When was the last time you really looked inside your own dustbin? Where does it all go? How much of it goes anywhere, really? If you paused for a second and thought about how much trash you generate per day, and expand that to include your family, neighbourhood, city, state and country - let me tell you, that’s a lot of trash for a day. 1,00,000 tonnes to be precise. From that straw you used to sip your coffee to the toothbrush you lost on an overnight trip, to the bottle of conditioner in your bathroom, the packet of ketchup, the pen on your desk, that napkin you used to wipe your phone bearing no better result - we are constantly consuming and generating trash without a thought given to what happens to it once it leaves our home and notably, humans are the only species on the planet that does this. There isn’t some secret society of wild animals flinging straws into the oceans, the trash that’s slowly overtaking the planet is 100% generated by us and we’re entirely responsible for the consequences.
The outskirts of most of India’s towns and villages are graced with the scenic image of landfills the size of hills - vetted clean by cattle as though onto newer pastures. When the hill gets too high, a fire is burnt, as if the problem simply disappears with the smoke. Never mind the catastrophic effect of burning plastic on the planet. Never mind the lives of the animals in the water whose bodies are clogged with the mindless waste of human beings. It is almost embarrassing to think of how little it takes on our part to stop this situation from getting worse, if not entirely. Thankfully, there are some who are well on their way to a personal future free (or at least, seriously reduced) of trash and waste. From making their own compost bins, beauty products and cleaning supplies, to creating a company that could help others make the switch, we sat down with six Indians who not only shared their journeys with us, but also provided us with more than enough information to start making change ourselves. Even in the smallest of ways.
I . Angad Tandon, 17, Bangalore
“My family has always been fairly environmentally conscious; even aware of the resources we use and how much of them we use. Water has been something that I think, as a family we have always conserved. I discovered the zero-waste movement when I was researching about veganism. I go to an alternative school and there are a lot of vegan and plant-based teachers and parents there so i’ve been exposed to that way of living for a while. My interest in being vegan drove me to really look at how I want to live my life and the kind of lifestyle I want to live. Looking for alternatives to things like milk or cheese or meat and thinking about how that impacted consumption patterns as a whole, all contributed to my decision.”
“I read and watched several videos and blogs about animal agriculture and its horrible impacts on our planet. So of course all of the vegan YouTubers were saying that following a vegan, plant-based diet was the most sustainable diet and lifestyle to follow. I found my way to Lauren Singers’ TEDxTeens talk about how she managed to fit four years of her trash in one Mason jar and I was shocked. If someone in the Consumerist Central of America aka New York could live trash free, then why couldn’t I? Also while looking more into this, I found Trash Is For Tossers, and zero-waste queen mother, Bea Johnson’s channel and website, Zero Waste Home. This lady had a family of four and they were all living zero waste. How? So I followed Bea’s 5 R’s - Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot.
Angad noticed that various personal care products coming into the house every month - shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, toothpaste, cleansers etc, came in plastic. “That’s something I was beginning to feel really uncomfortable with, knowing that i was contributing so much to the destruction of the planet just to make my hair and skin feel soft. So those were the things that I axed out first.” Instead, he started making those products himself. He looked online for various recipes for homemade personal care products. “Along the way i made a few adjustments to the original toothpaste recipe, adding things like clove and activated charcoal. I became more and more ambitious and moved on to moisturiser, then deodorant. But by far my most ambitious personal care product was making a solid shampoo bar/soap. It took one batch that went so horribly wrong that the end product was just a soapy mush but by the second I had figured out a proper proportion to my ingredients. So for almost four months now, I’ve had no plastic in my bathroom.”
“Being the socially awkward 17-year-old that I am, saying no to the waiter at having your plate changed at restaurants or telling the person behind the counter to use my reusable coffee cup instead of the disposable plastic/paper cup was a really scary thought. But aside from that, just simple things like not eating that packet of chips and really wanting to eat that whole wheel of Brie or even buying a package of pasta were difficult to adjust to. Food excites me. Eating it, cooking it, watching it, reading about it, just everything. From exploring fermented foods to attempting to make salted caramel (I know it doesn’t sound daring, but tell that to the numerous sugar burns on my hands) some of these experiments require ingredients that I can’t find packaging free. I still don’t really have a solution to this. I also haven’t been able to eliminate conditioner. I’ve tried the whole apple cider vinegar and water thing, but that just left my head smelling like fermented apple juice.”
