Interview with Jessica Felix-Romero: The Road to Zero Waste

I recently sat down with Jessica Felix Romero, PhD, an FRN board member and the Communications Director at Farmworker Justice. After talking about her research using sustainable agriculture as a peacebuilding tool, and her current work combating racism in agricultural systems I asked her about her month participating in the Zero Waste Challenge, a month-long challenge to reduce waste and raise awareness and money to support FRN’s mission of fighting waste and feeding people.

What follows is an edited transcript of our discussion, where Jessica talks sustainable steps for personal waste reduction, self-forgiveness, and the life-changing power of a single mozzarella stick.

TW: What inspired you to take part in the zero waste challenge?  

JFR: A fellow FRN board member, Claire Cummings (aka the Waste Ace) really spearheaded this challenge in June, 2017, committing to eliminating ALL waste from her life and raising over $1000 for Food Recovery Network . I sat with Claire at a board dinner in January and throughout the meal, she kept pulling out all these different pieces of reusable gear: a stainless steel straw, a cloth napkin, a hard plastic reusable to-go containers...each item sparked a new conversation at our table and at other tables around us. Every time I used one of these  items afterwards, I thought of Claire and I started noticing lots of  disposable plastics in my life.  I admired her dedication to going zero waste and continued to talk to her about all the extra waste I was noticing in my life. As her challenge drew to a close, I knew that it was my turn to take a stand against waste.

TW: How did you adapt the Zero Waste Challenge to make it your own?

JFR: I’ve always seen myself as being on the progressive side of waste and environmental awareness, but as I started taking an inventory of all the disposables I use, I realized I was nowhere near ready for an entire month with ZERO waste. Instead, I chose to go “waste-less."  Each week in June, I chose a different type of disposable waste and eliminate-- I donated $1 to FRN for every “cheat” (ie. when I used the forbidden item), and extended my challenge by 1 week for every external donation of $15 or more. The items I eliminated in June were: straws, napkins and paper towels, plastic cutlery, to-go containers, and food scraps.

TW: As you started accumulating reusable gear like Claire’s, did you notice that you were sparking some of the same conversations that Claire did for you at that dinner?

JFR: Yes!  I was on vacation for the first week of my challenge and I found myself  having to rely on the kindness of strangers to do things like rinse my reusables so I didn’t have to carry dirty straws and forks around on my adventures for the rest of the day. People would ask about the steel straws and it was actually a really great catalyst to talk about the great work that FRN is doing to fight waste and feed people.

TW: What was the most surprising part of your zero waste journey?

JFR: During the challenge, I found out that the root of most of my waste was consumerism. Having to think twice about whether a food purchase would create additional waste made me think about every transaction. One day, I went to grab a quick lunch a grocery store’s food bar--I had chosen a beautiful salad and was headed to the checkout line  when a tray of mozzarella sticks caught my eye! I haven’t had a mozzarella stick in years and they looked so good! So, I decided to add one mozzarella stick to my lunch. It was the same price per pound as the rest of my meal, so I was certain it would be fine to just pop it on top of my salad (let’s be honest, I was going to eat it right away anyway!). But before the fried gooey goodness even touched my salad, I was stopped by an employee who informed me that since the mozzarella sticks are coded differently (hot food vs the cold salad bar),I would need to take an additional plastic container for a SINGLE mozzarella stick! We went back and forth for a while, and I ultimately decided that I couldn’t bring myself to create that much additional waste to satisfy a single craving. That was definitely a turning point in my journey to become zero waste.

TW: Oh, I’ve totally felt that pressure--did you discover any ways of avoiding feeling overwhelmed or too guilty about waste you do inevitably produce?

JFR: I get satisfaction from living a life of value--I work in the nonprofit world where it’s very easy to experience fatigue about our many causes. But I’ve found that it’s so important to be forgiving of yourself and acknowledge that lifestyle changes are not effective unless they are sustainable and consistent. I avoided fatigue by choosing an anchor--before I started, I took a personal waste inventory and identified areas I thought I could make the biggest impact. For me, that was: straws, napkins and paper towels, plastic cutlery, to-go containers, and food scraps.  Start with one thing and you will see how one small but consistent act can shift your whole perspective!

TW: Do you have any tips for waste warriors who are just getting started?

JFR: Definitely! First, you should start small--choose one waste item and build on from there. Second, planning is a must. Check out my blog post on the contents of my preparedness pouch-- this made it so much easier to make decisions on the go. Third, don’t be afraid to ask for help! There are plenty of resources out there to help in your journey. For me, this challenge started with a plastic straw at a board dinner, but giving up that plastic straw became a gateway to becoming a more mindful global citizen.