Until quite recently, a minimum of 40 plastic carry bags would enter my house every single week as a result of grocery shopping alone. I would say a more honest assessment for some weeks would be about 70. The math is simple: On an average, at least 160 such bags in a month, and more than 2,000 in a year, which then served no other purpose than to occasionally function as garbage bags. Of course, we also had a supply of black garbage bags.

All of these would eventually find their way into a landfill, most likely the very spot that is Delhi’s most shameful: a massive landfill that’s become a large hill at the gateway to the city from the north, birds of prey circling it at all times of the day, and alongside which is the city’s largest wholesale market, the Azadpur mandi, which supplies a large part of the fruits and vegetables that we eat.

We got home these carry bags even if, on the majority of occasions we went to the neighbourhood stores, a large shopping bag would be slung across the shoulder. The instinct of the good shopkeeper’s assistant is to speedily pack the goods inside the plastic bag while we’re paying up. And our instinct is to stuff the bag inside our own, with each additional bag neatly demarcating our purchases, and even keeping our precious cloth bag clean from the wetness and messiness of vegetables, if that’s what we were buying.

Is it possible to live a life without plastic?

If, with some effort, we manage to do away with the convenience of these carry bags, there are the packaged goods that we are confronted with—in food alone, there is, for instance, our rice, dal, biscuits, oil, spices or milk. The type of packaging they come in matters; at a subconscious level, we have come to identify this with the quality of the product, and known brands have the upper hand here.

Also read:

5 reasons to grow your own food: Add diversity to your diet, more nutrition, freshness and flavour

10 ways to buy differently: Small eco-friendly decisions when shopping

However, reports over recent years from the laboratory of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based non-profit, alone have suggested how very wrong this perception may be. While pesticides were found in well-known brands of honey and soft drinks, the factory-made brands of bread that are a daily purchase in a majority of Indian households, including mine, as well as those used in many popular pizza and burger chains, revealed traces of the chemicals potassium iodate and potassium bromate, both serious health hazards with carcinogenic properties that are banned in many countries.

A waste- paper recycling plant in Meerut
A waste- paper recycling plant in Meerut

In January, a report from the World Economic Forum, the Ellen McArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking The Future Of Plastics, revealed that “plastics production has surged over the past 50 years, from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and is expected to double again over the next 20 years". The report further found that “95% of plastic packaging material value (which also represents 26% of the total volume of plastics produced), or $80-120 billion (Rs5.3 trillion) annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use. More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling".

Let’s put all these numbers and percentages that your eyes glazed over in perspective. Since a large volume of plastic waste leaks into the ocean every year, the World Economic Forum has calculated that by 2050—which is not a long way off—there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Disgusted already?

***

For a few years now, scientists have been raging over a matter of nomenclature: on whether to call the times we live in the Anthropocene epoch. This literally means that the activities of human beings have had a significant and permanent negative impact on Earth’s environment and climate. It is a remarkably sobering thought that a single species could have done so much damage.

While some scientists may argue over the kind of precise evidence required to announce a new geological era, the fact remains that the arrogance with which we live, unmindful of other lives on this planet, is evident everywhere. How frequently do we now read of animals venturing out of the dwindling forest spaces on to our (a necessary accentuation in our brain) roads? Of species being choked into extinction? And the unpredictability of our climate is now so stark as to be the topic of conversation even in urban drawing rooms. With India responsible for a 4.1% share of global emissions, one can only hope that its ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change, just weeks before the 22nd round of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is set to take place in Marrekech, Morrocco, from 7-18 November, will lead to a sincere effort to fulfil its commitments towards its environment goals.

For the past couple of years, my family has often spoken of quitting Delhi, which holds the disreputable title of being one of the top 10 polluted cities in the world. With the monsoon receding and the return of a permanent haze of smog over the city, this thought once again flexes its muscle. But if we were to run, where would we run to? If not the permanently damaged lungs that cough their protest, would not the pesticide-ridden food continue to trouble us?

As we rush unconcerned towards what seems like self-wrought doom, is there nothing we can do?

***

A plastic-waste recycling plant in Meerut
A plastic-waste recycling plant in Meerut

In a conversation with author Amitav Ghosh this summer, when he published his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change And The Unthinkable, he responded to the idea of “being the change you want to see", of individual actions that can make a difference, by saying: “Look, obviously people feel compelled to do something individually, but I think it’s very important not to capitulate to the view that individuals can solve this problem. It’s a collective problem; it’s a question of collective action; we’re talking about a global commons. This whole neo-liberal sort of push for the last 30-40 years has been towards trying to reduce everything towards individual actions and initiatives. In fact, it prevents the whole imagining of problems in terms that are amenable to collective action. In that sense, I would say that every time we meet this question of individual initiatives, we should just turn away from it; we should refuse to succumb to that logic. How are you or I, for example, going to solve the question of how much water is withdrawn from the Upper Ganga acquifer? We can’t."

