Zero Waste POC

I’ve been hanging out with my cousins for a few days to get away from being stuck at home with my grandmother, and I’ve been doing lots of cooking and grocery shopping. (She’s gonna show me how to make red sauce out of the raw chiles! Finally! This is a skill I’m sure Canada will be glad to have acquired when I get up there.)

But today we went to a Mexican market to pic up some stuff here in Glendora and I realized just how much Latinos have been into reusing stuff for basically ever. Cloth menstrual pads, bags, everything. We were doing it way before it was cool. And part of that is the poverty thing, but part of it is also a cultural thing. Thriftiness, resourcefulness, those tend to be values that are passed down among us because it’s important for us to remember where we came from and how we got to where we are. (In my case, that wasn’t passed down, unfortunately. I don’t know what part of Mexico my great-great grandmothers came from, and I don’t know what they were trying to get away from in coming here. The Revolution is my theory.)

Photo courtesy of Flavors of the Sun.

The bulk bins are rarely ever fancy, or hell, even sanitary-looking by yuppie standards. But fancy is kind of the antithesis of thrifty and green, isn’t it? (I’d do well to remember this too.) If you’ve ever been into a shabby-looking “ethnic” market, you’ll know, as soon as you step inside, that the store knows exactly who their patrons are, and rarely do they ever need to win them over with pretty displays. Price and quality trumps everything else. My rule of thumb when it comes to Asian and Mexican stores and restaurants is the less they try to visually impress their customers, the better their goods are likely to be.

Photo courtesy of D Brown Cooks.

I’d started to realize just how zero waste some of these ugly stores, tucked away in unassuming strip malls, often were. I was in a store that was only a few blocks away from where I live in Pasadena, in the “ghetto”, when I asked if I could have my pico de gallo packed into a stainless container. When the lady behind the counter obliged without much of a second thought, I knew that I’d hit the jackpot. I could probably get meat (if I still bought it) and cheese packed that way if I asked nicely. I could get my ceviche zero waste-style too.

The store that I’d gone to with my cousin today though, was practically as stocked with bulk products and package-free produce as that store I’d gone to in Portland, even though this was deep in the buttcrack of working class LA suburbia. They had bulk bins for nuts, flours, sugar, cereal, Mexican candy, beans, rice, chiles, and even pet food. It was an amazing reminder that POC, especially immigrants, seem to have a much better grasp of what kind of impact they have on the places and people around them. Not that it’s even born of a desire to be more “eco-friendly”, but I think it’s values. Don’t take shit, especially food, for granted. Know where your money’s going. How much it costs to support your family. Where you can save and cut corners. Why buy new if you can get it from a thrift store? And so on and so forth.

This is a big reason why people of color and non-white ethnicities are alienated from the vast majority of the green movement. There’s an assumption that everyone needs to do things differently, but what they don’t realize is that some groups have been doing this for generations, all while white people have historically derided them for it. And now suddenly, shopping from bulk bins and buying used is “in”.

And I’m definitely not alone in pointing this sore spot out. Here’s a very good piece written by a South Asian-American talking about their frustrating relationship with the backyard farming/organic food movement.

We need to acknowledge this unsavory history and tendency toward racism and colonialism in the various green movements. And until we can do that, people of color will never be on board with the mainstream movement. (Some, however, never want to be. And I can’t blame them.)

I’ve thought about listing these stores on Bea’s “Bulk” app, which maps out user-submitted stores that sell items in bulk or without packaging (aside from produce, I believe). And then I decided not to. What good would it do? I don’t want these stores inundated with ZW-minded yuppies who would have otherwise found these amazing places dirty or uncomfortable, who are only shopping there for lifestyle reasons. They have their bulk stores– Whole Foods, Sprouts, and so on. They don’t need ours too. At least, not until they wholeheartedly accept and embrace the culture and neighborhoods that they serve. And you all are just not there yet, I’m afraid.