This post is part of the series “Real plastic-free homes”, in which we look to show you how normal people, just like you and us, reduce the plastic in their lives. We do so by showing you their achievements, their mistakes, the effort they put in along the way and what they learn throughout the process, without judgement and with a will to learn.
You can read the other articles in the series here.
Belén is an artisan who lives and works in Celis, a town of only 100 inhabitants, situated in the Cantabrian Nansa valley that is slowly being deserted.
In this interview she tells us how she decided to start leaving plastic behind her and about her personal journey towards self-sufficiency that allows her to stop generating so much waste.
Hello Belén, tell us about yourself and how you started to live plastic-free?
I am Belén, I live and work in Celis, a town of 100 people where I have my small traditional workshop and shop. I have not always lived here, in fact, I grew up in an even smaller village 3 kms from here, that currently has around 50 inhabitants. My parents, my grandparents and my aunts and uncles still live there.
When I left home to go and study I lived in a city and even abroad for a while, but I always knew that I would settle down in a village.
So, I decided to come back when I returned from living in Norway. There I lived amongst nature and I met people who had the lifestyle and way of life, that I too wanted to have: small producers who made cheese, vegetable growers, older women who made jams and who led a healthy life… In 2012, after this experience I decided to come back.
When it comes to the topic of plastic, a friend wrote a blog that spoke about the importance of reducing our plastic use, and that is where I started to learn about the current situation and the problem we have. It was around 2016.
I remember that the first step I took was to stop using plastic shopping bags. The next was shopping in bulk, that is still a work in progress. Then, I took on personal care products: soap, solid deodorant, shampoo…
Let’s talk about self-sufficiency. You don’t live in the village, and you also have your own vegetable patch, you make your own food….when did you start living like this?
I still have a long way to go before I am completely self-sufficient. However, at home with my parents, my father has always been self-sufficient, without really knowing it and without giving it a name. He has always followed this way of thinking and consuming, So, at home I have always had this great example.
I did not set out thinking that it was something exceptional or special, I saw it as something very normal: my father planted the corn to make our local bread, he planted beans, he made honey with the bees, he slaughtered the animals for meat, he made jams, he preserved cucumbers in jars… he did lots of things that I just thought were normal.
Years later, when I started to grow up I realised that most people didn’t live this way and I started to become interested in doing these things myself.
Lets say that I have always been observant, and for quite some time now I make jams, I make biscuits (to avoid buying packaged ones), we grow corn and make flour, we keep chickens and I collect the eggs, we still have beehives to collect honey, we have fruit trees: kiwi vines, several types of apples, fig trees, peach trees, apricot trees, plum trees…
And how does this help you to reduce plastic?
It helps me to reduce plastic because years ago I stopped needing to buy certain products.
For years now I have not bought jam or honey, and it has been months since I bought bread… I also make my own pastries, cheese, cider, preserves…
What is the most difficult thing when it comes to reducing plastic?
One of the hardest things for me is helping to raise awareness around me.
With my father it is easy because he doesn’t buy things. My father, if he lived alone would be self-sufficient, to a high degree. But he lives with my mother (laughs). My mother uses a lot of plastic, for things that are totally avoidable. At my place I control what comes in the door, but at my parents’ house I just try to make them aware…but to little effect.
The same thing happens to me at family gatherings. I always take care of setting the table for this exact reason. I use the fabric tablecloth, the real plates (that are not made of plastic)… And this means comments like “look at Belén, the black sheep of the family is messing around as usual”. They say it’s quicker to grab it all and throw it all away in a garbage bag.
I find it a pain trying to make them more aware, because it’s not just one person it’s all of them. If it were just my mother….but it is also my sister, my sister’s boyfriend, my cousins… In the end, you say to yourself, why am I going to speak up when I always end up looking like the weird one. Maybe it’s a mistake, but I have already stopped trying to make others more aware.
If I am honest with you, sometimes I too struggle not to be tempted into buying something I really want that only comes sold in plastic e.g. some special biscuits. I find it hard to not fall into the trap of consuming certain products.
As you have lived in both places, would you say it is easier to be self-sufficient in the city or in a village?
Being self-sufficient is easier living in a village because you have more land at your disposal, you have room for animals, you have access to a community. If you don’t have your own chickens your neighbour may give you some chickens… So, it is easier because you have a network of resources working in your favour.
There is also a kind of bartering system. Well, not exactly “bartering” because you don’t expect anyone to give you anything in return, but maybe the situation arises where: a neighbour has grown tomatoes and they have far too many. They bring them around for you and you bottle them. And then suddenly you have a glut of beans, and you do the same in return.
And what about when it comes to living plastic-free in a village?
It’s true that I never really planned to live a plastic-free life in the city, because I started considering this journey once I was already living here in the country.
Living in the country I find it difficult when it comes to a few things, for example with having to plan ahead. I find it hard to organise myself so that I only go shopping once a week. And it is difficult to avoid plastic because, if I run out of salt for example, I have to go to the village grocery store (that has all the food basics) and therefore I buy it packaged.