He’s correct, of course. And, as he points out, we no longer have the luxury of time.

However, it’s also a fact that the problems have come too close to home. However far removed concepts like Anthropocene or melting glaciers may seem, it’s impossible for any one of us to turn away from this toxic mess of our own making, affecting every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. Last winter, even as designer air masks started emerging in the Delhi market, a notification from my children’s school left me aghast. It recommended that we take the precaution of sending the children to school wearing air masks. I don’t know whether I was more horrified at this apparent panic on the part of the school authorities or the conditions that had led to it. What was this sci-fi existence? When it is the children at risk, naturally you agonize more.

***

An e-waste recycling plant in Haridwar. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Min
An e-waste recycling plant in Haridwar. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Min

So, what could I do?

I set myself the challenge of attempting to live in a way that would cause the least hurt to the environment. But considering the scale of the problem, this is an overwhelming question to consider. Did I even have the time among all the many things I was already juggling? Didn’t I need the support of my family too? Would I now need to expend energy trying to convince them? Organic food, LED bulbs, compost bins, menstrual cups—all these things that might bring a “difference" would make an immediate dent in my budget. In a city like Delhi that is so unsafe for women, walking the streets or using certain forms of public transport past a certain hour would only make me uneasy. In any case, would I make any difference at all? Where do I even begin?

But as I realized over just a few weeks, the mere act of being alert to my every action highlighted so many that are easily reversible. It is a process that can surprise you. Once you start, you begin to question every single thing—from the toothpaste with the antibacterial agent triclosan that you’re spitting down the drain and which is toxic to marine life, to the coffee in every disposable cup that you drink at your workspace. The volumes of paper towels that I use to dry my hand in the washroom—wouldn’t the air drier that nobody uses, or better still, a handkerchief brought from home, be better? Discarding the plastic stirrer used to dissolve sugar into my coffee or the thermocol plates to eat in, reducing the sheer wastage of paper used for printing, travelling with a bottle of water in order to avoid purchases of PET bottles, making my own reetha shampoo—all these were achievable fairly easily and without much fuss.

And the more I did, the more I learnt and cringed at: from the plastic ballpoint pen in my hand and the packaging of the cosmetics I use to the heavy metal toxicity contained in them and the fish we get, as well as the antibiotics given to the chicken we eat. What can you trust any more? And where does one stop?

***

There are several websites that I went to with quizzes that tell you the extent of your carbon footprint and how to reduce it. Some gave solutions from the simple and doable to the truly complicated. I laughed at the concept of eating local—the most local I could get, in my very neighbourhood in fact, were the crops grown on the Yamuna river’s toxic floodplains. I patted myself on the back for having started the move to LED bulbs; being the tyrant at my home, pouncing at all electricity switches that needed to be turned off; being a habitual bucket-bath person rather than a wasteful shower one; for having slowly started replacing all plastic dabbas in the kitchen with steel, glass and ceramic; for making the daily commute on the Metro rather than a private vehicle; or for even having already started to segregate waste at home. At the same time, I flinched at reports of the environmental impact of the meat we eat, but couldn’t bring myself to think of a diet free from it; or the diesel vehicle we have at home—and thankfully the unmanageable traffic situation has ensured that it stays parked most of the time—that we couldn’t afford to change at the moment.

The idea of being the perfect ecologically sensitive person was so intimidating that for the initial couple of weeks I would habitually flop down on the bed, exhausted at the very thought. “The start has to be small. Big starts are mostly false starts," said a friend, Saloni Zutshi. I have known Zutshi for over a decade, and in my circle of acquaintances, she has made the most dramatic changes in her lifestyle, dogged to the extreme when faced by detractors. Zutshi now runs Ukti, the first Waldorf-inspired school in Noida, near Delhi, where even her own two young sons learn to be more in tune with their environment. The school itself was a result of her questioning an education system that did not resonate with the way of life she and her family had chosen to lead.

The birth of her children, the conception even, was a turning point in her life. She questioned the need for frequent ultrasounds, the birthing process followed in hospitals, the necessity of vaccinations, even conventional wisdom on when one should stop breastfeeding babies. For the purposes of this story, we shall skip to a point when she decided to give her toddler watermelon juice in a bottle. The nipple remained stained red for days afterwards, bringing to the fore everything she’d been sensing for a while, but which had been more convenient to ignore. “What kind of world were we leaving behind for them? It scared me," she says. She now grows organic vegetables and medicinal plants, both on the roof of her home, as well as with children in her school. Their experiments on the school grounds have been so successful that the excess vegetables are distributed to the children to take home, in the process making a small community of parents a little bit more aware of the poison on their dinner plates. In Waldorf schools, gardening usually starts from grade 3, she says, but at Ukti they decided to start off even earlier. “In a city like Delhi, we are so far removed (from the situation), nobody is aware or doing anything. The next generation has to be made aware," she says.

