The shampoo bottle was one of the first to go. When Maya Kilpadi embarked on a plastic-free challenge this July, every single item of daily consumption in her house had to be considered afresh. “A shampoo bottle is built to last and the plastic can be downcycled. But the problem is with the pump. Each component of the nozzle is made of a different material, and, in all probability, it doesn’t get recycled,” says Kilpadi, who once edited a nature magazine and now works for an e-commerce website. But removing the sturdy film of plastic that sheaths urban, consumerist lives doesn’t have to involve smelly hair. “I moved to a shampoo bar. They are made of natural material, and come in paper packaging. It is perfect. It lathers just like a regular shampoo does, and it lasts me two months, with my hair,” says the petite 34-year-old with a stylish bob when we meet at a café in Bengaluru.
We are living through what geologists call the Plasticene age. Rivers of plastic waste are flowing into oceans; microplastics have entered the food chain; and towering landfills are becoming taller with indestructible human waste. Like shrink-wrap on a rotting apple, the embrace of convenience and consumption is hard to peel off. But climate guilt, public awareness and policy declarations — Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set 2022 as a deadline for phasing out single-use plastic — is prodding a tiny minority to seek an alternative lifestyle.
For Kilpadi, that meant trade-offs, not all of them simple. So, bamboo toothbrushes to replace plastic ones (In May this year, 3.73 lakh discarded toothbrushes were found on Cocos Islands, one of the remotest islands in the Indian Ocean.) Coir dish scrubs replaced plastic ones. Soap bars replaced body wash (it needs more water to wash off). It meant going on a road trip with her steel water bottle, cutlery and straw; queuing up at her local bakery and snack shops with steel boxes in which she packed her nippats and biscuits. It meant refusing to buy things online or order in food (Going by Zomato’s Deepinder Goyal’s blog in 2018, food deliveries to Indian homes is producing 22,000 tonnes of plastic waste a month.) “Most tiny plastic containers with sauces are bad. Even if you wash them, they are too tiny to recycle,” says Kilpadi. She says the switches she made were not sacrifices — and lists out the one silver lining. “You can order in as many pizzas as you want. All that packaging is biodegradable.”
She is not alone. The number of individuals trying to plug out of an economy of excess is now growing. In 2011, travel writer Shivya Nath was jolted into pledging never to buy plastic bottled water by the sight of vast amounts of plastic littering the Himalayas. “Our first instinct is to pick it up and put it in a dustbin. But it’s important to ask, what happens to it afterwards? Most plastic trash lands up in giant piles along the hill sides, or next to river beds. Over time, it seeps into the soil and groundwater. On an individual level, not littering, or picking up other people’s litter, is not enough. I had to cut down on my own plastic waste,” she says.
For M Sankaran Moosad, a senior clerk in Vazhakkad panchayat, Kerala, it began with the local administration’s campaign for a plastic-free village. To eliminate single-use plastic, the 56-year-old took to cloth and paper bags. He would drive down to the sea-side Kozhikode city, around 20 km from his home in rural Perumanna, and pick up biodegradable bags at wholesale rates. “When I step out, I have two or three of these cloth bags in my hand. I use each one many times until it rips on its own,” says Moosad, who retired in July.
He cut down his visits to the supermarket in the city in search for local solutions. To buy coffee, he headed to the roasting-grinding centre in the village where he could collect it in paper bags. For milk, he ended his subscription to the popular brand Milma and began buying from a neighbouring dairy farmer. When he thought he had done enough, his wife pointed him to the kitchen: they were still storing everything in plastic containers. The couple sold those off and bought dozens of small and big steel containers and labelled them with numbers. Moosad made a list and stuck it on the kitchen door to help identify their kitchenware. For example, according to Moosad’s inventory, green gram was in box no 18, fenugreek in box no. 9 and coffee powder in box no. 37. “Today, my kitchen is 100 per cent plastic-free,” he says.
Jumping off a system that zips along on the wheels of convenience is hard. But this tiny tribe of naysayers, who have examined their lifestyles and found it wanting, who can join the dots between dumping unsegregated waste in their bins and the garbage piling up on their streets, who are willing to get their hands dirty in compost bins, is also creating a demand for alternatives.
