Updated: Dec 7, 2020
The zero waste movement is often pegged as a privileged lifestyle movement. That lens can unfortunately limit the discussion about the impacts of the plastics and trash issues we face globally, and how these issues impact low income communities. Not to mention, this lens can also downplay the amazing work people are doing worldwide within the zero waste sphere to change the status quo.
This blog post is an interview with Paulina, creator of Pauchamama and Zero Waste Conchali, who is building a movement towards a more mindful and sustainable Chile (all photos have been provided by Paulina and are used with permission). She is breaking down barriers and improve education opportunities within low income communities, as well as offering a variety of services and products that facilitate low waste living.
Paulina is a Chilean-American, raised in Philadelphia, and living in Santiago, Chile as of 2012. She completed her undergrad in Biology at Drexel University and then moved to Chile to do masters in International Relations and Public Policy at Catholic University of Chile. Paulina has worked in international relations and agricultural sustainability projects for UC Davis Chile, and now she's an independent consultant and entrepreneur.
In her words, Paulina has always been an explorer and lover of Earth’s flora and fauna, and she's thrilled to have found a channel were she can dedicate her talents and energy to advocate for Earth's protection and her well being.
ZWC: Were you always interested in sustainability?
Paulina: I’ve always cared about the environment and vouched for a healthy relationship with her, however until the Zero Waste Conchali project, I had not been living like it.
Conchali’s micro dumps not only exposed the critical trash problems we have, they also highlighted the responsibility everyone has for the current crisis. The cause and solution were both linked to natural resource consciousness and individual ownership, so I decided to do my part and go zero waste.
This also motivated me to be an active agent for sustainable development by educating children, families and communities. If we wanted our communal trash reality to change, we needed to change ourselves and drive the paradigm shift outwards.
As I work to educate the school community on zero waste, the enthusiastic feedback I receive fuels me to keep finding ways to transform their spaces and habits to ensure a cleaner future.
It’s the most vulnerable in society that usually live among micro-dumps and so to hijack this cyclic relationship by empowering people to gain control of their environment is incredibly fulfilling and vindicating.
ZWC: How did you learn about the zero waste (ZW) movement?
Paulina: While analyzing the possible solutions for the severe trash crisis, sustainability expert from UC Davis, Camille Kirk, suggested implementing ZW as an effective way to reduce waste at the school. In researching this methodology, I came across ZW stars like Bea Johnson, living practical lifestyles that reduced junk, natural resource waste, and costs- it made sense.
As soon as I started incorporating these habits into my home, I began to see the efficiencies and savings. My husband and I gained control of our food waste; we composted our organics and got creative in reusing as many materials as possible. The goal became to have only the necessary resources in our home, which translated into having less to manage, clean, recycle and toss. Wins all around so we maintained it.
Zero Waste realigned us to be intentional with our purchases. We started only buying things that we needed, that were eco-friendly and durable; and we drastically own consumption of disposable materials that were destined to landfills or processing. In the search for sustainable products for our home (and Sol Naciente), I was faced with the deficiencies in Chile that hindered a simple transition.
ZWC: How well-known would you say the zero waste lifestyle is in Chile?
Paulina: Not widespread yet, but the concept of plastic pollution has penetrated some communities, and thanks to the gradual ban on bags and single-use materials, people are starting to understand the severity of the pollution problem. However, so far the education and current eco-friendly initiatives focus on recycling as the primary green practice.
Fortunately, there are a few groups promoting “cero basura” (zero waste), through workshops, and campaigns, including Fundacion Basura* and Alianza Cero Basura. Fundacion Basura collaborated with Zero Waste Conchali by providing training to the school staff.
One would think that because of Chile’s dependency on its vast natural resources, we would be more conscious of our relationship with them. But in my experience in the agricultural field, the producers, businesses and consumers are generally disconnected from the effects of exploitation and trash pollution.
I expect the discussions on climate change mitigation through sustainable development will eventually reach consensus that zero waste lifestyles should be widely encouraged and facilitated.
ZWC: Are people starting to adopt low-waste living?
Paulina: Zero Waste Conchali community is!
In some places the concept is becoming more popular in terms of alternative product options. A couple shops have popped up that allow you to buy grains, soap and other household goods in bulk. There are also some restaurants that no longer give straws in order to collaborate in the solution.
The lack of popularity is due to a lack of community engagement, publicity and the misconception that living a low-waste life is inconvenient or that it does not make a difference.
ZWC: Tell us more about Zero Waste Conchali!