Angad’s advice to anyone trying to start this journey is to “start small and not allow yourself to feel overwhelmed by all of the information out there. I know initially it felt like everything I was doing was not enough and that I should throw out everything that had or was made of plastic and buy the things it threw out with glass, wood or steel alternatives, when it hit me that the whole point of this whole thing is not buy more. Not produce more. Just no more stuff! So starting small and trying to upcycle things is a really good place to start. Also, seriously consider a bamboo toothbrush, they really are more sustainable”
II. Sahar Mansoor
Overwhelmed by India’s trash problem and the constant confrontation of every day garbage piles on the streets was enough to make Sahar want to stop being a part of the problem. The only way to start was for her to address her own trash issues at hand, and live a life that reflected the values she held close to her heart. And so she did. “In my zero-waste journey, I realized that it was impossible to find personal care and home care products that didn’t contain harmful chemicals and weren’t packaged in plastic. In response to this problem,I wanted to create a company that mirrored the values of zero waste, ethical consumption and sustainability. I wanted to make it easy for other people looking to consume more mindfully and to encourage others to produce less waste. Bare Necessities (BN) was born.”
The power of storytelling is very much part of our Indian culture and this was unmistakable in my conversations with family and close friends. Going back to basics like they did before shampoo was sold in plastic bottles or what toothpaste comprised of, opened a plethora of stories. I started fashioning and creating personal and home care products from ancient ingredients and this slowly led me to found Bare Necessities. By producing earth-friendly, handcrafted products, BN seeks to make zero-waste living desirable. In the larger sense, BN seeks to change the narrative on waste in India and encourage others to reduce waste and think consciously about their impact on the world. I also researched online (like any 20-something-year-old) and took a course on making personal and home care products.
In terms of living a zero-waste life, Sahar began by reusing shopping bags, and carrying cutlery and a water bottle along with her. She decided to give up drinking anything in a bottle, choosing to go fresh instead. She stopped chewing gum. She started using incense and candles instead of aerosol air fresheners, carried her meals in reusable boxes and stopped the use of ziplock bags and foil. A huge step was also to start walking and cycling as much as she could, and using public transportation whenever possible. And finally, it was a matter of replacing products that were in use in high numbers with products that would simply last longer. For instance, plastic pens were replaced with fountain pens.
Sahar explains that “we are subjects of this urbanization-globalization era and we are so caught up in this web of convenience that we don’t think about a plastic water bottle that we use for 5 minutes that then takes 700 years to start decomposing in the first place. Of course, in the process, leaching harmful chemicals into our soil and water, the same soil you are consuming your fresh veggies from! But really where is the plastic you threw out actually going? What tiny piece of that plastic is actually in the sushi you are eating for dinner tonight?”
Sahar has lived a trash free life for two and a half years now. She found that eliminating Water bottles, plastic bags, toothbrushes and single use straws was rather easy, but medicines, boarding passes, baggage travel tags and concert wristbands have proved to be quite difficult. Sahar’s advice is simply that “If you care about your environmental impact - you should give it a shot. You can start by taking baby steps and slowly transitioning your lifestyle. It’s not time consuming, it’s not expensive and it’s not just for granola hippie people – your grandmother was probably a zero waster.”
III. Mitali Tandon, 26, Bangalore
Having moved out of home 8 months ago, Mitali started to watch her input/output more closely and that act was what made it easier to start. Not just questioning the nature of her choices but also the freedom to act on them. That and the fact that the building staff would ring her doorbell EVERY morning to collect daily waste and it freaked her out that just 1 body could have that much stuff to throw out, every morning. She felt she just had to do something about that. To date, it has been four months since Mitali has generated any organic waste, and has cut down inorganic waste by 60%. “I started off first by mapping my own consumption pattern at home to really understand where my biggest waste center’s where. I noticed three things - Food, Water and Personal Care products. This gave me a little more direction and I started doing research online and watching several videos of Lauren Singer, Buzzfeed Challenges, Researching local plastic waste collection centres etc. to get a broader sense of the challenges and alternative options.”
