Plastic Bags, Coffee Grounds, and Boiled Celery: Living a Low-Waste Life in the City

This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.

Anxious People, Fredrik Backman

But aren’t we all idiots at times? I know I am. One of my sayings is “We’re just trying our best.” It’s what we can do. So when we moved to Quito, Ecuador from Florida about a month and a half ago, we lived life. Trying our best.

I’m reading Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman right now (HIGHLY RECOMMEND), and one of the reasons I love Backman is that he zooms right in on what it means to be human:

. . . it’s always very easy to declare that other people are idiots, but only if you forget how idiotically difficult being human is. Especially if you have other people you’re trying to be a reasonably good human being for.

Uh, yep! You hit the nail on the head, Backman.

When we first arrived in Quito to a dark sky and city lights, we were in that survival mode where we had simple objectives: get from Jacksonville to Quito. Don’t die. Try not to get Coronavirus. Don’t lose any of the kids. Don’t be complete idiots.

Well I’m happy to report that we achieved those objectives.

But now that we’re here, survival mode has turned into this hairy little Popples beast that clings onto our chests, occasionally reaching up to slap us right in the face. We’re in a foreign (to us) country (slap), we don’t really speak the language (slap), we know only a handful of people (slap), we don’t have a vehicle or even bikes (THE HORROR), and we have a difficult time getting our key to open the gate to our apartment compound (slap). I won’t even mention our weekday schedules of dealing with the boys logging on and off of zoom-school getting the Zoomie Gloomies, trying to prevent the apartment from becoming an absolute disaster zone, feeding three growing boys and a grown boy, changing poopy diapers, and folding all of the laundry. So it’s easy to fall into the survival mode way of thinking. We have a lot going on. We certainly don’t have time or energy or brain capacity to think about how we can lead a less-wasteful, better-for-the-environment kind of life. Just reading that paragraph was exhausting. I’m sorry.

But my friend Backman gets it. He understands:

Because there’s such an unbelievable amount that we’re all supposed to be able to cope with these days. You’re supposed to have a job, and somewhere to live, and a family, and you’re supposed to pay taxes and have clean underwear and remember the password to your damn Wi-Fi. Some of us never manage to get the chaos under control so our lives simply carry on, the world spinning through space at two million miles an hour while we bounce around on its surface like so many lost socks.

Looking back on our first several weeks here, dealing with *all of the things,* I did feel a little like a lost sock bouncing around, just trying to survive.

When we first went to the grocery store, we didn’t know what the heck we were doing. Definitely idiots. So we did what we saw others do, and came home with (it seemed like 1000) plastic bags of food. The next time we went grocery shopping, we tried bringing this huge Costco bag that we found tucked next to the refrigerator when we moved in. We used it at the store. AND WE ALL LIVED. And came home with fewer plastic bags. The next time we hit the store, we saw that reusable bags were for sale. We bought some. And now we come home from the store with zero plastic bags. Level up. (Have I mentioned how much I loathe plastic bags? It’s the Californian in me.)

One of the things waiting for us in our apartment when we arrived was a lovely little bag of coffee beans sitting on the kitchen counter. So starting morning one, I was able to enjoy my making-coffee-and-then-drinking-it ritual. In Florida, my coffee grounds would eventually make their way to the compost bins in the backyard. So on morning one of Quito life, I didn’t know what to do with the grounds. I couldn’t throw them away! So I dumped them in a little glass jar I found in the cupboards. Since we have a little outdoor space with some fruit trees and various flowers in our apartment compound, I thought I’d wait until the jar filled up, and go dump the grounds outside somewhere. So that’s what I do. And the plants thank me because coffee grounds are great for the soil! Simply knowing that I’m not just dumping something that could be useful into the trash makes me feel a little less like a bouncing sock. Level up.

Another issue we’ve had since living here has been something probably most everyone deals with when moving internationally: VEGETABLE BROTH. In Florida, we had gotten into the handy habit of buying our veggie broth at the store and then recycling the box it came in. Since it isn’t sold here, we had to bounce to Plan B: make our own! I had done it before, but, as things do, it trickled out of my life when it was so easy to buy it at the store. Quito, thank you for reminding me how easy it is to make your own veggie broth. Instead of throwing my veggie scraps in the garbage (oof, that hurt my heart just writing it), I throw them in this crappy tupperware container I found lurking in a cabinet and then store it in the freezer. When it’s full, I dump the frozen scraps into a big pot, add a bunch of water, some peppercorns, and herbs, and let that bad boy boil for a few hours. Then I pour it through a sieve and have delicious, homemade veggie broth. I store some in the fridge and some in the freezer and always have plenty on hand.

