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Lessons On Sustainability from My Immigrant Mother

By Mekita Rivas

Long before sustainability buzzwords took over the cultural lexicon, I was a young girl sitting cross-legged in the back of my mom’s white station wagon watching her sort through various materials at our local recycling site. For the longest time, I never understood why she did it; just that she did. And it was a ritual that was almost symphonic in nature—the way the recyclables would clatter in the trunk as we drove to the site, how they’d clink when you tossed an empty jar into the massive green container with all the other glass objects. I thought of it as a weekly concert that was uniquely ours. 

Recycling wasn’t the only earth-friendly behavior my mom modeled. Like many immigrants, she reused everything. Plastic shopping bags turned into liners for the tiny trash can in the bathroom. A finished tub of butter becomes usable tupperware for the foreseeable future. Eating at a restaurant meant my mom would walk out of there at the end of the night with a purse full of the plastic cutlery, paper napkins, and ketchup packets that were served to us. It’s not like we didn’t have any of the above at home—it was just that my mom couldn’t fathom letting anything go to waste. 

As a kid, I don’t think I realized how resourceful she was. All I knew was that we always had what we needed, even when money was tight. These days, resourcefulness has become a barometer of sorts. The more you can reuse, recycle, upcycle—however you want to call it—the more you actively care about the environment. And the more you care about the environment, well, doesn’t that mean you’re a good person? It’s an interesting correlation to observe, especially when I think about people like my mom who, for the record, is a good person. But it’s not because she’s been recycling for 40 years. 

What would be considered “sustainable practices” today were simply a matter of survival for folks like my mom. She recycled and reused because she was so deliberate about getting the most mileage out of every item that entered her household. And living with that degree of intention made her feel happy and safe. It gave her purpose even in life’s most mundane moments, like taking out the trash or organizing the fridge. The fact that her behavior was better for the planet was an added bonus. 

The reality is that for many communities, especially immigrants and children of immigrants, “conscious consumerism” has been in effect for decades, way before some marketing executive coined the terminology. Knowing how many empty soda cans will help you pay for a week’s worth of groceries requires you to be highly conscious about what you consume. I often hear the term being used to describe something you have the privilege of opting into. One Google search yields countless articles that will purportedly advise you on how to be a more conscious consumer—if you want to, that is. And if not, well, then… carry on, right?

What I learned from my mother is that the consciousness we all seek and speak of is inherently within us. It’s already there. It doesn’t require a step-by-step guide or specialized training. And it truly starts at home, by finding ways to reimagine the potential of a single item, especially if we’re told that it’s only intended to serve a singular purpose in the first place. Challenging that pervasive notion is a key first step in leading truly sustainable lives. I’m grateful my mom instilled that lesson in me, and I’m working to follow in her footsteps each and every day.

Written by Mekita Rivas for Youth To The People