World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Lessons in sustainability from growing up in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the U.S.

  • Date: 18 September 2023
  • Author: Laura Phillips-Alvarez
Laura Phillips-Alvarez

Laura Phillips-Alvarez is an intern with the Media and External Affairs Department at WWF

I had a very D.C. childhood. And by that I mean, I grew up between Honduras, Uganda, Tajikistan, Nicaragua, Mozambique, and the U.S. (in that order). I never know what to respond when people ask me where I’m from, so I give a palatable answer that does not actually answer where I am from.

“My mom is from Guatemala and my dad is from Boston.”


This mixed-identity crisis is common in third culture kids (TCK’s), a term coined in the 1950s for children who spend their formative years in a culture other than their parents.

Identity crisis aside, spending the first 13 years of my life in some of the countries that are the hardest hit by climate change (and the least responsible for it) instilled in me a great sense of urgency to live as sustainably as possible.

As Hispanic Heritage Month kicks-off, I wanted to reflect on some of the lessons in sustainable living that I adopted from my childhood across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the U.S.

Lesson #1: Strive to reduce plastic waste by reusing items wherever possible.

When you’re from a city that has an entire neighborhood-- colloquially called El Basurero, or the Garbage Dump--where all the trash accumulates into one giant trash mountain, it’s hard to unsee the first-hand effects of single-use plastic. In the U.S., it is easier to disassociate from single-use plastic because we don’t see where our trash ends up. We wheel our trash and recycling bins out to the curb every week, and poof, it’s gone. Or so we would like to believe. The truth is a lot of our trash ends up contributing to the estimated 86-150 million tonnes of plastic waste in our oceans. And recycling can only take us so far, with 15% of plastic waste being collected for recycling, and half of that ending up in landfills or incineration regardless. The utopian dream of a closed-loop system in which we recycle all existing non-decomposing materials indefinitely is far from reality, and recycling alone won’t stop plastic from eventually ending up in a landfill like El Basurero or the ocean. Growing up in cities where trash cohabitated like an invasive species on nearly every street made me want to contribute as little as possible to the existing demand-and-supply of plastic. Some ways I go about this living in the U.S. is I hardly ever order take away, and when I do, I reuse the takeaway containers. In my 10 years in the U.S. I have yet to actually buy food containers. Additionally, when I order coffee to-go, I bring a personal mug. I promise you the slight inconvenience of bringing your own mug is well-worth helping to curb plastic waste.

El Basurero, a garbage dump in Guatemala

Lesson #2: Only turn on the lights when you need 'em!

This comes from anecdotal observations; but something that stood out to me about the U.S. is that lights are seemingly always on. Living in equatorial countries, I was used to frequent power outages from tropical storms, and relying on generators to power only our essential electronics such as our phones. Light never seemed essential, because even when the power was cut at night, we would use candles and flashlights, and that was more than enough. I am not suggesting that people never use their lights and solely rely on candles and flashlights, but I am urging people to only turn on the lights to help them see. This includes the age-old adage, “turn-off the lights when you leave a room!” Lighting uses about 25% of all electricity in the United States, and most of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. We all have a part to play in keeping the planet below 1.5 °C global warming, and an easy way for us to do that is to turn off the lights.

Lesson #3: Clean water is finite and energy consuming.

Living in developed countries molds us into creatures of comfort, despite our best intentions. I am guilty of wanting to take longer and warmer showers, especially in the winter. But I cannot unsee the disparities that I grew up in, having access to clean, potable water, while children bathed in water from broken pipes on my street. Water is finite and energy consuming, despite what having access to on-demand potable water may falsely lead us to believe. Letting a faucet run for five minutes consumes the same amount of energy as a 60-watt light bulb does in 14 hours. The same rule for turning-off lights applies to turning off the faucet when it’s not in use. This means instead of letting it run the entire time you wash dishes or shower, turning off the faucet between uses could save a lot of energy (and bills) in the long run.

None of these lessons are things that haven’t been said before--but my hope is that my experiences growing up in developing countries juxtaposed with the faux abundance we experience in the U.S. may motivate some to live a little more sustainably. It’s crunch time for the planet, and we all have an important role to play.


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