But what to do with the boiled, limp celery and other sad scraps? My husband and I talked about it, and the next step for us is to dig a small hole in part of our teeny tiny yard, dump in the scraps, and bury them. We don’t have a shovel or even a trowel (yet!), but I for one am very excited about this next level-up in our lives.

So there are lots of easy things you can do in the city to lead a less-wasteful life:

  1. Avoid plastic bags by remembering to bring your reusable bags. And if you have plastics bags lurking under your sink or in a closet already, use them! Don’t simply throw them away. Don’t be an idiot.
  2. Sprinkle used coffee grounds into your garden. Good for the soil. Good for the soul.
  3. Make your own veggie broth. This eliminates dealing with packaging of store-bought veggie broth, and it’s healthier. Then dig a little grave for it, sing a song, say a prayer, etc. It’s like on The Office when they have the funeral service for the bird — but for veggie scraps.

But the most important thing when going through life (dealing with an international move or not) is to get the chaos under control so our lives are not simply carrying on.

Because simply carrying on isn’t good enough. We have such rich lives, ripe for new experiences and deep relationships. Getting plastic bags at the store simply because most everyone else does isn’t good enough. Throwing away coffee grounds and veggie scraps simply because it’s easier isn’t good enough.

It’s plastic and coffee and veggie scraps for me. What is it for you? What can you do beyond simply carrying on in survival mode, bouncing around like lost socks? The thing with that beast, survival, is that it lies to us. It tells us that we can’t do anything beyond what we’re doing. And it slaps us. (Not cool.) So if you think that hairy beast is clinging onto you still, it’s time to rip it off and throw it on the ground (because you’re an adult . . . and also because happy birthday to the ground).

Look around to see what you can do for others and for the environment. It doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be something.

Memphis is helping me pour out the used coffee grounds. Thanks, Memph!
My veggie scraps! Aren’t they pretty?
THE COSTCO BAG. And a couple of guys I love, one of them with wolf ears.
Oh, and Quito? We love you. Even if we have to wear masks all the time.

Cheese from Car Trunks and Other Adventures — in Quito, Ecuador

May the depth of my generosity never be swayed by the depth of thanks I receive.

~Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson

Living in Quito is a lesson in unlearning. Not that I was raised to be stingy, but I was taught to avoid peddlers, never give homeless people money (because obviously it will enable their bad habits of drug and drink), and certainly never buy cheese out of the backs of people’s cars.

Last week, I bought cheese out of the back of a couple’s car. I had just returned from a trip to Nayon, AKA “Plant City,” with my friend Cameron. As we pulled onto my street, she mentioned that the man and woman standing next to the open trunk of their vehicle were probably selling cheese. Cameron mentioned that because of the pandemic, more and more people are doing this to make ends meet. I asked if it would be OK to buy from people like that, and she gave a very confident “YES.” I’m not going to turn down some good cheese, so after she parked the car, we wandered over. They were very kind, and happy to be able to let us taste the different cheeses. I got a big ol’ block for $2.50.

It’s weird to think that buying cheese out of a trunk of a car is helping someone. More and more I am realizing that being in community here means buying products from people or paying for services. Donation is certainly a nice thing (and we continue to donate “stuff” left in our house by the previous owners to Education Equals Hope), but there is something dignified in getting paid for a service.

For us, it’s a win-win. We get delicious cheese, and we have the privilege of helping someone.

But, wow, what a shift for us. In Florida, my husband and I really watched our spending. If we didn’t really need something, we’d try to refrain from purchasing it. So would I have bought cheese out of a trunk in Florida, knowing I had cheese in the fridge already? No. But it’s different here. And I haven’t seen the cheese couple on our street again. (If I do, I’ll buy more cheese, because it was GOOD.)

Another time, we were with a different friend driving around, and when we were stopped at a red light, people wandered around our car, selling fruit, candy, masks, and all kinds of other things. Our friend told us to feel free to buy these items as it really helps to support the people selling them. This is not something I would ever do in the states.

