article that provides some suggested guidelines based on different scenarios you may run into. Another benefit of social distancing is to reduce the burden of your healthcare system, especially if there is limited capacity.
  4. Keep your distance from people who are visibly showing symptoms of illness like coughing or sneezing. The coronavirus disease is transmitted via person to person contact (like the common cold), so if someone does not cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze, you can be exposed.
  5. And if you are sick, stay home! I know this is not feasible for everyone, especially if your place of employment does not provide paid sick leave, but if you do have PTO, you should do this for your colleagues’ safety and health.
If you look wayyyy back in my posts, I shared some of my favorite under-the-weather remedies for when I am feeling sick here.

It might be tempting to follow the masses and stockpile as if you will not leave your home for months, but this disproportionately hurts communities who need these supplies the most (think: due to limited supply, surgical face masks should be reserved for people with symptoms and healthcare workers who are treating patients with infectious disease; senior citizens and people who rely on food banks for meals are left with limited to no shelf-stable foods in grocery stores because of panic buying behavior, etc.). Please only buy what you need and save some for others!

Let us all be considerate and kind to others around us, stay calm, and follow guidelines from reliable sources like the CDC and WHO.

How to Encourage Sustainability in Your Office

Many of us work in organizations/companies whose missions vary greatly – some may be lucky enough to work for an organization that puts the environment at the center and focuses its efforts on promoting sustainability. If your organization does not actively work toward this, here are five ways that you can foster sustainability practices and norms in your office.

Bring your own ___________.

I have had years of experience bringing lunch from home, so I have no problem bringing lunch to work in my own reusable containers. This saves me money in the long run when I meal prep, and I also save on the containers that would normally be used for takeout.

The National Coffee Association conducted a study and found that on average 64% of Americans drink a cup of coffee a day. Just think about how many disposable coffee cups are being used at the minimum for a second: there are over 327 million people in the US, so after you crunch the numbers, that is more than 209 million cups being used and thrown away every day! Just imagine the difference it makes to bring your own drink tumbler to purchase your coffee in the morning, or better yet, make your coffee at home and put it in a good ol’ mug!

Shopping deal: use code CB-WEL19 for 20% off on a reusable tumbler at Reduce Everyday!

Opt for “green” office supplies.

We are not at the point yet where we can be completely paper-free, and some people like the ability to write things down, or print things out when they attend meetings. Instead of purchasing virgin printing paper or notepads, purchase recycled printing paper and office supplies.

If your office has a kitchen, take advantage of and use the reusable dishware and utensils! There is no need to use the disposable options (and better yet, request your office administrator to stop buying disposable options altogether).

Save electricity.

How many people are in your office, and how many computers are running on any given workday? Computers can eat up a lot of electricity, so when you leave for the day, put your computer on sleep mode or shut it off.

In addition to computers, lights are always on during work hours! While we can’t shut them off in the shared workspace, we can all do our parts to turn off the lights after leaving a meeting room or phone booth.

Think about food.

Okay, you might be wondering, how do I encourage sustainability practices and norms through food? But think about when your office gets catering for special events. How often do you get handfuls of disposable plates and utensils? Sometimes catering is unavoidable, so make sure you put in the request to decline any utensils and dishware the next time you have to order catering, especially if you have it in your office.

So we’ve covered containers and now we’ve covered dishware and utensils, but what about leftover food, specifically food scraps and other organic waste? Does it end up in the regular trash because there is no compost collection service in your office? (Do you see where I’m going here?) Talk with your office administrator to see if compost collection services are available and being utilized in your building; if it currently isn’t adopted throughout the building, a small step is to advocate for compost collection services in your own office. It might take some time (working with overcoming the fear of pests and odor, as well as allocating budget for this recurring service), but don’t give up! I am still gently nudging my colleagues to get composting in my organization.

Some suggestions to look into if you live in NYC: Common Ground Compost (traditional composting) or Vokashi (using the bokashi method for fermenting your organic waste)

Create community norms in your office.

Change starts with you. If no one has started getting people on the sustainability train yet, it’s your cue to be the conductor. I organized a recycling 101 brown bag session with my friend from GrowNYC and my colleagues LOVED it (I need to do one again!), implemented a contacts blister pack collection system to send to TerraCycle to recycle, for starters (my coworkers enjoy bringing in their discards too!).

Some of my colleagues now bring in their items they want to donate instead of throwing items into the trash, which I love! And another colleague specifically set aside time with me so she could get some tips for phasing out plastic use in her home.

While change does not happen overnight, setting an example and taking initiative can lead to some surprisingly good results.

What are some sustainability initiatives you started in your office?

Plastic Free July: a Global Movement to End Plastic Pollution

Today marks the first day of Plastic Free July, a global movement that encourages people around the world to ditch the single-use plastics for a month in efforts to curb plastic pollution. We often do not think twice about the purchases we make on a daily basis, from our morning coffees to go, our takeout lunch orders, to the quick stop at the local drug store to grab a water bottle or that delicious Takis snack.

Plastic is everywhere you turn – in our stores, on our streets, in landfills, in oceans,on our plates and in our water bottles (yes, it is in our food and water)! Plastic doesn’t just disappear – it just breaks down into tiny, microscopic particles called microplastics that “disappear” into water and soil that inevitably make their ways up the food chain!

This month, I encourage all of you to take part in this challenge and think about one item you purchase that is a single-use plastic: is it your morning coffee? Is it a water bottle? Is it a drink at a restaurant that comes with a plastic straw? Is it a plastic bag you accept when you go grocery shopping?

Approximately how many of these items do you use in a month, in a year? It adds up! Try to give up at least one of these items and make a conscious effort to BYOB/BYOC (bring your own bottle/bring your own container). You’ll be helping the environment (and your wallet).

Hope you’ll join me in #PlasticFreeJuly!

Exploring the Use of Moringa oleifera as a Vegetable in Agua Caliente Nueva, Jalisco, Mexico

I presented my research, “Exploring the use of Moringa oleifera as a vegetable in Agua Caliente Nueva, Jalisco, Mexico” at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Global Health Day 2018.

Influencers Collaborate for the Planet

Unlikely environmental ally Lil Dicky (better known as a rapper and comedian) partnered with nearly 30 artists and celebrities in honor of Earth Day. Together they created “Earth”, a song dedicated to raise awareness about the gravity of climate change and urge the global community to come together to take climate action.

Every stream and view helps to generate profit that will be donated to environmental nonprofit organizations that tackle issues related to climate change, the energy crisis, and sustainable farming.

For more information and to support the cause, check out the website and share the video with your networks!