Sustainability and Covid19 Part II: Wasting Less

Happy 2021! Here we are.. still in a pandemic, but at least the political scene in the USA has improved since I wrote last (Great news for Mother Nature and Society!). Anyhow, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently part of the 6 mo Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Challenge, an accelerator program that culminates in different workgroups trying to solve some of the many complex issues inherent in the global plastic problem, particularly the plastic that ends up in our water ways and oceans. I’ve definitely learned a lot in the past two months, with experts speaking about issues ranging from human behavior and what incentives are necessary to decrease littering and wasteful behavior; to the policies and regulations involved in trying to decrease plastic waste as well as the difficulties of getting corporations on board for the long-haul, and the ins and outs of obtaining and analyzing data on the types and amounts of plastic waste that we find in the environment! Shout out to the Trash Data Treasure Trove via Win Cowger and his colleagues on the latter! https://osf.io/k4th7/

It’s estimated that between 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean in a given year (based on the year 2010: Jambeck et al. 2015 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768) Image

Even though corporations do have a large role in a lot of the plastic waste observed in our environment, I came out of this short-course series with still the same main opinion I had at the start: INDIVIDUALS (YOU AND ME) STILL HAVE A POWERFUL ROLE IN DETERMINING THE AMOUNT OF WASTE THAT IS PRODUCED, AS WELL AS THE DOWNSTREAM HANDLING OF THAT WASTE (aka – preventing it from getting into the natural environment!). So let’s stop waiting for corporations to start changing/taking action, and let’s talk about what you and I can do (some of which includes buying less of the more wasteful products and single-use plastics which then puts financial pressure (aka incentives) on the corporations to change their ways! Take that! Karate Chop! HiYah!

ILLUSTRATION @KennaAloha

Thus I’ve put together a list of tips that I’ve gathered from the expert zero-wasters (people like Lauren Singer who literally and incredibly only have a jar-full of waste from years of living on Earth!), as well as from my own life experience of trying to cut down on waste (while on a budget!).