So along with new adventures of visiting dormant volcanoes (Pululahua) and snapping pics at the middle of the world, we are buying things and services — like brown sugar off a guy’s cart on the side of the road. When we get our bank account set up here (processing services to make this happen from the states have been slowed due to the pandemic), we’ll get a cleaning lady coming in once a week. I never thought I’d utter the words I have a cleaning lady. But as I’ve been told, “If you do something that you can hire someone else to do, you’re part of the problem,” I know that having someone come in to clean my house once a week is actually a huge blessing for that person.

Another crazy shift for us has been to eat out more. In the states, we would eat out only if we had a gift card or a coupon. Here, we frequent the local restaurants about every other day. There are three restaurants within a minute (or under) walk from our front door. To feed all of us — Steve, me, Asher, Shade, and Memphis (he hardly counts, to be fair) — it’s about $9. Today, for instance, we walked over to Cha Cha Cha’s restaurant and bought three lunches, tres almuerzos, for all of us. Each one came with a soup (some kind of creamy potato with fried corn, a pork rind, and a slice of cheese on top), a meat (chicken, pork chop, or spaghetti bolognese), a salad (hominy & carrots, golden beets & peas, or tomatoes & lettuce), a side (fries or beans), rice, and a fried plantain. Oh, and with that, you get fresh juice (we chose blackberry — YUM) and a dessert (strawberry mousse). It’s a lot of food. But what we appreciate (being mostly vegetarians) is that the portion of meat is very small compared to what you’d get in the states.

We are enjoying this new life of walking from our front door to a frutería in about a minute to buy our apples, strawberries, tomatoes, bananas, granadillas, avocados, and whatever else we need.

We are enjoying getting to know “our lady” at the local mercado where we buy even more fruit, herbs, and potatoes.

We are enjoying knowing that if we separate out our recycling before putting it out to the curb with the trash, someone will have an easier time salvaging — because salvaging is something people do here to make a few bucks.

We are enjoying paying someone else to drive us around the city, especially knowing that we’re still paying significantly less than what we paid in the states for two vehicles and the insurance, gas, and maintenance costs that came with them. And let me tell you, walking out of the grocery store straight to a line of taxis at the curb waiting to take you home is pretty great.

We are enjoying being generous. It’s a privilege we have. Whenever people help us with something (baggers at the grocery stores will bring your groceries to the car and unload, parking attendants will help you find a spot, etc.), we tip them — and, full disclosure, we’ve been caught a couple of times without tip money because we are learning how to live here.

I can’t help but come full circle to how I was raised in the states to avoid peddlers, homeless people, and — while not explicitly stated — cheese from random people’s trunks. I have to wonder what Jesus would do. And I think he’d love all the people. Sometimes loving means giving and sometimes giving means spending money on things that may not be for our survival but may be for someone else’s.

Spending money to help people is easier here in Quito, I think, than in the states. Almost everything we purchase is from a local family or business. That’s neat. But it also means that when pandemics happen, these local small businesses are more likely to falter.

We’ve always believed in voting with our money. In the states, that meant buying the ethical brands at the store to send the message that this is something important to us. Here, it’s handing money directly to the person who needs it. If this is something you resonate with, you can donate through this link to help the people in Quito — via us!

So however you spend your money, I’d encourage you to think about where it’s going. Is it benefiting a billionaire? Is it helping someone pull themselves out of poverty? Is it doing something good?

For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’

Deuteronomy 15:11, ESV

Thanks for reading, Friends. We are sending love and generosity from Quito to YOU!

Pululahua Volcano
Middle of the World . . . AND COFFEE!
Some of the plants and pots I bought in Nayon, the city of nurseries lining the streets. I am excited to go back and get more plants and these gorgeous clay pots!
My girl, Cameron. And ice cream!
Quito, our city!
The view from Steve’s classroom — hopefully he’ll actually BE in his classroom soon. Currently, he’s teaching from a computer in the bedroom. Ah, coronavirus, you jerk.
A typical lunch, or almuerzo.
Oh, and “Caldo de Pata” from that menu? That was leg broth, more specifically cow ankle broth. We tried it. We did. And it was… not our favorite. That is literally a cow ankle in this picture.
Granadilla. My friend Jennifer calls this “snot fruit.” Yes, it is a bit viscous, but the flavor is great! I love adding it to smoothies.
Steve is thrilled to be able to play soccer with some local guys here! He played last Sunday and “held his own so he’ll be invited back.” Huzzah!
Bread is still happening. This is a chocolate chip loaf that we DEVOURED.