The entire aspect from buying, cooking and disposing composes this large element that is food. Instead of buying a bag every time she went to the store, she filled her car/bag with 2-3 reusable bags. Figuring out where to buy all the food was a little more complicated, because even fresh vegetables come wrapped in plastic. Shortly after, she noticed a local gaadi-wala who has his own farm and brings fresh veggies/fruits that he and his family grow every week. Grains and Pulses were bought by eliminating plastic and using cloth bags and jars. While cooking, she brought home a composter to ensure no bio-degradable scraps go waste, it’s been 4 months now of zero organic waste! All compost has been used in the home garden to fertilize and grow tulsi, rosemary, banana, lemon and avocado plants!
Where water was concerned, Mitali found out about aerator’s that you can buy at a local hardware store or online, which you screw onto the bottom of all your taps. This helps disperse water over a large surface area by using the same pressure. This has had a noticeable impact on water consumption and reduction in her monthly water bills. “Personal Care products were by far the most difficult for me, because it’s a lot of paraphernalia in plastic containers that get thrown out every month. This opened up a whole new world for me that included - learning how to read a label while buying these products, finding alternatives, how harmful some of these ingredients can be on you and the environment. My brother and I started experimenting with making some simple products at home inspired by common home remedies first and have now eliminated plastic body wash. We switched over to homemade/ethically sourced bar soaps, and switched over to homemade body butter/lip balm instead of store bought moisturizer” Mitali tells us.
But the fight isn’t over yet. “The biggest battle I had to fight, was convenience. I struggled with not always having the time to be prepared. If you are entertaining at home/have people over and need to buy snack, how can you eat chips and drink a beer without producing 2 times the amount of non-biodegradable waste than living alone? If you wanted to cook a particular meal but the gaadi wala doesn’t have or grow those veggies this week? Our urban lifestyle has made us a slave to convenience and ‘value for money’. It seems crazy that you have to pay more money or make more effort to be able to contribute in anyway. This is a question and dilemma I constantly think about,” Mitali says. Packed food and staying away from napkins and drinks while travelling is still difficult, but Mitali is to finding her way around this as well.
IV. Anuja Pitre, Pune
It’s been about a year since Anuja started to consciously make an effort to move as close to a trash-free life as possible. As a communication designer, more often than not, her job has been to make consumers choose one brand/concept over another. “I did a brief research stint with the lovely people at Saaf India Foundation back in 2013, to find systemic solutions for better waste management for the Indian Railways. That made me dig deeper and opened my eyes up to the world of waste — a nuisance, a business, a situation that could make or break this country. And contrary to popular belief (“But it’s already dirty!”/”But they’ll mix it up, anyway!”), every little bit counts. I promise” she says.
Her research involved understanding the waste ecosystem and all its stakeholders in the fullest sense — the manufacturers, the materials, the packaging, the waste pickers, the landfills, the government, the policy, the recyclers, the up-cyclers, the activists, the mafia, the consumers, the waste generators, the litterers. Her first step was to get a composter from The Daily Dump. “They’re extremely easy to use, great for small apartments, and beautiful to look at! Once your kitchen waste is being converted to compost, your waste starts looking squeaky clean. Post that, I just segregated (cleaned) waste even further and now I just give it to recyclers/up-cyclers that I found locally. I had already been carrying a reusable bag for last-minute groceries and an empty dabba if I have to pick up food on the way home. And I consciously “refuse”. It’s hard to always remember to ask the waiter to not give that totally pointless straw, but I try my best.”
Anuja admits that it’s been easier for her to take the leap into being waste-free at home because she lives alone, for one. The difficulties posed themselves in the form of Amazon and ordering food online, and all the packaging that comes with it. The easiest for Anuja to give up were straws - “they’re useless,” she says.
Although the subject is grave, Anuja’s advice is light-hearted at best - “little steps are the best.” Don’t get overwhelmed by needing to go completely waste-free. My company, Reach (we measure impact for social purpose organisations) is running a campaign called ‘Talking Trash’ till the end of December which talks about the waste issue in India through relatable data, local players in the space, and easy-to-adopt steps towards a cleaner future
V. Sachi Patil
During her final semester project at Srishti, Sachi was very curious to understand how consumerism is playing a devastating role in all our lives and how it might be leading towards climate change. As a part of the project, she looked into how consumption patterns are the major cause of climate change. Over 60-80% of the impact on the planet comes from household consumption. This entire four-month-long journey that she took during the project was the reason she moved on to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, which included generating minimum trash.