Tips for How to Waste Less

  1. Biggest Tip: WHAT YOU DON’T BUY = YOU DON’T USE
    • Below are some swaps for things that you can stop buying (and save $$!):
  • For cleaning cooking, drinking and eating:
    • Instead of Single-Use Water Bottles – use a Reusable Water Bottle, and get a cheap water filter for your home tap water (if you are concerned about your tap water). Honestly, unless your are in Flint, Michigan (and my heart goes out to you guys)- the water quality in the USA is pretty well regulated (typically more so than bottled water)-and you can just google ‘water quality’ and the name of your city to find out what is in your water- see here for California
    • Instead of SaranWrap – use Tupperware, or Beeswax Wrap
    • Instead of Paper Towels- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Towels/Rags
    • Instead of Paper Napkins- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Napkins(you can make both of the above from old tshirts or towels if you are short on cash)
    • Instead of Ziplock bags– use Tupperware, silicon ziplock bags or do what I do, and reuse the ziplock bags from trailmix, and other snacks that you buy from Trader Joes or other stores that use too much packaging!
    • Instead of Aluminum Foil or Baking Sheets- use a silicone baking sheet, or keep your food in a covered pot in the oven. I will admit though that this can be tough for very large dishes such as a Turkey… but that is only once a year- so a box of foil could last you a life time!
    • Instead of single use Cleaning Cloths (such as the lysol ones)– use a soapy sponge- works just as well and is less toxic and cheaper.
    • Instead of One-Time Use Masks: Use Reusable/Washable Cotton Fabric Masks -ideally the ones with 2-3 fabric layers (unless you are working in the medical field of course).
  • For Self Care:
  • Self Care- What you can stop buying:
    • Instead of Cotton Rounds/Balls – make your own washable ones by cutting up an old tshirt into little squares (you can sew the edges if you want them to look pretty, but I just stuff my cotton squares int a glass jar and call it a day!). Pro-tip- use a lingerie bag to wash and dry the little pieces so they don’t clog your washer or get lost!
  • Use Refillable Products!
    • Instead of buying dish soap, laundry detergent, and all of the other household products that come in plastic containers- check out these cool detergent pods that you can use in refillable containers! https://www.blueland.com/
    • Instead of buying new shampoo, conditioner and body soaps in plastic containers: buy the bar forms of shampoo, conditioners, soaps and lotions, or buy refillable products where you can return the containers and the companies sterilize them and reuse them! My favorite is: https://www.plaineproducts.com
    • Instead of floss in plastic packaging, use refillable floss containers w/ waxed silk floss
  • Instead of plastic toothbrushes- use bamboo toothbrushes (that are not wrapped in plastic packaging!)
  • Fix, Trade or Thrift instead of Buying New
    • Instead of Buying New Clothes- go to a Tailor with Existing Clothes from your closet or a friends closet to spruce them up, make them fit better and/or fix that zipper (or do it yourself)
    • Instead of Buying New Shoes– take your shoes to your Local Shoe Cobbler – they can replace the heals, fix the straps, and shine them up like new!
    • Check out trendy thrift stores near you– like Crossroads Trading Store in Santa Monica! They actually have very fashionable and new-looking (lightly used) items. It is so fashionable that they consistently reject all of my clothes when I try to sell my stuff to them… .lol Don’t judge me!
    • Conduct clothing swaps w/ friends (outdoors or after the pandemic of course)
  • Eat at Home More Often (no this does not include takeout): It’s Cheaper + Less Plastic WasteTo make this easier- try food-prepping or cooking while watching a tv show on your laptop or listening to a podcast- or better yet- do it with a friend!
  • If you do go out to eat to support the local restaurants: Be sure to Support the Businesses that do NOT use Styrofoam, and ideally support businesses that use compostable or recyclable or reusable containers + Don’t forget to bring your own utensils and ask the restaurant to hold off on the single use silverware/ and straws (for takeout). If you are dining in/outside then bring tupperware with you when you go out to eat so you can pack the leftovers in your reusable containers.
  • Instead of Buying Coffee at Starbucks or another cafeMake it at Home –and please don’t use those plastic pod coffee things.. yuck! Although if you must, they have ones that use recyclable pods. Ideally use a french press or an italian espresso maker. If you do go get coffee then use a reusable coffee travel mug (during non-covid19 times…)
  • Bring reusable grocery bags to the stores – Almost all stores are now letting you pack your goods in your own bags again now (thank goodness!). If they don’t let you then just take the unpackaged goods to your car and load it in a bag in your car. A little more effort on your part makes a lasting effort on Earth : )
  • Shop at places that have bulk items in bins to so that you can pack dried goods in reusable cloth bags (or ones you make out of old pillow cases that you wash and sew). The bummer is right now most places that used to do this are pre-packaging their bulk items in plastic- yuck! However! You can try to find shops like this one in Los Angeles (Tare Grocery) where they will pack up goods for you in your own glass or aluminum containers (no cloth allowed right now). I actually just went to this shop last week! They pack everything in paper brown bags (from recycled paper) if you don’t bring your own reusable containers.
  • Similarly- Don’t use Plastic bags for Produce! I mean really.. do you really think you are being more sterile by putting it in plastic instead of directly in your cart? How do you think the produce got to the store and onto the display cases? (people’s hands!) I just put mine directly on the cart (wet and everything) and then on the checkout counter directly before putting it into my reusable grocery bag. I have not gotten Covid19 from doing this for the past year… you will be fine as long as you rinse off your produce before eating it (which I’m sure you do anyhow).
  • Don’t buy/use Plastic Garbage BagsUse biodegradable bags– I mean .. really.. why are we buying plastic just to throw it away? The biodegradable ones work great- especially if you compost your food waste in a separate container.
  • Compost your food waste (no meat or diary, just fruit, veggies, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea, etc.). Just keep a small container under your sink next to the trash so it is convenient to use. Then if you have a garden, you can get a compost tumbler and use the compost-produced soil for your garden; or if you don’t have a yard then chance are you can throw the fruit and veggie scraps into your green yardwaste bin! USA cities typically provide every household (and apartment complex) a green waste bin for free.
  • Use rechargeable items, and use re-cheargable batteries for items that cannot be recheargable.

