Everything I Know About a Low-Waste Lifestyle I Learned From My Family

& 9 Tips for Using What You Have

Insights + Opinion
Enrique Díaz / 7cero / Getty Images

By Jazmine Velasquez

My family's defining motto is "Siempre usa como lo que tienes." ("Always use what you have.") Mom and grandma have used the expression so many times, I hear their voices every time I want to get a $15 poke bowl after class but have leftovers in the fridge at home. I hear them when I have the urge to buy new clothes that I don't need or get a nice notebook when I already have too many. This impulse becomes even stronger when I cook, because for my family, food is love and not to be wasted.

My matriarchs taught me to cook with love and intention. But my dad, who works as a prep cook at Pebble Beach Resorts in Carmel, California, taught me most of my cooking skills. When I cook, it's dad's voice saying, "Mija, I know you can use more of those onions. You know better than to waste good food." When I'm at a loss as to how to refresh leftovers I've eaten for the third day in a row, it's dad who gives me ideas for a new sauce or salsa to try. In my family, we couldn't afford to waste anything. We made whatever we had on hand work.

Making Ends Meet

I grew up in Salinas, California, which is best known for being the heart of agriculture on the Central Coast. My grandparents lived 10 minutes away in Prunedale. They'd moved to California from Mexico in 1972 and grew raspberries in the cool, temperate climate and grainy soil. While this may sound idyllic for an aspiring foodie like myself, it wasn't always easy.

My parents divorced when I was very young and I bounced between dad and mom, who lived with my grandparents. Mom was a single parent to two kids and worked full time as a jewelry salesperson. Dad paid child support with his wages as a cook. My grandparents, who had a raspberry farm to cultivate, worked hard to help mom get back on her feet after the divorce. No one in my family ever had much money, and we relied on our resourcefulness to make ends meet every month.

Nothing was off limits; we could reuse anything and everything. T-shirts became cleaning rags until they were threadbare. I wore my older brother's hand-me-downs as pajamas. We used margarine containers to hold leftovers, washed milk cartons to hold powdered drink mixes like Tang and hand-washed plastic bags to get a few more uses out of them.

Food was no exception. Ripening food needed to be cooked immediately, food scraps were turned into stocks and broth and stored in the freezer, and any food that had gone bad went into a compost bin to go right back into a garden or the raspberry fields. I can still feel grandma's intense glare when I couldn't finish everything on my plate.

More Privilege, More Waste

When I left home for college, the first in my family to do so, I brought my low-waste habits with me. Living on two part-time, minimum-wage jobs while going to school is difficult, but a lot easier if you're already pretty good at being frugal. Not only is it hard for me to waste food and toss plastic and paper products, but I now know the environmental and climate impact of a wasteful lifestyle.

The amount of food Americans waste every year is horrifying. We send 52 million tons of food to landfills annually while 10 million tons of food are left in the fields unharvested, according to ReFed, a nonprofit focused on food waste. It's a number I can't really wrap my head around, given I grew up on stories of my parents suffering from food insecurity as children living in Mexico and later in the U.S. as child migrant workers. The result is stunted growth and other health issues that they are still dealing with today.

Even here in the U.S., one in eight Americans are food insecure. Worldwide, 815 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment. Living in the global North also means that each person creates a higher percentage of plastic waste, five times the amount produced by the average Mexican citizen. So while becoming a first-generation Mexican American allows me more economic and educational opportunities, I'm also producing more plastic waste as a result of the privileges I enjoy.

Small Changes, Big Impact

To minimize my carbon footprint, I invest more of my money on sustainable shopping practices, like thrifting at second-hand clothing stores and packing my own meals in a lunch bag. I collect recipes that allow me to cook with overripe or wilted foods. The wilted kale in my crisper may not work in a salad, but it's delicious in my favorite sweet potato hash. That isn't to say I don't have a long way to go to achieve my low-waste goals.

In fact, sticking with sustainable practices at school has been more challenging than I expected. As a student, I create rivers worth of paper waste when printing out assignments. I write down lecture notes on paper because that's the best way for me to learn and remember. I have yet to find plastic-free beauty products that keep my skin happy and breakout-free. I'm notorious for regularly forgetting my reusable shopping bags at home. Amazon Prime doesn't make it easy to live lean when it promises next-day delivery on campus.

But I have an advantage many college students don't. My school, the University of California at Berkeley, is committed to achieving a Zero Waste Initiative by 2020. On campus, we have convenient big bucket trash cans that have separate bins for landfill, recycling and composting waste. We have water bottle spigots for reusable bottles in every building. The university sponsors sustainability projects through various grants and fellowships like The Green Initiative Fund. Even my housing apartment included a compost bin and a recycling bin when I moved in. It makes me want to make more small changes in my everyday life that can create a large impact, like switching from paper towels to compostable, reusable bamboo towels.

It's always good to have a journal full of your favorite recipes on hand in your kitchen.Jazmine Velasquez

Nine Tips for Using What You Have

When new friends come over to my house, I sometimes feel self-conscious. I can tell by their facial expressions that some of the things I do in my daily life weird them out. I keep my compost bin on my counter. I am diligent about saving food scraps. I internally cringe when they casually toss leftovers.

