What is the common thread running through the ingredients list in toothpaste and chocolates, shampoo and pet food, laundry detergents and ice creams?
This vegetable oil forms the backbone of nearly all packaged food and household products and appears in a variety of forms in the ingredients list. Derivatives like ammonium lauryl sulphate are used as foaming agents in shampoos and dishwashing liquids. In food products, palm oil is called ‘vegetable oil’ or a variety of palmitates. It is an inexpensive fatty substance that can give a smooth, shiny appearance to foods like chocolates, bread, margarine, and ice creams.
Palm oil farming, harvesting and processing can have devastating effects on rainforest ecosystems and indigenous forest communities. Though there are attempts to make the palm oil industry more sustainable, consumers can also contribute by choosing products carefully. Here are some alternatives, especially for the home.
Detergents – Dishwashing and laundry detergents affect us and our environment in a number of ways. In vulnerable populations, exposure to these synthetic chemicals can trigger allergies and skin diseases. If the waste water from a washing machine or kitchen sink is not fully treated, it can contaminate freshwater sources.
Instead, why not choose natural detergents made from ingredients like soapberries and nuts? They are gentler on clothes (save on the dry cleaning bill for your delicate silks and handlooms), and your skin (begone red rashes and itchy skin!). Most of these have the additional advantage of being biodegradable. In some cases, the waste water can even be used for plants or directly released into the soil to replenish groundwater tables.
Scrubbers –In some parts of the country, dried sponge gourds are used as loofahs for bathing and dishwashing. In other parts, coconut husk has the same function. Happily, these materials are now processed to create products that are just as easy to use as mass-produced plastic scrubbers. They also work particularly well with organic, powder-based detergents.
Fast Food – Most restaurant chains use palm oil for frying. It is cheap, relatively stable at high temperatures and doesn’t have a distinct odour or flavour. Additionally, fast food is usually served in plastic takeaway containers and packaged with laminated food covers. Customers receive single-use cutlery and throwaway water bottles. Food convenience can come at a high cost.
Instead, consider taking a reusable water bottle along, and perhaps a small pouch of personal cutlery. Cook meals at home, so there are fewer unknown ingredients in the food. Carry a cloth bag for grocery shopping. Buy fresh, local, eat simple. Store vegetables in cloth bags and cover utensils with a lid. And that half-finished sandwich? Why not wrap it in reusable beeswax rather than aluminium foil or cling wrap?
Bin Liners – My mother used to say that she lived all her childhood in a zero-waste household. They lived outside the municipal limits, so there was no garbage collection facility. Everything that entered the home was reused, repurposed, or composted in a pit in the garden. For example, groceries came wrapped in newsprint. They would unwrap the grains or pulses carefully and smooth the paper on kitchen shelves to create a simple liner. When my grandfather received exam papers wrapped in coarse cloth, the cloth was accumulated, stitched and used to make pillow covers. Nothing was ever really seen as useless.
Each of these can seem like an intense commitment now. However, a simpler step may be to segregate waste. When kitchen scraps are composted and only dry waste goes into a bin, there is no need for plastic bin liners. In nearly every city in the country, there are services that pick up recyclable dry waste. Most municipalities even have facilities to drop off e-waste.
None of this can happen, however, if dry waste is languishing in the middle of rotting pieces of vegetable peels and leftover food. The act of carefully returning food to the soil is necessary to allow other waste materials to reach their destinations. And perhaps along the way, we could save some orang-utans as well.