Remember: Take it one small step at a time– don’t try to go completely zero waste all at once, just see which of the tips/tricks and online suggestions work for you the best and start there. You got this!


Below are some resources for zero-waste goods that you can buy online

(I don’t get any kickbacks of any sort- these are just the companies I use).

https://packagefreeshop.com/

-They carry plaine products shampoo/conditioner/etc as well as the leaf razors and many other awesome products such as bamboo tooth brushes etc- that you can buy all together.

https://www.blueland.com/

-This is where I buy my dish soap powder and tablets for hand soaps and household cleaning products

Traveling in Cuba as an American

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Photo from cubacasas.net

I haven’t posted for awhile as in addition to recently getting back from our 10 day honeymoon in Cuba (followed by a cousin’s wedding in the DR)- we are preparing to move to LA (my husband is starting his PhD program at USC soon)!  This past month has been a whirlwind- but all in all a good time and Cuba was certainly an adventure (complete with ups and downs!).

Cuba isn’t one of those places you go to just flop down on a beach chair and drink all you can drink piña coladas while you relax. In my opinion -Cuba is a place you go to understand and appreciate the culture, and to learn more about how a socialist society operates.

I’ll detail our trip in my next blog- but first here is some of my advice, How-tos, and insights on traveling in Cuba. 

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  1. You have to designate your travel under one of the 12 reasons for travel. 
    • We went under the “People to People” travel which falls under the ‘Educational activities and exchanges’ category I believe. We were required to keep a journal documenting our daily activities and exchanges with the Cuban people. We did things like teaching capoeira to Cuban children in Habana, Beach Cleanups (and talking to the locals about the trash on the beaches), and just talking with everyone that we possibly could (taxi drivers, airbnb owners, shop owners, musicians, folks walking on the street, etc. ) Note- travel is subject to change under the new rulings under thou who shall not be named, but you should be good to go in the next couple months still and see more details here if you plan to fly via Southwest like we did
  2. You should pre-budget everything and bring all cash with you (Euros or Canadian dollars are best). American credit cards/debit cards don’t work. Really.. I tried. I even called Navy Federal Credit union which allows for cards to be used in Cuba… but looks like Cuba still didn’t let my card go through regardless. Don’t bring US dollars because Cuba charges you 10-13% for exchanging Dollars for CUCs… Just bring EUROs and you will have an easier time. Also bring about 200 EUROs more than you think you will need… more on that later.
  3. If you want to travel around cheaply- reserve a Viazul Bus about 10 days ahead of time online. Or you should plan on getting lucky hitchhiking, taking a local taxi ‘collectivo’, or paying a ton of money out-of-pocket for a tourist taxi. (I’ll write more about this in my next blog …ugh).
  4. Practice your Spanish before going if you are not fluent already. I speak portuguese and had a decent enough vocabulary in “Portenol” to get around and have conversations with folks- and it helped us out a lot. I used DuoLingo to brush up before I left.
  5. Airbnb reservations are likely the best way to reserve places for Americans.  This and online reservations with anything really will help with lowering the amount of cash you carry on you while in Cuba. Many Cubans rent their “casa-particular” out with personal websites, in-person advertisements in Cuba, and on Airbnb. Typically the Airbnb rates are a bit more than what you would pay in-person, but again the online pre-pay feature of Airbnb is worth it.
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  6. There are two currencies in Cuba: Cuban Pesos (CUP) and CUC. Pesos are worth way less than CUCs (25 CUP is worth 1 CUC about). Don’t exchange money with people on the street- this is the easiest way to get scammed, as they can hand you back pesos instead of CUCs for your Euros. See photos below. Keep in mind there are coins also that differ between these currencies but look similar to a new tourist. 
  7. The down-low on food:
    • Do Not expect great food at hotels/resorts. Your best meals will likely be at the most random unexpected places, and not necessarily in your Cuba Guide Book. We stayed at the Maria la Gorda Hotel for three days to go scuba diving and have time at the beach, and the buffet breakfast was not good. They tried their best, but the unfortunate truth is that the government limits how much hotels and resorts can obtain/spend on food and facilities. We did find that the shrimp at their dinner restaurant was great!
    • The best food we had was:  eating fresh fruit from the local market (pineapples and large mangos are 10 pesos each (CUP) which is almost 1/3 of a CUC, avocados are 8 pesos and limes are 2 pesos), fresh bread from the bakery (price varies depending on size of bread- but about 10 pesos will get you enough bread for two people), and fresh eggs (10 pesos each) from the egg man (notice how there are little shops for everything). A full and large breakfast (eggs,bread, fresh fruit and coffee) for two people was less than 2 CUC. You can also just grab an egg and bread sandwich for 10 pesos from a street corner ‘cafeteria’.
    • And the best restaurant we ate at was actually someone’s house.  We ate on the footsteps of this woman’s (Cari) house in Habana Vieja. Beans, Rice, Fried Chicken and Salad for 30 pesos (about 1.10 CUC which is about 1.10$ Us dollar)… It was fantastic, not to mention the amazing sights and sounds of the neighborhood coming alive in the evening. The address for her restaurant/house is:  105 Santa Clara, Habana Vieja Cuba. Below is a picture of me and Cari in her house after a wonderful meal. She even wrote me out the recipe for the Cuban Beans and wouldn’t even accept a tip after we came back the second night. You have to go here and have a meal and tell her that Julie and Gerid recommended her restaurant. And no we did not get sick.

