Ways out of waste

World Environment day

Ways out of waste

Since my wife Anjali and I, sick of city life, moved to Goa four years ago, we’ve seen more of our Delhi friends than we ever did before. When someone visits, not surprisingly, the conversation often centres on our move and its effects. That usually leads, through one route or another, to environmental concerns. And there’s one question — sometimes aggressively articulated, sometimes sheepishly hinted at, sometimes carefully avoided — that hovers like a cloud over the conversation — “why should I be the one to do something about it?”

There are several answers to that, but here’s the simple one — because it’s the right thing to do. No doubt whatever you do will feel insignificant — like wiping clean one pebble on a beach plastered in oil from a spill — but do it in the belief that it counts, that one day there will be enough hands scrubbing to get the whole beach clean. There’s reason to believe — the good news is that more and more people are joining in every day. 

The message has got through that the planet is in dire peril, and people are looking for ways to do something that’s bigger than their own self-interest. If there’s one thing that evolution has taught human beings, it is that cooperation is a force beyond muscle and teeth, and sometimes it’s through doing things for the common good that we can do the best for ourselves. So a different question has started being asked, and asked more often — “what can I do?” That’s a huge change. 

If you find yourself asking that question, the first thing you can do is look around. Chances are, you’ll find someone near you doing something that you can as well. The steps taken might be small — first steps often are; but it’s from such that long journeys are born. The stories of common people are the ones that are easiest to follow — after all, they are so much like our own. We are surrounded by them. 

Take Salil Chaturvedi and his wife Monika. When they moved into the place they now live in, half the plot was a mass of mud. Today, it’s a flourishing garden which has not smelt even the whiff of a chemical fertiliser. Through entirely natural means, and the judicious re-use of the organic waste they and others produce, the couple has nurtured an urban orchard where guavas, chikoos and bananas sustain their cravings for fruit, and where birds you couldn’t dream of amidst the surrounding concrete jungle play out the dance of nature. Check out the pictures at salilchaturvedi.blogspot.com, and get inspired. 

Our homes are probably where we can most easily begin to make a difference. Dealing with household waste is very much within our grasp, and numerous pilot projects exist to prove this. It’s sad that the learnings from these have not been extended to a mass scale, as that single initiative would make our cities and towns tremendously cleaner and more liveable. But that time, too, will come. 

In the meantime, what you can do is segregate. Separate organic waste from inorganic, and deal with each in a different way. Devika and Raj Pillai have nearly perfected the art. “Almost no waste leaves our house unutilised,” Devika proclaims proudly. “The important thing is to become conscious of your consumption. Do you really need that thing you’re buying, or can you do without it? If you can’t do without something, can you find it in a form that has the least environmental impact? And once you’ve used it, is there some way you can deal with what’s left behind? These are questions you have to ask yourself all the time.” 

Here’s a checklist they have developed that you can follow:

- When you go shopping, make sure you have enough bags for the different kinds of products you are likely to buy. That way, you won’t come back with unnecessary plastic (“the bane of our lives”, as Raj puts it). If needed, even take along newspaper, and get the sabziwalla to wrap things in it.

- Avoid packaged and processed food. Besides reducing waste, you’ll also be doing your body a favour.

- If you’re buying meat, fish or other ‘wet’ produce, take along a closed utensil that can be washed and reused.

- In all circumstances, avoid the use of bottled water. This is one of the biggest and most damaging scams the developed world has perpetrated, and is burgeoning into a huge problem for us as well.

- At home, segregate all waste into organic and inorganic.

- The organic waste can be composted, and the compost used to nurture your plants or your neighbourhood’s.

- For the inorganic waste, locate recycling options. The Pillais have, without all that much effort, been able to locate many resources. Paper, glass and metal, of course, is best passed on to the informal recycling sector of raddiwallas and ragpickers. In some places, milk packets can be returned to the producer. There are PET bottle recycling centres, as well as places you can send used tetrapak containers to.

What they have not found any options for, the Pillais are squirrelling away in their storeroom — there is a possibility that options will open up in the future for, say, recycling of batteries. In the worst case, Raj plans to create a sculpture with what they just can’t get rid off. 

A large proportion of Indian household waste continues to be organic (though, as we ‘modernise’, the amount of dry or inorganic waste is rapidly increasing). Composting is a simple and useful way of converting such garbage into a useful resource. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a large yard to start a composting unit. With the award-winning ‘Khamba’ and other designs from Daily Dump, you can do it anywhere. Tallulah D’Silva, who has set up a three-tiered Khamba on the balcony of her third-floor flat, has become a quick convert. “We were initially worried it might smell,” she confesses, “but it doesn’t at all. Instead, it’s added a touch of beauty to the balcony.” Check out www.dailydump.org for these lovely wastebusters. 

If you put your head to it, there are solutions you can work out for most things. Outside our own kitchen stand two fridges. But only one cools food and water — the other one, an old non-functional one, we use as a storage cabinet for our documents. Then there’s this mail I recently received through something called a Freecycle network (www.freecycle.org) — a woman in Panjim offering to collect used milk packets from others, compile them into batches of 100, exchange each batch for a fresh milk packet (a scheme offered by Goa Dairy), and pass the packets thus obtained to a local animal shelter. For free. Like I said earlier, there are many people out there doing good things. You just have to look around.

The thing about the world is, it’s an intricate tapestry of the living and non-living, in which you are just one small element. There’s the most important reason to act now. It’s not just the planet — your health and your life are also at constant and grave risk from the environmental disaster that has been brewing. And with none of these do you get a second chance.  
(The writer is the author of ‘Our Toxic World’, a graphic guidebook to hazardous substances in our everyday lives.)

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