Paulina: I’ve been working on a social-environmental project for the last year and a half in an at-risk school community. The elementary school, Sol Naciente, was struggling with invasive, stubborn micro dumps and looked for external help. The municipality of Conchali, in general, has struggled with uncontrolled trash generation for over 25 years, and all green efforts have been short-lived and unsuccessful.
Considering Conchali’s levels and causes of trash pollution, any effective solution would have to radically and permanently reduce the amount of trash generated by the community. A ZW methodology offered an innovative solution to reduce the amount of trash produced at the root. My team and I targeted the Municipality’s education system; by placing elementary schools as the motors of change, we could integrate environmental awareness and ZW concepts that would transfer into homes and communities. Key for this transformation was to engage the wider community to promote awareness and ownership.
This work catalyzed a wave of creativity that expanded into a sophisticated ZW business (Pauchamama) that I am launching in Chile. Pauchamama is driven by the voiced needs of people looking to generate less waste and adopt low-waste lifestyles. I aim to close the education and product gap by sharing my experience through blogs and offering alternative products that are nationally and sustainably produced.
ZWC: How has Zero Waste Conchali changed the community?
Paulina: The Zero Waste Conchali plan, currently underway, is simple. Train the school staff on Zero Waste. Integrate this knowledge permanently into the school curriculum while transforming the school to be Zero Waste Transfer education towards community to scale.
To quickly and effectively reduce waste, we first co-created school compost, for all the food waste (vegetable peelings, cafeteria prep and waste residues, random snack organics) to be reintegrated into nature. The school staff and students work this; they transport, manage and transfer the soil to the school grounds. So far this has reduced the overall trash by 20% in one year.
As they to learn about natural resources, they continue to incorporate ZW strategies at school, like reusing and re-purposing materials and recycling paper, cardboard, plastic and tetra packs.
While the school transforms, I am co-developing the curriculum with the internal ZW team and teachers. By integrating circular economy and waste reduction concepts transversally into the students’ curriculum, we assure learning by the students, extension to homes, and overall sustainability of the movement.
Aside from the environmental benefits, the project has given fruits of another nature. For years Sol Naciente was labeled as a vulnerable, trash-riddled school, and the community surrendered and contributed to the status quo. Zero Waste Conchali has managed to change that reality by giving the community ownership and control of their surroundings. The school is greener, cleaner and a sense of community was born around zero waste. Parents, community, municipal and external members participate, learn and expand this idea.
ZWC: Are the students interested in getting involved?
Paulina: The students (and teachers) love zero waste and everything it means for their school.
From the beginning, the children were quick to understand our mission ‘saving our environment by creating less trash’ made sense to them. These students saw society’s problem with trash every time they entered school- zero waste made sense to them from a basic standpoint. Consume less to toss less.
So, they absorbed the methodology and school strategies like sponges! Despite whatever circumstances they had at home, they gave all their energy to the activities. They formed a Zero Waste crew; helped motivate other students; worked the land to create the their compost, garden and green areas; installed recycling practices; and of course, took their zero waste knowledge home.
As families started hearing about Zero Waste Conchali through their children, they supported the movement by attending activities, leading fundraisers, and voicing questions about composting and recycling practices, observed barriers, alternative options.
Breaking a societal habit and shifting the stereotype of a marginalized, trash-riddled Conchali are tough challenges. This pioneer school community understood that the change would require their proactivity and that it would benefit every member. If they can do it, there is a chance for every school in Chile and any institution in the world. Their transformation is proof that people can drive change.
ZWC: Is low waste living accessible to everyone in Chile?
Paulina: At first glance, no. I find that people living low-waste lifestyles are generally stereotyped into 2 groups: the “green, alternative hippies” who aren’t concerned with product quality; or the “luxurious, upper class” who can afford the luxury of eco-friendly products.
We are still comfortable with businesses that provide disposable, single-use products; and since consumers have not altered their demand, the most available options are the most contaminating. It is true that the available low-waste products are more expensive and much less popular than the usual products. Pauchamama is working to close that gap by offering affordable products and contributing a percentage of sales to transform vulnerable communities.
HOWEVER, when we double click into the raw feasibility of adopting low-waste life in Chile, we see that most of the resources needed are present (after all, I scouted my way through it), for instance:
Chile is rich in natural produce vendors! There are vegetable and fruit stands all over the place, local farmers markets like “la vega” scattered throughout the city, and organic cooperative farming options like “huellas verdes”. These are all affordable options where customers could completely avoid packaging by bringing you own bag.
You can also get milk, meat, fish, bread and eggs from sustainable, local providers, many of whom are certified Fair-trade and Eco-friendly.