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      Cari and I at her restaurant: 105 Santa Clara Ave, Habana Vieja, Cuba
  8. Bring a water filter! We brought this gravity-operating water filter (gift from my cousins!) and hardly ever bought water. Although the water in Habana (Havana) is supposedly safe for tourists we did not try it and did not meet any other tourists that tried it either. However after seeing all the construction going on and pipes being worked on- I’m glad we did not try it. We saved a ton of money and did not get sick from the water we filtered (I did get sick however from eating an egg-sandwich at the Jose-Marti Airport.. ugh).
  9. Souvenirs: Make sure your artwork comes with a valid certificate (otherwise you will pay 40 CUC at the airport for it). We paid 45 CUC including the certificates each for two nice and large paintings. If you buy cigars on the street (not recommended, but if you have someone trustworthy then it is cheaper than the factory)- make sure that the cigars have a seal on the box so that you can take them home.
  10. Racism exists in Cuba… but most of the light-skinned Cubans will deny this. Not all  Cubans are racist by any means, but my husband (who is African-American) was treated miserably by our first Airbnb host lady, and was stared at on the street a lot by many Cubans (and no it wasn’t because they couldn’t believe how handsome he is). For example-our first airbnb lady made breakfast for us everyday and was super nice to me, but barely looked at my husband in his eyes and couldn’t reply hello or goodbye to him most of the mornings (and she spoke perfect English). My husband and I weren’t the only ones to notice the covert racism. We went to this amazing ARt/Music/Dance collective: Fabrica del Arte in Vedado, Habana (a must-see if you visit Habana!)- and were struck by the art piece below. We even had a conversation with a local Afro-Cuban that was so ecstatic that finally someone was conversing about the issue of racism in Cuba.

