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My journey seeking a Zero Waste lifestyle in Cartagena de Indias

By Maria Fernanda Vizcaino, an intern with Domino Volunteers and student of foreign languages at the University of Cartagena, and of Industrial Engineering at the Unicolombo.

Zero Waste represents a theory and movement for reducing and progressively eliminating waste globally. But, is this only a term for the industrial field? How can I, as an individual consumer, reduce the amount of waste that I produce ?

My name is Maria Fernanda, and I was born and raised in Cartagena de Indias. I am dedicated to environmental sustainability, and after learning about Zero Waste became fascinated about the idea of pursuing this important movement. This is my story exploring and challenging the movement for Zero Waste in my city, as a resident, consumer, and curious student.

What is Zero Waste?

Zero Waste is a theory that has evolved throughout the years, adopting different names and multiple strategies for implementing it. According to Robin Murray (2000), it has origins in the highly successful Japanese industrial concept of total quality management (TQM), which has been applied widely in industries to keep products at high-quality levels. Also, it originates in the desire of industries to have their products with “zero defects” because less products will be seen as defected and thrown away. However, most industrial processes and ways that products are designed, produced, sold and landfilled follow the principles of a linear economy, which has created devastating impacts in our environment, human health, economy and consuming behaviors.

The Zero Waste term has been transported into the arena of daily consumption habits and urban planning of cities, aiming to change the ways of our upside-down economy. Now, it is not only applied within industries but also in daily life as a strategy to modify our consuming behaviors.

Today, it has become a huge movement which encourages citizens to become zero-wasters. And, as they say : “It is all about learning to eat, drink, get dressed, play, clean or even work in a waste free way. The main goal is to avoid unnecessary packaging, that goes straight to the bin”

“Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages a complete lifecycle for products. The goal is to be able to use an item in a way that it will not end up in a landfill. Most of the products today are single-use and designed to be thrown out. Zero waste is about waste prevention”.

Experience as a Cartagena Citizen

This last year, I tried to implement this theory in my own day to day life in Cartagena, and I want to share my experience with you.

There are a lot of initiatives promoting the change to a Zero Waste lifestyle and giving awesome advice. Projects/Blogs such as: Trash is for Tossers by Lauren Singer & Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson are really helpful for anyone interested. I’ve tried to use their tips, but I have encountered some obstacles along the way. Let me share with you the context I live in and its unique challenges.

** Down-cycling refers to when the initial quality of a good has decreased and/or it no longer can be used for its initial purpose, so a new purpose is found. For example, a t-shirt that has become old and so is used as a dust rag.

Evidently, it is not only about buying a Zero Waste kit or a few new products (for example: aluminum straw + reusable utensils + cloth diapers) — which I do agree could be helpful as individuals begin to develop Zero Waste lifestyles. Instead, what is needed in order to sustain this practice, is a holistic system transformation.

I could use the tips given by “The Do Something Project” for making a change in my own individual life as the following infographic shows:

But, in Cartagena de Indias, where people live in a neighborhood depending on their socio-economic strata, it is common to live in the same house all of one's life, and furthermore making big ideological changes within a family is hard, if you want to move forward you need to move with all of your family members.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love these kinds of growing dynamics, and collaborative development is said to be the future. However, we have neither been given nor created the appropriate tools or methodologies that take into account our heritage, history, cultural practices or local economy to move forward on this topic. We are just running behind a development pattern that doesn’t fit with our social, environmental and economic needs.

In my opinion, all of these difficulties lead to a few important conclusions: we must keep our creative souls alive and continue exploring ways to move forward and create a world in which humans live harmoniously with the cycles of nature, not over them; we need to keep thinking about community and equitable growing conditions. How would the world be if we understood life cyclically?

Everything is interconnected, our bodies and minds, our past and present, our economy and environment.