My generation grew up with parents who lived a more sustainable life, if only because the choices so headily offered by our post-liberalized marketplace simply did not exist then. If I don’t know how to segregate my waste—the organic wet, the paper and plastic waste that can be recycled if kept dry, batteries and broken tubelights that make up toxic waste, and the non-recyclables like sanitary napkins and diapers that go into landfills—it’s because I have never seen anyone do it. Does anyone even know that according to government rules it is mandatory for every household and every office to segregate their waste? Or that brands and manufacturers of plastic packaging are obliged to set up a system take them back from consumers? I most certainly didn’t.

Deepak Sethi, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Pom Pom Recycling Pvt. Ltd, a waste management service in Delhi that buys your dry waste and sends it to authorized recycling plants, believes that the most important challenge where waste management is concerned is to create a behavioural change. From making it compulsory education in every class at school, to enforcing it strictly in each office so that employees start getting habituated to it and can replicate the example at their homes, from making an example of it at every government office that invites vast volumes of visitors, to creating a standardized design for different bins for different categories of waste that people would start identifying with—Sethi believes that every person needs to learn, and to be taught, to manage their waste by themselves. Pom Pom itself conducts frequent awareness workshops in schools.

Habits are not easy to form, even more difficult to change. It’s like exercise—my mind protests every day before I begin, finding the simplest excuses to avoid it most convincing. My experience, especially with composting, has been similar. About four months ago, I procured an indoor composting bin, keen to take the waste segregation that I was doing to the next level. Yet, my mind succumbed to every excuse to delay the process of “rotting my garbage" at home. I will start after the monsoon, I decided with much relief; I convinced myself that the return of the dry Delhi air would give me a much better chance of success at creating a non-stinking bin. I am happy to report that the effort has finally started. Our housekeeper, who I have bullied over these past weeks into carrying a bag home with him so that he doesn’t pick up any plastic bags while buying our daily vegetables in the morning, is now an enthusiastic supporter of this effort.

If you go on to the website of Pom Pom or even Daily Dump, a design-based solution to waste that is based in Bengaluru, one notices an attempt to redefine the language used around waste—it’s wealth, it’s valuable, not dirty or garbage. In our country, where caste-defined roles are so entrenched in mindsets, we are comfortable with the sight of little children knee deep in municipal dumps sifting through the waste, but shun the idea of doing away with this indignity of labour or even saving resources by sorting the waste at source, at our own home.

Garden Estate, a residential society in Gurgaon, near Delhi, says it has reduced 55% of the waste (225kg per day) that was going into landfills by the simple act of introducing a community composting project. Keshav Chander Jaini, the resident who introduced the idea in the society, says that since February, when the composting began, they have managed to sell 3,000kg of compost. This has been picked up by Edible Routes, a consultancy service that guides people on growing organic vegetables in their own space, whether it’s a balcony, terrace or farm. While 20% of the waste from the society is now going into landfills, Jaini says they hope to take steps to reduce it further to 10%, besides taking the initiative to deal separately with e-waste, empower waste pickers, and other aspects.

The Garden Estate story is important. After all, as Poonam Bir Kasturi, founder of PBK Waste Solutions Pvt. Ltd, which runs Daily Dump, states, “This is the crisis of our times." It’s a small initiative in a gated colony that shows it’s not impossible for India to replicate the example set by Austria in becoming a zero-landfill country.

How much have I achieved in this past month? Very, very little, I’m afraid. So much of my time has been spent battling excuses, struggling with my inhibitions. And yet, I know that I haven’t failed; every single day now, I notice new, and surprisingly small, ways to do things differently. The first step to change, as Zutshi reminds me, is to become aware; to realize the impact things have.

Once you start trying, she says, it’s unlikely to leave the people around you untouched. And I know for one that ever since we started discussing this story, my immediate neighbour at my workspace has started puzzling the Dunkin’ Donut staff in the building by thrusting his own mug towards them instead of accepting their disposable coffee cup. Of course, since it would then be unethical to accept their plastic stirrer, he’s been deprived of sugar in his coffee.

***

What the new waste management rules say

This year, the central government notified new rules for a more efficient waste management system. If followed in all sincerity, it could truly lead to a Swachh Bharat. However, for that to happen, there needs to first be a concerted awareness programme. Here are some key rules that you should pay attention to:

1. Source segregation of waste mandatory, whether at individual homes, gated communities or offices and institutions, in order to more efficiently reuse and recycle.

2. New townships and housing societies to develop in-house waste handling, as well as processing arrangement for biodegradable waste.

3. Producers, importers and brand owners of plastic and non-recyclable packaging and e-waste responsible for introducing a collect back system.

4. Increase thickness of plastic carry bags from 40 to 50 microns, thus increasing the cost by 20 %. The hope is to deter the distribution of free carry bags.

5. Phasing out the manufacture of all non-recyclable multilayered packaging within two years.

6. Every person responsible for organising an event in open space shall segregate and manage the waste.

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