The first (and often difficult) step in reducing waste is to carry a cloth bag from home while shopping. Often this is followed by an attempt at composting biodegradable waste – either within the home, or in small patches of land nearby. Some ambitious folk even convince their entire building or complex to segregate their waste (or are fighting the valiant fight).
Over the course of the last couple of years, I have come to know the contents of my wastepaper basket much better. It helps that there is no rotting food waste in it – much easier to poke around a basket with dry plastic and paper. There were, however, some recurring pieces of waste that kept appearing in the trash. It was pleasant to realise that most of these pieces of garbage have sustainable options.
- Footwear– A small store in Chennai called Methiyadisells footwear made from natural rubber with plant-based dyes. The designs are simple and functional and the slippers are comfortable enough for long walks. I bought a pair a few months ago and the shopkeeper told me that I could simply bury the slippers in the ground after they had lost utility. I began thinking, though, about the wide variety of organic footwear that has always existed in the region. Leather, cotton, silk, wood, and bamboo slippers, coloured with natural materials and painstakingly decorated by hand, are common in many parts of the country. Some, like Kolhapurichappals, are perfectly designed for local terrain.
If you aren’t a fan of going back in time, though, big brands are catching on as well. Adidas and Reebok have shoes made from cotton, corn, and biosteel – materials that are 100% naturally biodegradable.
- Toothbrushes – Along with straws and laminated paper plates, toothbrushes are among the most difficult products to recycle. Traditional lifestyles often used simple products like neem sticks for cleansing the mouth and some systems of medicine strongly recommend the use of bitter or astringent materials for brushing the teeth. It can be hard to find a neem tree in the middle of a concrete jungle, though, and so bamboo toothbrushes become a decent second choice. There is some debate about whether the bristles are truly biodegradable – but at least you can be sure that the bamboo stem will quickly rot and go back to the earth.
- Shampoos and soaps – Most products that produce a thick foam are made of strong surfactants. Nearly all of them were developed to remove grease and thick oil coatings from metals and rocks. Unsurprisingly, most of them are harmful to the skin and hair.If you have walked along a river or lake and seen persistent grey foam on its surface, there is a high chance that someone’s (or many-one’s)grey water is emptying into the water body. This is a problem with a simple solution, though. There are many brands that sell biodegradable soaps and shampoos, so that the waste water can be released into the soil, to replenish underground aquifers. Best of all are options that are very low on foam, made from plant-based products, and come in simple cardboard packaging (that can also be composted).
- Clothes–Most clothes are blends of synthetic polymers along with natural products. A fleece jacket from an athletics store is likely to leech microfibers into the wash water. Completely natural fibres like cotton, silk, or wool, however, have been around for a long while and simply return to the soil. It is difficult (and really wasteful and unwise) to throw out all your clothes and buy sustainable fabrics. But, this Deepavali, when you are shopping for new clothes, perhaps you can think of the source and final resting point for your kurta.
- Diapers – It is unfortunate that most regular department stores and pharmacies don’t carry cloth diapers or sustainable feminine hygiene products. If I need to quickly get a sanitary pad or diaper because I have been slightly absent-minded, I have no choice but to pick a single-use, disposable item. That said, though, there are well-designed diapers being made and sold in India. We have a tradition of covering our babies’ bottoms in cloth – now they are just covered in an extra waterproof layer.
Even a zero-waste champion like Bea Johnson cannot completely eliminate waste from her life (her family generates a jar of waste every year). But every step we take, every conversation with a curious (or flabbergasted) friend is a step in the right direction. We are halfway through 2018, and this is a good time to take a second look at our consumption habits.
And to stuff a few cloth bags into our handbags and backpacks.