Name: Elizabeth Teo

City: Toronto

Age: 25

How An Environmental Educator Tries To Live Sustainably: Saving Water, Thrifting And Building A Plant Collection

I’m an environmental educator and content creator on Instagram, focused on creating awareness and providing actionable steps on environmental issues such as fast fashion, waste and climate change through an intersectional lens. I’m Chinese American and Canadian and graduated from the University of Toronto. I started exploring deeper into my journey to sustainability because I was tired of feeling powerless after most of my classes in environmental studies. I wanted to do more than just turn off the lights and take shorter showers. That’s when I first stumbled on the zero-waste movement and learned about the impact of fast fashion. I’m proud to say I’ve been free of fast fashion for many years now. I only buy what I need a few times a year and opt to shop my own closet, borrow from my mom, grandma and brother or buy secondhand or from a sustainable brand if needed. I also do what I can to reduce my waste in my everyday life.
Day 1: A surprise present
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In the morning, I brush my teeth and use the washroom. We still use toilet paper, but I think another great alternative is a bidet. We do have one, but our toilet needs new screws to put it in. I also had one growing up, so I never thought it was weird to use. After that I get dressed for work. I’m lucky enough to work from home and have access to my mom’s closet for work clothes. She has a lot of great button-up tops, which are all I need because I just conduct meetings by Zoom, so I get to wear comfy pants (sometimes I wear my pajamas since nobody sees what you’re wearing below). My mom also has work shoes that I borrow when I need to. For dinner I make some delicious garlic and soy sauce stir-fried green beans. It was definitely one of my favorite dishes growing up, and my grandma would make it often for dinner. They are so crunchy and garlicky. My mom makes some delicious deep-fried tofu to go along with it. My brother surprises me with a thrifted Kate Spade purse he found at Plato’s Closet. It’s absolutely stunning and a great find as I’m trying to upgrade my closet to more of a professional wardrobe. I’ve been carrying a worn-out black backpack I got from my mom for a while. After work I head to the gym in our condo and work out for an hour and a half (mixture of cardio and weightlifting). I take a shower and just wash my body with a bar of soap from Lush since I washed my hair the other day.

This might be TMI, but I usually only shower when working out or going out, which is every other day or so. I work from home and have dry skin, so I find that it helps and also helps reduce my water consumption.

Day 2: Reusing old clothes

In the morning, I make a chai latte with soy milk. The tea mix is a loose leaf chai blend from David’s Tea, which I put in my tea strainer and let it sit in some hot water for a few minutes and add some soy milk. My nose is a bit runny today, so I pull out a handkerchief that I made a couple months ago from my sleeping shorts that were getting old and worn. After washing them, I cut them into squares to make four new handkerchiefs. Whenever I’m done using them, I toss them into a little baggie and throw them into my dirty laundry basket.

For lunch we have spicy cold tofu, which we make by mixing soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, black bean chili oil and chopped-up green onions and pouring it over cold uncooked tofu. It’s a very easy dish and super tasty. For dinner we head to one of my favorite vegetarian sushi restaurants, called Tenon Vegetarian Cuisine, in Markham, Ontario. My go-to order is their vegetarian bento box with mock chicken or beef, which is absolutely delicious. They also add in vegetarian sushi rolls, seaweed salad and rice. After this we head home and I head to the gym for a 30-minute walk on high incline. I do miss the trails near us, but it’s been too cold to stay out long. Working out really helps preserve my energy throughout the week to make things from scratch versus buying and allows me to take care of my mental health.

Day 3: Meeting a friend

For a quick breakfast I have toast, sliced tomatoes, lettuce, Dijon mustard and pesto sauce. The pesto comes in a glass container that I wash out and save for reuse. For lunch we boil vegetables. I save the water I washed the vegetables with in a pitcher for my plants. Then I use the boiled vegetable water to make soup and throw in whatever we have in the fridge (daikon, carrot, tofu, onions, miso paste, beans, garlic). We also cook some rice. I save the rice water in glass jars for my plants later. I generally work from home, so I usually don’t go out on the weekdays, but today I’m meeting a friend for the first time in a while. I get ready and try to wear some warm but cute clothes because it’s minus-10 degrees Celsius today! I borrow my brother’s cute black overalls and wear a black long-sleeve I’ve had for years and put on my old snow boots. I grab my reusable container (for leftovers), gloves, purse and a reusable water bottle. Then I hop on the bus to a Korean restaurant. I have some leftovers, so I pack them up in my container and take it with me and catch the bus home. Once I get home, I put my leftovers in the fridge, then do a quick workout.

