Blogs from the Board: Jessica Glances into Cuba's Zero-waste Culture

 "It was common to see people fixing their cars on the side of the street; everyone has a mishmash of tools and parts in their trunk in case something unexpected happens." Photo by Jessica Beketa, 2016.

"It was common to see people fixing their cars on the side of the street; everyone has a mishmash of tools and parts in their trunk in case something unexpected happens." Photo by Jessica Beketa, 2016.

Welcome to the first installment of our new series, Blogs from the Board.  Jessica Beketa serves as Secretary on The Starfish Canada Board of Directors.


On a recent holiday to Cuba, I was exposed to the country’s incredible capacity for resilience and resourcefulness. Cubans are the world’s true “repair heroes”; there isn’t a nut, screw or bolt gone to waste. Famous for its vintage taxis, you’ll often find yourself in a 1952 Chevrolet with a Hyundai engine, Peugeot steering wheel and an early 2000s sound system—a hacked together car that’s lived a long, storied life (common for Cuba, incredible for Canada).

Cubans developed these skills because they had to; with little to no access to replacement parts or newer car models, they had to make do with what they had. When you think of the extensive supply chain that goes into creating new cars, from extraction to distribution, it makes you wonder if producing millions of cars per year (68.5 million cars were produced in 2015 alone) is worse than the exhaust and pollution created by older models kept on the road.

 Jessica & her partner experience Cuba's DIY resilience first-hand thanks to the helpful Hermes.

Jessica & her partner experience Cuba's DIY resilience first-hand thanks to the helpful Hermes.

We even had a repair story of our own. Upon touring Valle Viñales by bike, my partner’s pedal fell off; the nut that kept it secured to the frame was nowhere to be found and we were about 11km back to our home base. We asked someone driving by if they could help us, he pointed up the street telling us in Spanish that Hermes at the top of the hill would know what to do. We found Hermes and he took us onto his porch, rummaged through his house to find a bunch of tools and after a couple of tries, found a spare nut that fit perfectly. Three or four men from the surrounding houses came by to watch the spectacle. He had to saw into the nut to be able to turn it with a screwdriver once dropping it into place. He took the bike for a spin, and determined it fixed.

It was common to see people fixing their cars on the side of the street; everyone has a mishmash of tools and parts in their trunk in case something unexpected happens. We frequently saw people with their car hood open or replacing a flat tire. Vintage bicycles, perfectly rusted models from the 1950s that had to be pushed up the slightest hill, were also a common sight.

Throughout my trip, I kept thinking, “Could Cuba be the most sustainable country in the world?” Faced with multiple trade restrictions over multiple decades, the country was challenged to localize their economy in its entirety. Evidently, in WWF's Living Planet report (2006), Cuba is identified as the only country to meet all criteria for sustainable development due to its high life expectancy, literacy and education rates, coinciding with its low environmental footprint.

Experiencing Cuba’s incredible capabilities in repair and reuse led me to walk away from the trip with three key reflections:

  1. Abundance in choice is detrimental to achieving sustainable development goals. For example, as consumers in Canada, we have the freedom to choose what lightbulbs we want to use in our homes; we're faced with countless options -- from brand to product type -- and on top of all these choices, the more sustainable option is usually more expensive and perhaps chosen less often. In Cuba, on the other hand, these decisions are consciously made on behalf of the population, based on power efficiency, the product's longevity and the overall impact on the country's energy system (the humble LED is omnipresent). How can we empower consumers to make the right choice?

  2. Repair and reuse aren't top of mind unless there is scarcity in products. In Canada, repair is seen as an uncommon alternative to buying new; it's a hassle that involves logistics, can sometimes be more expensive than buying new, and typically requires a specialist. In Cuba, repair is a mandatory. Out of necessity, Cubans developed the skill sets to be able to fix almost anything, and it's ultimately because of this lack of access to new products. How can we get people to think beyond the new?
     
  3. Cubans are repair and DIY superheroes who have mastered and 'hacked' a variety of different products. We frequently encounter products that are impossible to fix and aren't designed to be easily repaired. Given the extensive experience Cubans have in repairing a variety of items, there's an opportunity to learn the processes they use to repair specific products and to build consciously for repair when designing and creating new products.

I'll admit that this is a romantic view on Cuba's repair culture and achievements in sustainability. Above all, I think there's incredible potential for countries like Canada to learn from Cuba's zero-waste culture, especially as we plan for the impacts of a changing climate.