Educator and low-waste advocate Cindy Villaseñor teaches through experience how to make your kitchen, garden, and camping trips more sustainable. Words and Photos by Kate Rentz.
From colorful images of freshly picked vegetables in her own backyard to glass jars filled with organic, bulk-purchased goods, Cindy Villaseñor’s (@cerowastecindy) Instagram profile is a portrait of sustainability in everyday practice.
Between the photos of trail ridges and abundant leafy greens, what’s most inspiring is her infectious smile and how she teaches about low-waste living and cultivating plants in a tone that’s fun, compassionate, and accessible. Cindy works as a garden ranger for EnrichLA, a non-profit that provides one of the largest garden education programs (specific to one city) in the country. In her work and on her social media platform, she provides helpful information on how to maintain a sustainable lifestyle—in your own kitchen and outside camping amongst granite peaks and coniferous forests.
I recently caught up with Cindy on the eastside of Los Angeles, where we discussed sustainable living, where to shop for bulk goods, and how to start a small garden in the city.
I’m so inspired by your low-waste lifestyle. Can you tell me about your background and how you got into gardening/sustainable living?
CINDY: It all started when I took an Environmental Science class at my community college in 2013. I was inspired by my professor who was very vocal and honest about the conditions of the environment and I sometimes found myself crying after class, thinking of all the destruction we have caused. Being in that class really had an effect on me and I decided I wanted to major in something that was in the field of Environmental Science. I ended up majoring in Geography with a minor in Sustainability, which was the closest I could get at California State University, Northridge. During my last year there, I was in charge of the compost facility and food garden on campus. After graduating, I wanted to continue working with gardens and I found a non-profit company, with whom I currently work for, called EnrichLA.
Cindy wears the Hurricane XLT2 in Light Multi. 100% of Teva’s iconic straps are made using traceable, verifiable recycled plastic using REPREVE® yarn.
What does your job entail and what’s the most life-giving aspect of what you do?
CINDY: I’ve been a garden ranger for EnrichLA for the last four years. In addition to maintaining the garden, I teach students about planting seasons, seed anatomy, composting, plastic pollution, and zero waste. I truly believe that if children start learning and interacting with plants and soil at a young age, they will continue to appreciate and take care of Mother Earth as they get older.
The most life-giving aspect of my job is simply seeing how excited my students get when they see a seed sprout and how much they connect when I harvest food for them or they harvest food themselves—especially carrots and radishes! I often get to make snacks using vegetables and flowers from the garden and some even go home and ask their parents to make the same thing. It makes my heart happy and proud of the job I do!
You recently planted a home garden in the city. Can you tell me about your garden and how it can be both easy and challenging?
CINDY: Right when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the middle of March, my husband and I installed two small rolling raised beds. I wanted to make sure we had healthy food if things got worse and if access to food was limited. Overall, it was pretty easy to put our garden together. We purchased two pre-built beds, filled it with soil, and planted our herbs and vegetables. The benefits of the rolling beds are that if we decide to move from our current apartment, we can roll the beds out and we don’t have to worry about weeds because the beds aren’t connected to the soil below. The only difficult thing about having a garden in the city (and an apartment) is that we are limited in space and have to pick and choose what we want to grow.
Do you have any tips for those who want to create a large garden and may not have the space?
CINDY: The first thing I would say is start small. You can start with one pot or a small rolling garden bed. From there, you can add a few more pots or can look into growing a garden tower, which allows you to grow vertically. You can grow a garden in a couple of pots as long as they are deep enough, have good sunlight, and have good organic soil.
“I really like the Hurricane XLT2 because it has a good amount of cushion and they are simply comfortable. I love that recycled water bottles are used in the sandal straps! That’s upcycling into something else!”
You share a lot about sustainable living and a ‘low-waste’ lifestyle. For those that don’t know what this means, can you share a little more about what that lifestyle looks like and what the benefits are?
CINDY: To me, low-waste is not just about waste and plastic — it’s really about changing our mindset and recognizing that we are part of nature. We, ourselves, are Earth. We all share an ecosystem with the birds, the bees, the trees, the rivers, and the mountains. Low-waste is asking ourselves, “How can we better cooperate in this ecosystem so that it doesn’t affect others?” It’s looking at our consumption (and over-consumption of material goods), wasting less resources, reusing what is already out there by reusing or up-cyling, and re-evaluating our relationship to material things.
