Being Low Impact Studying Abroad

Being minimal waste-producing is something that’s really important to me because I find it my responsibility to care for the planet that birthed me and has taken care of me. And since the term “zero waste” has its problems, I use “low-waste” or “low impact” to mean producing minimal waste in the world, living simply, and loving the world.

First let’s talk about my “failed” experience and then we’ll move on to much easier times.


Cuba didn’t have a formal recycling or compost system and the only time I saw recycling bins of any sort were in one public plaza in Old Havana. I wondered how people would know to use them if they didn’t have any at home and probably weren’t taught about recycling at school. If some person badly wanted to recycle, would they go to the plaza weekly to dispose of their products? Where would it all go? Recycling was out of the question.

However, because in Cuba it’s pretty hard to get goods like toothpaste or new clothing unless you were willing to pay big bucks for it, and I knew this beforehand, I did a couple of things to prepare:

  • I made my own toothpaste with baking soda and coconut oil
  • Brought a sewing kit to mend items that would need it
  • Carried some gorilla glue to fix any shoes I knew would tear
  • Packed some handkerchiefs, my metal straws, lunch bag, reusable LifeStraw water bottle and a mason jar for lunches (although the lunch bag never really came of use because we ate out for lunch everyday and I lost my mason jar at the airport in Miami)
  • Had some reusable silicon containers for shampoo and conditioner

While in Cuba I also refrained from using napkins or plastic straws when eating and going out and finished all of my food to leave no food waste (although no food really went to waste because it was fed to our house dog Alicia). One really cool thing was that when going out to eat, almost every “fast food” place or restaurant served their food on ceramic plates, with real silverware and glass cups so that was definitely a blessing.

One thing also to keep in mind was that it was near-impossible to use any debit or credit cards because the market runs on CUP and CUC bills. The only time we used our cards was when booking an AirBnB in Varadero but elsewhere was cash up-front.


Here it was a really interesting experience because the country as a whole is really into eating local (either getting products from the very town or Italy in general) and importing little food, eating slowly and knowing where the food is from and how it’s made, etc. This creates a very unique food culture where food is appreciated. However, it didn’t mean food/water wasn’t wasted and trash wasn’t created. What it did mean was that almost every home was equipped with a multi-level complex rubbish system that included a bin for mixed trash (what we would consider trash), glass recycling, plastic and metal recycling, paper recycling as well as compost. I was very excited about this and made it my mission to ensure I created as little ‘mixed trash’ as possible, utilizing what was being offered to me in the form of recycling instead. Yet, many people didn’t use them to their fullest advantage including my school and several restaurants tht had the potential to make BIG impact.

The Positives:

  • Really complex recycling system 
  • Access to many organic/”biological” food stores 
  • Lots of vegan options
  • Produce and food in general tends to be local, thus wasting less transportation fuel and packaging for preservation (and also, meaning less preservatives and junk food than in the U.S.)
  • An abundance of open-air clothing markets that sell used goods, so kind of like thrifting although you don’t get to try the clothes on


The Negatives:

  • People aren’t really conscious about water waste as I’d witnessed many times people leaving the water running in the sink and shower for minutes
  • Fast fashion is big with more and more ‘Forever 21’ type shops popping up and reeling in young people especially
  • Immense use of plastic cups, to-go coffee cups (with increased tourism), napkins and plastic straws
  • At school, almost nobody uses a laptop and instead handwrites their class notes which I thought was interesting since in Cuba, although internet was spotty, I saw more people using their laptops 



So from these experiences, I have compiled a simple list of things you can do or consider when going to study abroad. Leaving for months at a time doesn’t mean you have to abandon your world-loving habits, but it offers an opportunity to get creative. So here goes:

  • Bring reusable (and preferably non-plastic) water bottles, straws and utensils, a lunch box and bag, and handkerchiefs (for wrapping food, grabbing a donut, and holding your gelato cone)
  • Try to recycle and compost whenever you can
  • Limit convenience purchases by always being prepared so you don’t have to buy ziplock bags, napkins or snacks wrapped in plastic when you already have/own the resources you need
  • Limit your spending on clothes and accessories, especially if it’s new clothes and accessories. If you must, try buying high-quality goods made of organic and/or natural material like cotton. Fabrics like polyester are oil-based and quite unhealthy for the planet. Moreover, ethical businesses are definitely a go-to. And if you do buy goods, consider donating your old clothes to either other students, local friends you’ve made, or reception centers
  • If your budget does not include new and expensive clothes, consider thrifting which is lower impact than buying new clothes even, can be really fun to do and gets you creative
  • Pack hand fruit when you go out as a quick snack so you’re not tempted by unhealthy and package-heavy snacks at the store
  • If you don’t have shampoo/conditioner bars, consider buying your bath products in bigger sizes if liquid or in bars if available in your host country to save you space and weight in your luggage
  • Try packing as minimal as possible. For any trip that’s longer than 2 weeks (mine ranged from 3-7 months) I pack as if I’ll be going for 2 weeks with only some pairs of shoes and layering pieces like tank tops and a cardigan
  • Bring a sewing kit to encourage mending clothing instead of throwing them away. I mended my leggings and this long-sleeve I really liked about 4-5 times until they were beyond repair during which, because they were 100% cotton, I composted them
  • As for gifts, I tend to stick to postcards which don’t come with unnecessary plastic like some other knickknacks do. Plus, they’re a nice way for others to know you’ve been thinking about them, and gives them a chance to see the great things you’ve been checking out
  • I’d also highly recommend a moon cup or reusable pads (both of which I use) for those that are prone to bleeding. They’re super easy to clean and don’t include you exposing your body to toxic materials or waste-producing products. If you need suggestions on how to have a happier period, check out this article. 


** This is just my experience with trial-and-error seeking to be as low impact as possible, considering I do not have any disabilities or illnesses where I have to use things like prescription drugs or needles. Moreover, I have the ability to make some of these purchases that I have made and I’m fortunate for that and I also have the ability to do things like buy whole fruit/food and cut it/cook it for myself**

I hope you enjoyed the read, and if you have any suggestions feel free to leave a comment below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s