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    My husband and I mad about racism in Cuba.. this piece of art at the Fabrica del Arte Cubano (FAC) in Vedado, Habana, Cuba depicts this perfectly.
  11. Scams are everywhere and are incredibly annoying: Some of the scams that we encountered (and did not fall for) were: 1) overpriced taxis, 2) currency exchanges on the street –and giving you back pesos instead of CUC (see above note on the currency), 3) ‘The Cigar Festival’... People will tell you ‘its the last day for the cigar festival, you should go and get good prices on the cigars’.. we never went to check it out but we know it was a scam because four days later someone said “today is the last day for the cuban cigar festival”..ugh!, 4) overpriced paintings that are not certified (They try to sell these paintings for 130 CUC instead of 45-60, and then in addition to that they do not have the certificates and lie to you saying that the certificates are 40 CUC… The truth is that the certificates are only 2-3 CUC, and if you don’t get a certificate with your artwork, then you will have to pay 40 CUC at the airport. My husband and I had two main rules to avoid scams: Do not let anyone lead you anywhere, and do not agree to anything right away.  Just tell them thank you and that you will check it out later. That will give you time to research whatever it is they are trying to sell you and discuss the pros/cons.
  12. Online Cuban agencies will likely rip you off. We used the CubanTravelNetwork to book our Maria la Gorda hotel and scuba diving (to not have to bring as much cash with us once we were there)- and they majorly ripped us off on the scuba diving packages. We overpaid them for scuba diving compared to what the hotel charged in person, and then on top of it our scuba diving equipment was not even included (which they did not tell us during the online purchase)- so we had to pay for that in person which we did not budget for.. ugh.
  13. Segregation of tourists and locals exists everywhere from the taxis to the Coppelia ice cream place (Vedado, Havana, Cuba)They have security guards which actually force you to go to the tourist sections of the ice-cream parlor (where they charge you more money). No thank you. In the end, we got our ice-cream at a small spot in Vedado for < 1 CUC each elsewhere. I’m all for giving to the local Cuban economy, but I prefer to do it via tipping rather than segregation.
  14. Socialism: Yes it is a socialist country- and it is evident in the fact that even the poor people are well taken care of in terms of housing, food, water, health care and education. I only saw one homeless person the whole 10 days we were there, and even all of the stray dogs and cats were fed every night via food on cardboard paper (I’m not sure who went around feeding them at night). I think this is also why all of the strays were  very nice and well-behave. However, in my opinion- if you want anything aside from the basic necessities- it is hard to do so in Cuba (unless you have family sending you money, or an extra house you can rent out as an air-bnb/casa particular). We did meet some people who felt trapped by the system. The  government has a lot of control on everything- evident from the rationed food at hotels/resorts, and from the fact that if you are born in the east of Cuba you cannot immigrate to Havana unless you become a police officer (thus many folks seek out that job). Coincidentally (or not) eastern Cuba is also the more Afro-Cuban region… again.. racism is very apparent in this country. 

  15. The Environment: I was a bit surprised when I got to Cuba because I had heard so many good things about all of their marine and land preserves, and about their efforts to preserve the environment. I did in fact go scuba diving in one of the marine reserves in Maria La Gorda- which was spectacular (lots of live corals and fish while scuba diving), but I was disappointed by all of the trash on the beaches, and even one of the scuba diving instructors threw his cup overboard on the boat ;(. The snorkeling was only so-so however at Maria la Gorda (lots of dead coral), but had some fish, and new coral growth on the docks was apparent. There are lots of land and marine reserves in Cuba.. it is true and these reserves are beautiful from what I saw, but in my opinion littering is a huge problem for Cuba. There was trash everywhere we went– from the streets in Havana, to the Malecon (a strip along the ocean in Havana), and on the beaches. Not to mention the fumes from all of the old cars. However in contrast, I did see a public outreach center in Havana about preserving native species, and the negative effects of littering, fumes from cars, and invasive species. So one can only hope that more public outreach and education will preserve Cuba’s natural beauty. Speaking of invasive species – I did see water hyacinth in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba! I wasn’t surprised though since I knew that biological control using the weevils (Neochetina spp.) has been used in Cuba for controlling this invasive weed.

All in all, I still immensely enjoyed our trip in Cuba- and definitely saw some of the positive aspects of a socialist society. I fully recommend visiting Cuba, and experiencing it for yourself (Just bring enough money!).

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View of Havana, Cuba from ‘El Morro’ on our last night