Environmentalist Bharati Chaturvedi suggests some simple ways in which we can minimise the burden on the planet and lead healthier lives
With every single thing we do, we consume. From that early-morning glass of lemon in lukewarm water to the last meal of the day, we plough the planet for resources. Nutrition, safety, creature comforts—these are gifts from the skies, the waters and the earth. In return, humans only offer trash to these sacred spaces, and there are many examples of this.
Our old clothes, made with stretchable fabric and polyester, are often no better than plastic. They lie in landfills or nalas, emitting plastic microfibres that devastate the metabolism of the other, smaller living creatures in the rivers and seas and by 2050, some fear, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean.
The landfills dotting our cityscapes fare no better. Many people in India opt to be vegetarian (or are vegetarian) and yet, the Indian middle class disposes a great deal of organic waste, such as fruit and vegetable peels. Wet waste emits methane as it rots in landfills, and methane, a potent greenhouse gas, tends to combust spontaneously. When landfills catch fire, everything burns, polluting the air intensely. In addition, as we replace the scourge of plastics, we also face the problem of recycling thick paper, which is nothing more than the chemically treated pulp of dead trees and barren land. Finally, one of the most serious problems of our times is caused by unconsumed medication. Both the production and improper disposal of medication can lead not only to intense water pollution but also antibiotic resistance, a killer that makes us resist cures when we need them most.
However, human beings cannot live off fresh air and pranayama, although these are essential to our health. In order to live, we must consume, if only lightly. But this article isn’t about consumption. It is about what to do about the debris of our consumption. How can we go to a zero-waste life?
I’m sure you expect this to start with reduction—and you’re right in that assumption. Reduction is the first step, no matter how mindfully we buy things. It’s simply common sense to use things before they are unusable. Let’s consider medicines. We buy medicines and leave them in drawers till we go on a clean-up drive, trashing whole blister packs of expired medicines. Why don’t we donate them to a medicine bank instead or start one with the help of doctors in the locality?
We can extend this argument to packaging as well—why don’t we think about buying available items in reusable packaging, such as bottles? Here’s another way to reduce our consumption: we must re-think what makes for food. Too often, we discard edible items like the stems of cauliflower and coriander leaves. Why not grate or chop the stems and cook them? If you don’t want to eat the stems, you could also talk to your neighbours and collectively look around for someone who will take food waste like this away to feed cows. Food that is edible should first be eaten by people, then animals and finally composted. If we followed this chain as a community, we could fight climate change
There’s also the question of plastics. Of course you must reduce how much you use, but you should also watch out for hidden plastics. Fleece clothing, polyester shirts, balloons—all these are made of plastic. When you wash them, they leave microfibres in the drains, which end up in rivers and seas. What, then, can you substitute? Can you reduce your wardrobe to just one fleece jacket? Can you proactively look for biodegradable materials? Can you simply own less clothes? These are all questions to consider deeply.
Another problem is used sanitary napkins, which are often mostly plastic, and these can be replaced by good menstrual cups, a sensible substitute that is readily available in urban India and on online stores. Many face washes contain beads, which are plastic. To ensure that you avoid plastics in these products, steer clear of anything that says scrub or exfoliation or which has either tiny colourful beads or feels mildly scrub-like but does not mention what the rough particles are made of. Use rice flour or gram flour (besan) as a face wash instead. You can then share your experiences to inspire others—collective consumer power is a potent weapon in protecting the earth and each other.
But even if you take all of these steps, you will still produce some waste in the green category, such as organic items like banana peels or eggshells. You could also produce recyclable waste in the blue category, such as an empty tin or a jar of moisturizer. Finally, red category waste, such as blades, broken glass and hazardous things, is also a reality of urban living, and the law requires us to wrap used sanitary napkins and diapers in paper. To begin your journey towards a zero-waste lifestyle, you must segregate your waste into these categories. Then, simply compost the green category. The Chintan website has more information on how to get this done effortlessly. The blue and red categories of waste should be handed over to the waste collector, and mind you, this has to be a doorstep waste collection.
Think of these efforts as the ultimate self-care. With all the waste we allow out of our homes, we poison ourselves. In effect, we breathe what we trash, thanks to landfill fires. We also drink what we trash: microplastics, pesticides and more leak from every Indian landfill, poisoning our water sources. Turning to zero-waste lifestyles is one way we can reduce the pollution burden on our own bodies and nurture back our spectacular planet as it nurtures our minds and bodies.
Short of ideas on how you can utilise your discarded stems of vegetables? Download Chintan’s recipe book Tasty, Frugal Green from www.chintan-india.org.
Bharati Chaturvedi is the founder of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, a New Delhi-based organisation. You can read her weekly columns on the environment, Greenpiece, in the Hindustan Times.
For more information, e-mail the Chintan Group at email@example.com.