But more friends are curious than judgmental. When they ask for tips on how to adopt lower-waste strategies to help both the environment and their limited budgets after the expensive tuition and living costs in the Bay Area are accounted for, they mainly come to me for help on lowering their weekly food and personal costs. Here's the advice I share on how to have a lower-waste lifestyle — and save money, too.

1. Keep a stock bag in the freezer. In a freezer bag, save scraps of carrots, celery, onions, garlic, potatoes and parsnips to make a stock. Cook these scraps in a large stock pot with salt, peppercorns and two bay leaves for up to 12 hours on low heat. Your homemade stock can be used for soups and stews. Reuse your freezer bag, too.

2. Freeze what you can't get to. My freezer is filled with berries, bananas and tomatoes I couldn't get to before they became "old." Frozen berries go into smoothies or become cobblers. Frozen bananas make a pretty good ice cream alternative when combined with cocoa powder and almond butter in a blender. Tomatoes turn rice into Spanish rice, a nice side for tacos.

3. Add yourself to a local "buy nothing" Facebook page. This page allows you to post items you don't want anymore. If you are looking for something in particular, as I was when I found the food processor I hunted down a few weeks ago, you can put out a call to get what you need for free, plus save items from the landfill. I've seen everything from kids' toys to vintage furniture on the page. If there isn't an existing "buy nothing" page, start one. Nothing wrong with a little community building!

4. Go thrifting. Before you buy something brand-new, see if your local thrift stores have anything you need. Since I'm job hunting now and looking for outfits for interviews, I'm checking out my favorite thrift stores, like Out of the Closet (which benefits the AIDS Healthcare Foundation), for one-of-a-kind pieces like a mustard yellow skirt or a lace blouse. Beautiful clothes at a major discount, helping organizations I support and keeping clothes out of landfills — what's not to like?

5. Keep a spreadsheet of the food in your fridge and pantry on your phone. This may sound strange, but hear me out. Most food waste is created because we don't remember what we have on hand when going to the grocery store. Updating and deleting items from your food spreadsheet will let you know ahead of time what you need to buy and what you don't. You can also share the spreadsheet with anyone who you share the refrigerator with so they can help keep track, too. I use Google Sheets since the app is easily accessible on my phone.

6. Reuse old t-shirts. Old t-shirts can be reused as cleaning rags, patches for jackets, tote bags and dog bedding. I use an old t-shirt as a towel to dry off my wavy hair and keep it shiny and frizz-free.

7. Reuse single-use plastic takeout containers. Since I don't keep margarine in my fridge anymore, I've found other ways to keep from buying plastic containers. Containers I get from the rare occasions I do go out to eat become part of my food prep system. I usually fill these containers with pre-cut sweet potatoes, kale, onions, garlic, carrots and celery for quick meals during the week.

8. Carry a reusable mug and water bottle. I drink a lot of green tea and dark roast coffee throughout the day. (I'm still in college with lots of competing deadlines.) That container helps me save at least six disposable cups a day, which adds up to 1,560 disposable cups a year that are not going to landfills.

9. Create a Pinterest board for recipes that can use overripe foods. If you happen to be scrolling Pinterest for new recipes, make sure to save recipes that call for or can easily use overripe foods. When you need to use an ingredient in a pinch, you have it right there on your phone or other device for easy access.

Siempre Usa Como Lo Que Tienes

My family is much better off than it used to be. Mom has her dream home and is married to a wonderful, loving man, and I have a six-year-old sister who loves raising her chickens in our large backyard. Dad owns his own food truck business in Arizona. Grandma and Grandpa are happily retired with all the time in the world to relax and enjoy their golden years. Here I am, the first person in my family to graduate from college this spring.

We got through some rough years thanks to many of our intentional low-waste strategies. I plan to continue following these practices going forward, but now it's mostly because of my concern about our climate-challenged world. I feel like I have an obligation to use my education and opportunities not only to benefit my future but my little sister's, too. "Siempre usa como lo que tienes" is part of who I am.

Recipe for Spanish Rice

Spanish rice is a side dish staple of any Mexican meal. I love this family recipe because soft, overripe tomatoes are perfect to use. If you don't have any vegetable stock on hand, no worries. You can use vegetable bouillon and water instead. Serves 4. Time: 35 minutes.


3 large tomatoes, quartered

1 medium onion, quartered

3 cloves of garlic, whole

3 cups of vegetable stock

1 cup long-grain rice

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt to taste

1 bag of frozen peas and carrots (optional)


1. In a blender, add tomatoes, onion, garlic and vegetable stock. Blend until smooth and set aside.

2. In a large saute pan, add oil on medium heat. Wait for oil to heat up and simmer, about 2 minutes.

3. Add rice to the pan, stirring constantly to toast rice for 10 minutes or until rice is golden brown.

4. Take the pan off the heat and add the tomato mixture slowly until the rice is fully covered. Put the pan back on the heat and cook on low undisturbed for 20-25 minutes or until rice has fully absorbed the tomato broth.

5. If you are using frozen peas and carrots, add to rice, gently incorporating vegetables through the pan. Let sit for 2-3 minutes. Serve with your favorite Mexican entree.

Jazmine Velasquez is a graduating English major at the University of California-Berkeley. She is a news fellow for Stone Pier Press, an environmental publishing company with a food focus.

This article was produced as part of a partnership between Stone Pier Press and Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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The huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about LeoFFreitas / Moment / Getty Images

By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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