“My footprint at the beginning of the project was 2.69 global hectares. Which in other words meant that if everyone lived the kind of lifestyle I did it would take up 1.5 planets to suffice global consumption. In order to understand where my consumption went wrong and how it had such a heavy impact on the planet, I had to dig into every single habit of mine. Every minute detail of my life. I tracked my food habits including what I eat, how I eat, how much packaging do I bring with it. Besides that, I opened my garbage bag and looked at all the waste I was generating on a daily basis. I also looked at my shopping habits. How frequently and from where I shopped be it for clothes, food, grocery etc.I looked at the tiny details that seemed futile and yet made a lot of difference.”
After mapping her daily lifestyle, Sachi began understanding all the areas she could reduce and change her lifestyle in. She started looking at her food patterns, fuel usage, electricity usage and other lifestyle choices. These choices were solely based on comfort, luxury and affordability. She decided to cut down on comfort in order to make better sustainable choices. For example buying rice from an organic store and carrying her own cloth bag for it to avoid the plastic. She also became a vegetarian for those two months, and she still does not consume pork, beef or any of the processed meat (as it consumes a vast amount of energy in production). Sachi cut down on all the junk that mainly brought a lot of plastic home, in the form of packaging.
“All in all I looked at every possible instance in my life that could be altered to fit myself in a lifestyle that would make me feel a little less guilty. Few things amongst many others I managed to change during the project and still am continuing are cooking and eating fresh, organic and no junk, making my own body lotion and cosmetics including shampoo and the rest of the beauty products I use are homemade, 100% organic and come in refillable containers, cut down on sanitary napkins and use a menstrual cup, Bamboo toothbrush instead of our regular plastic ones, replaced all the detergents and toilet cleaners and cleaning solutions to Castile soap, a one-stop solution for everything and made my own compost bin.
“When I was in the conditioning experiment during this project. My ecological footprint was 2.69 hectares or in other words 1.5 planets. And after doing this religiously for 45 days, I was able to reduce my footprint to 1.23 global hectares. Which means I managed to reduce my consumption from 1.5 planets to 0.7 planets in a span of 45 days. And it was not all that difficult at all!” Sachi reminds us.
You can see Sachi’s documentation of her project here.
VI. Maria D’Souza
Maria started her fight against waste generation back in 1998 when she was employed as a teacher at St. Stanislaus school in Bandra. While not entirely eliminating waste, Maria has ensured that no wet or organic waste gets thrown in - it is composted for use in the community gardens instead. D’Souza is one of the most active members of her area ALM no. 33 (Advance Locality Management) in H (West) Ward that consists of Bandra, Khar and Santacruz. All 44 societies under her ALM have 100 percent waste segregation with 12 producing zero waste today.
Since 2013, D’Souza has not let as much as 500 kilograms per month of garbage go to waste. “My building alone creates 10 kg of wet waste every month,” she explains. “We send the dry recyclable waste to the BMC clean-up trucks twice a week. We segregate our waste in four ways that is wet, dry, e-waste and medical waste. I do not remember the last time we had to buy compost for our building,” she said. She also explains that to get the message across, she had to stand at the spot where the truck picked up garbage and sent back every dustbin that was not properly segregated. “Children understand but their parents don’t. A student of mine once asked his parents to segregate waste and they told him, let Maria do it in her own house. In a city that generates 10,000 tonnes of garbage everyday and with all these fires that keep erupting, how is it not our problem?” she asked.
Apart from residential societies, Maria has also roped in gardens, two schools, two churches and two retreat houses for waste management. “It began with waste segregation awareness in 2000. My students have been helping me with everything since then. They helped me put together reports and created our stall at a BMC waste management exhibition,” she said. Even today, Maria’s efforts to raise awareness hold strong, and a support system using whatsapp is well in place for anyone looking out to make a change. You can read more about her story here.