In that regard, I believe it is more straight forward in the city because you have more options to hand. Here, the closest bulk store is 50 minutes away by car.
What are your tricks and tips for plastic-free shopping in a village?
In the village it is impossible to shop plastic-free. So, approximately once a month I go to a bulk store in Santander.
Here in town I try to reduce everything and only buying fruit and occasionally meat, bringing my own container with me.
You are an artist, how do you apply the philosophy of self-sufficiency, using what you have and plastic-free living to your work-life?
I work with wood and fabric and I try to adapt my work to the material and resources I have around me. The wood I use is, whenever possible, recycled. If I have a particular piece to hand, I try to think what I can do with it.
Although obviously there are products, such as kitchen cutting boards, that I cannot make with recycled wood.
However, the kitchen trays and the children’s toys, memory and building blocks, I do make from recycled materials. For example, the last toy I made, I made from a broken shelving unit.
Also, here in the shop everything is wrapped without the need for plastic, the labels and business cards are made from recycled paper and we reuse the paper bags.
We buy all the materials from local businesses: the fabric for making our aprons and children’s backpacks comes from a workshop 30km from here, and the wood for making our cutting boards we buy in a neighbouring village and we try to ensure it is all from a sustainable source.
Both plastic-free living and self-sufficiency have a common theme and that is, to not buy or consume anything that is not necessary. How do you apply this philosophy to other aspects of your life?
Well, clothes for example…I must confess I really like clothes. Not fashion, but clothes. This meant that there came a time when my love of clothes clashed with the life philosophy I wanted to implement.
So, for the last two and a half years I have not bought any new clothes, only second hand. This is a way to keep my interest in clothes alive, but not buy new items.
I also do a lot of swapping and bartering.
My sister buys a lot of clothes and she is instantly bored of them, so I have the perfect second hand market right there (laughs).
Later, I too find that after a couple of months I stop wearing certain clothes, so I swap and barter with a friend and my cousin. When they have clothes they no longer wear they do the same.
What would you say to someone who wants to move from the city to the country in order to live closer to nature? What tips would you give them?
I would recommend that they surround themselves with older people. A lot of what I know, I have learned from my grandfather. My grandfather is 94 years old and in his heyday he was 100% self-sufficient.
My grandfather doesn’t understand why there is land that has not been sewn. He simply doesn’t understand it. He says “I am very elderly, but if I weren’t, I would plant on that land.”.
To the person moving in from elsewhere, I would suggest this: that they surround themselves with the older generation, because they didn’t live considering the environment and how to protect it… no, they were part of the environment and the natural world.
So, for them it is part of their natural way of life and they explain it to you in such a logical fashion…that it is obvious how important it is.
What still surprises you that people don’t know about living in a country village or town?
That you can live off the land. It is something we don’t know how to do, me included. But we can live solely and absolutely off the land around us. My grandfather didn’t earn a salary to be able to go shopping until he had children. During his early years he lived exclusively from what he produced: he had a decent vegetable patch, sheep, chickens, cows… and with that he was able to live.
That is what we do not know.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start a vegetable patch?
I think that if you want to start growing vegetables from scratch without knowing much, you should start with some simple plants, so that you have some success from the outset and don’t get disheartened. Don’t start out growing tomatoes because they need a lot of care and attention, they are very particular, if a fog comes in (as my grandfather says), it will destroy them. I would try for example: courgette (zucchini), pumpkin, eggplant (aubergine)…they grow wherever you put them. That way it will keep you motivated to continue.
Being realistic, would you recommend that people from the city go and live in a country village?
It’s a question I ask myself often, and I believe there are good things and bad things associated with making the change.
One of the good things is that country life is very healthy.
OK, so life in a village (in a village like this one, of 100 inhabitants) is not a magical cure for everything. Especially because, if you are a person who likes the hustle and bustle of the city, life in the country could be a little monotonous. Every day is similar to the one before.
So, it depends on what you are looking for: if you are looking for a healthier more relaxed lifestyle and to be in touch with nature… yes, a country town or village is perfect.
However, if you love the night-life, going to the movies, an active social life… it’s probably not a perfect match. My nearest cinema is 80km away.
It depends on the individual. If I had a child, I would without a doubt bring them up in a small village like this one, because I feel it is a much healthier life and because you have special moments that you would not experience living in the city.
But, I imagine that in the city the reverse is also true, you can have unique moments that would not be possible living in a small town or village. In fact, friends of mine from my home town are living in Madrid and they do not want to come back. So, it simply depends on what each individual is looking for in life.
Thank you Belén, for sharing your journey with us. We have enjoyed hearing about how you are reducing plastic in your life and trying to achieve a level of self-sufficiency.
What did you think of Belén’s experience? Tell us what you think in the comments section below (in a respectful and non-judgemental way, of course).
P.S. Would you like to take part by telling us about how you reduce plastic at your place? We are looking for all types of households: single-person, single-parent, LGBTQ families, large families, in the country, in town, in the city, flatmates, older people…even nomads!
We would like to tell your story, so if you are interested in taking part, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Real plastic-free homes” and we will be sure to get in contact with you.