For example, many people want to protect the Amazon rainforest from deforestation, but they continue to buy new material goods made from those forests instead of buying secondhand pieces that are already made or fixing something they already have. Ultimately, low-waste living is asking ourselves, “Do I actually need this?” and remembering that our choices impact the ecosystem that we all share. I believe that when we create less trash and use less resources, we’ll leave a cleaner planet for future generations. As a result of living low-waste, I’ve been able to save money because we are buying less and are purchasing cheaper, second-hand items. I’ve also been able to take care of what we have and am grateful for it. My husband and I also tend to eat a lot healthier because we purchase package-free items, avoid processed foods, and cook from scratch.
Take action towards a low-waste kitchen by shopping at local bulk bins for pantry essentials instead of buying packaged goods. Cindy fills up her own containers while shopping at Tare in the Highland Park neighborhood of LA.
I love watching ‘Cooking with the Villaseñors’ on your Instagram Stories. Do you and your husband make all your meals together? What are your favorite resources for sustainable food?
CINDY: Thanks, I’m finding that many folks really love watching us have fun in the kitchen and that makes me happy! When cooking at home, it varies on what’s in season because we usually shop at the LA Cañada Farmer’s Market or the Highland Park Farmer’s Market in the Los Angeles area. Now with the pandemic, we receive a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box. We make meals depending on what we have in the pantry and what produce we get.
For example, if we get a bunch of sweet potatoes in our CSA box, I do a quick Google search on recipes for sweet potatoes and we go from there! For other staples like beans, rice, and snacks, we have a new favorite: Tare in Highland Park! Our other favorite place is Sustain LA, where we get refills on shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, dish soap and vinegar.
We definitely eat out too! Before the pandemic hit, we would dine at restaurants that offered reusables and stayed away from places that used all disposables. We love Sage Organic Bistro, Kitchen Mouse, Mohawk Bend, The Dankness Dojo, and much more in the LA area!
Cindy wears the Original Universal in Retro Multi.
You share a lot about low-waste camping on your Instagram account. Why is it important for you to extend this lifestyle into camping and what are some ways that you do this?
CINDY: Extending my low-waste lifestyle into a camping environment is important to me because I get to visit all these beautiful places that should be protected and kept clean, but yet, we still find ways to leave waste behind. Because the bulk of trash comes from food while camping, I try to make our trips as low-waste as possible. I make our meals and snacks with ingredients we can get package-free or in bulk. We even prepare some of our meals ahead of time and store it in reusable containers. We also take reusable napkins, eating utensils, plates, etc.
Reuse glass pasta sauce jars and nut butter jars to hold new snacks from the bulk bin store.
Kate wears the Original Universal in Retro Multi.
On your Instagram account, you’ve mentioned that you’re not one hundred percent zero waste and that being sustainable isn’t always perfect. Can you share your thoughts around that?
CINDY: Yes, that is true because our economy isn’t currently built to hold a sustainable lifestyle. We have a linear economy in which a company makes its products and sends it out into the world without taking care of the trash it produces. Companies aren’t closing the loop and taking care of wrappers and packaging, but instead put it out into the environment where it may exist forever. Also, sometimes you just can’t find things package-free, like medication.
I try my best to avoid buying things in plastic, and when I get unnecessary plastic, it honestly makes me sad and frustrated, but sometimes it just happens. I have to remind myself that we aren’t there yet.
In a circular economy, there’s a loop. Things get recycled, up-cycled, or reused for the same thing—very similar to the old school milkman delivering, collecting, and reusing glass milk bottles. Circular economies don’t create excess trash.
We may not have a circular economy yet, or one with sustainability in mind. But I do believe that if we keep pushing and asking for package-free products, supporting businesses that keep zero waste in mind, and asking for sustainable products with fair labor practices, that eventually this will be accessible to everyone. Right now, do the best you can with what you got. You might not be able to do all things zero waste.
Not everyone will be able to do these things, because accessibility also comes into play. Whether you have access to these stores or not, for example, living in a food desert. Whether you have the privilege to buy some of these things, because honestly sometimes things tend to be more expensive at first, like sustainable fashion. Or whether you have the privilege of time. But if you do have that accessibility and privilege, use it. Support those businesses because the more we demand, the more accessible it becomes for others. The more we stop supporting things like plastic water bottles, then eventually they will make less as well!
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