Day 4: Building my plant collection

Today I’m just working from home again, which cuts down on travel emissions and spending. I wake up at 7 a.m. and make a smoothie with leftover fruit and spinach that’s about to go bad in our fridge. I also add soy milk, ice and an overripe banana. For lunch we have our leftover soup and rice. Today is also watering day for my plants! I have less than 20 of them, but they make me so happy. I use the leftover vegetable water that I saved up in my pitcher to water my plants. I keep the rice water in the fridge because I’m scared it will get moldy. My grandma told me it was her secret to helping her fiddle leaf plant grow five times as fast! And it must work because every time I visit her it has a new branch with a whole set of leaves! I will be asking for a plant cutting later on to grow my collection. I’ve been growing donkey tail leaves that fell off by propagating them in soil and watering them every two days. Seeing your plants grow is very satisfying and is a great way to connect with nature even when you don’t have an outdoor garden. Before going to bed I let some red adzuki beans soak in a bowl of water for tomorrow’s dessert.

Day 5: Red bean dessert

Today is another chilly day, so I add some extra layers and my robe for another nice day of working from home. I make my morning smoothie with another overripe banana, some browning kale (I just chop off the brown parts), soy milk, ice and a mushy peach. Before the pandemic, we would bring our own containers to Bulk Barn, which was great because it cut down on any packaging. My packaging consumption definitely grew because of the restrictions with reusables and the single-use masks that I had to wear because it was protocol at my last job. It was a lot harder to get things in reusable containers because of covid, too.

For dessert my mom is making the red bean dessert. I reuse the water that the beans were soaked in to add to my water pitcher to water my plants. To make it, you let the beans boil until they look like they’re breaking down and then add pandan leaves and orange zest (you can use the extract too). Most people add sugar at this stage, but we add maple syrup afterward to our own taste, so we leave it out for now. My mom is also borderline diabetic, which is scary, and diabetes unfortunately runs in our family, so most things we make are sugar-free, which allows my brother and I to add sugar to our own portions. You can eat it either hot or cold. I prefer cold with coconut milk, but most people eat it hot.

I opened a can of coconut milk, which is a must-have for this dessert. When opening cans I use hot water to slosh it around to make sure I get everything, then wash, rinse and recycle.

Day 6: Laundry day and dim sum

Today is laundry day! I use eco-friendly laundry strips from Kind Laundry. They come in cardboard and are a lot easier to carry around compared with heavy liquid laundry detergent, which also has a ton of harsh chemicals. My mom and I both have sensitive skin, so we’re grateful that they had unscented options.

Growing up in a Chinese household, I always looked forward to dim sum on the weekends. For brunch we have dim sum at one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants, called 知味齋 Gourmet Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s amazing how many traditional dim sum dishes can also be vegetarian! My favorite dishes are the mock black pepper BBQ beefsteak, deep-fried squid (the texture was very realistic!), and sweet and sour chicken. The deep-fried taro roll is good and not too oily.

At night I’m craving some cake, so I decide to make my trusty vegan lemon cake recipe that I was lucky to find online. This amazing recipe is by The Vegan 8, a.k.a. Brandi Doming, and I really love the lemon glaze recipe! It was my first vegan cake recipe and really showed me how delicious and easy vegan baking can be. A lot of recipes often call for things that most people wouldn’t have in their pantry, but I’m glad this one kept it simple! I always have cans of coconut milk in my pantry because it’s used in a lot of Chinese and Malaysian desserts.

Day 7: Garden goals

Today we head to our local gardening center to reconnect with nature while staying warm. There are many plant sales in the winter because many plants become dormant or are hard to relocate in the harsh Canadian winter. We see a beautiful pitcher plant, which I’ve only seen in National Geographic videos growing up, and many other beautiful plants and succulents. Having plants inside my home makes it feel more alive and more connected. Many of my plants are also from Facebook Marketplace, where many local plant lovers like myself propagate or grow their own indoor plants to give away or resell. I’ve met many wonderful people in my community this way.

My goal is to grow a garden full of native plants for the bees when I get a backyard. I’d also like to experiment growing local fruit trees like pawpaws, which apparently taste like a cross between a mango and a banana. I learned about them when working for Not Far From the Tree, which is a local fruit-picking nonprofit in Toronto that donates their fruit to many shelters and local folks in the city. They help prevent local fruit from rotting and emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere.

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