There are lots of small grocery stores (and some supermarkets) that allow you to buy your essentials, cheese, bread, sauces, grains, teas and soaps in bulk in your own container.
With some coordination efforts, composting is also accessible. You can trench compost in the backyard or have small apartment compost. If you can’t keep your compost soil at home, you can give it to agriculture producers right outside the city, or to companies that pick-up your compost.
There are many great second-hand clothes stores throughout the city. For everything else, there are places like BioBio, a vibrant area in Santiago where vendors congregate to sell and bargain all kinds of secondhand furniture, decorations, and miscellaneous gadgets.
So the offer is there, people just have to be aware of the benefits in order to take advantage of them.
ZWC: What factors do you think impact people's access to this lifestyle?
A lack of education. People are generally unaware of the environmental effects linked to their consumption and trash disposal habits; and of the low-waste options available. It is motivating to see know that once you inform people, they understand the concept of giving value and continuity to our natural resources.
A lack of community outreach and engagement. I find that when I talk to people about the root and goals of the zero waste movement, they the concept makes sense to them, however they do no have enough collaboration to fuel a movement. Inclusive activities and workshops with the extended community to educate members on environmental sustainability and trash ownership are key for accessibility and impact.
Poorly managed recycling points. Many people are unaware of the recycling locations, are confused about the separation of recyclables, or do not trust the traceability of the process. It does not help that often, green points are a mess, overflowing with mixed recyclables, non-recyclables, food waste and animals.
Government support: Chile could help curve current consumption habits by further sanctioning unsuitable practices and by supporting low-waste educationally and business programs.
There is a lack of innovation and needs-based programs in the initiatives encouraged by municipalities. The vast majority of communities in Chile have no community composts or gardens, which could significantly reduce communal waste. Another big challenge is a lack of bulk waste collection points; people have no place to drop off their furniture and big household items, so they leave them on the curbside (to start a micro-dump). My plan is to continue working with the Municipality to strengthen their waste management and recycling programs.
Is the Chilean government taking any action on plastic waste, or waste in general?
Chile is aware of its high levels of trash generation and low recycling rates. The World Bank determined that Chile has the highest generation of trash, per capita, in South America, and of the 17 million tons of waste a year, less than 10% is recycled. To solve this problem, the government slowly started to introduce green initiatives.
In 2016, the Recycling Law was established which obliged industries to manage their production residues.
Municipalities have inserted more green points throughout their communities.
School, other government institutions and businesses are receiving environmental recognition for any green practices.
As of February 3, 2019 the government eliminated the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and retail stores. Also, a new regulation is coming in the next 6 months, limiting single-use plastics. Chile will become the first Latin American nation to enforce a restriction of this type. This will control plastics that contain petroleum polymer components, including utensils, food containers, bottles, plates, cups, straws and mixers. Starting with the Municipality of Providencia, the government will enforce this by sanctioning any business that does not comply. The regulation aims to reduce the current disposable plastics and for Chileans to eventually learn to refuse single-use plastics.
For anyone travelling to Chile, what recommendations would you make for them to make their trip more sustainable and low waste?
Bring your own, bag, straw, reusable utensils and drink cup everywhere you go; There is delicious must-try street food, but its usually served in disposable everything. Point to your container as you order, so they don’t quickly use theirs. They’ll be happy to fill that up most of the time.
When shopping, make sure you ask for “no bag” before shops automatically package your purchase.
Coffee: most places will accept the coffee mug you bring, some even give a discount. This goes for juices and water at restaurants too. The water is potable.
Buy fresh fruit from small producers or produce outlets, they are sprinkled throughout the city! Avoid going to the supermarkets for fruit, nuts and veggies. Every other corner there’s either a mom-and-pop shop or street vendor selling luscious produce that can buy in bulk with your own reusable bag.
If you must buy produce at supermarket/ grocery stores, make sure you bring a see-through veggie bag to weight and put sticker on. Stores here use disposable plastic bags to weigh your produce. Remember also, that they no longer give you bags to take your purchases, so BYOB.
What are some of the words and phrases in Spanish that could help travelers reduce their waste
SIN BOMBILLA (no straw) and SIN BOLSA (no bag) are key!
In general, saying no to packaging “SIN ENVOLTORIO” and plastic “SIN PLASTICO” go a long way.
If you speak some Spanish you can explain why; if you don’t, just point to a tree or say “Pachamama” and you’ll see that most people understand the concept and are thankful for your movement.
Thanks so much Paulina! This goes to show that any of us can get involved in our communities, worldwide, to reduce waste. Follow Paulina on Instagram @pauchamama and @chonchalizerowaste! and head to her website www.pauchamama.com