“There is a category of consumers, between 24 and 35 years, who are looking for ethical and sustainable alternatives when they shop,” says Saurabh Pandey of Better India in Bengaluru. Six months ago, the website that curates positive stories of entrepreneurship and change, started an e-commerce platform for eco-friendly, biodegradable products, called Karnival. It partners with a list of 1,000 sellers of cloth pads, compost bins, coconut scrubs and shampoo bars, many of them small handicraft units in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. “We have seen a 50-60 per cent growth month on month. Most of our consumers are early adopters of a sustainable lifestyle,” says Pandey. One of their best-selling products are water-saving devices; the sale of bamboo toothbrushes reached 5,000 units a month in October.
It’s a myth that sustainable products are expensive. Bamboo toothbrushes, for instance, range from Rs 80-Rs 160 a piece. Some products are more expensive, say 10-20 per cent more, but that’s because they are being produced by smaller entrepreneurs who have not reached economies of scale. If consumer demand grows, bigger companies will enter the fray. For instance, Colgate has launched a brand of bamboo toothbrush in Europe,” says Pandey.
As a conscious consumer, just how far can you go to prevent the pile of waste that results from your monthly grocery shopping? On a busy Sunday, customers troop into Adrish, a zero-waste store in Pune, carrying cans and bags, just as they shopped in the old days. Those who don’t, are handed paper packets or glass jars, the latter on loan. Store staff measure out organic products, ranging from grain to oils to spices to snacks, from glass dispensers. The prices are competitive, partly because “there’s no packaging cost to pass on to the buyers and it comes directly from the farmers, ” says Akshay Agarwal, the 26-year-old founder of Adrish. Till a few years ago, the former chartered accountant was not aware of “anything called organic”. Since then, he has co-founded a chain of stores selling organic food, Satvik, which works with 8,000 farmers across 14 states and one union territory.
His second venture, Adrish, has expanded to four stores, three of which are in Pune, and one is in Saket, Delhi, taking the annual turnover from both to Rs 8 crore. There were road bumps on the way. Transporting oils in metal containers is a challenge as spillage is a major concern. Grains in cotton or jute sacks do not last through a rainy season. “So now, we use 50 kg-60 kg jute sacks lined with recyclable plastic. Inside, grains are packed in five-six cotton bags,” says Agarwal.
For Agarwal, business has come with a change in lifestyle: He uses a neem comb, turmeric powder and oil for his teeth, eats out of bronze plates and wears old sandals repeatedly repaired by the cobbler. “We are trying to go back to how we used to be. People don’t have to aspire for a 100 per cent waste-free lifestyle as it is very difficult. If enough people reduce waste by 50-60 per cent, we can save our planet,” says Agarwal.
Seeking a low-carbon life can open up unexpected paths. This one leads to a house in Sadashivnagar, Bengaluru, cheekily called the “Kachra Mane” or House of Trash. It is a minimalist house, generously open to light and air, thanks to “walls” made of glass and pinewood — and it is almost entirely made of discarded material. “The point was to prove that there is nothing called trash,” says owner GV Dasarathi, 59. Ten years ago, when the mechanical engineer thought of making a house, he was certain that he wanted one that caused minimum damage to the environment. “In the construction industry, there is very little reuse or recycling. You just break old buildings. You chuck the concrete into lakes or dump the sanitaryware on streets. We decided to build a house out of reused material. To reuse, reduce and rethink,” he says.
The first step was to choose the right material, to reduce the use of concrete, steel, sand or even glazed tiles. In Bengaluru’s second-hand bazaars, where stuff from demolished buildings go to die, Dasarathi found what he needed for two toilets — washbasin, commodes, sinks, the pipe fittings, all for Rs 7,000. The beautiful buttery-brown pinewood for the windows, doors and beams came from discarded crates. “All the machinery we import from Canada or northern Europe travel here in these thick crates,” says Dasarathi. Conversations with demolition contractors, who tear down homes for a cost, led him to a person who sold him glass salvaged from demolished buildings for his home. The roof is made of corrugated bamboo sheets, not concrete. “Even this,” he says, pointing to a gourd-shaped earthen lampshade, “is from someone’s bag of dry waste,” he says, twinkle in eye.
For Dasarathi, the house is not an isolated instance of “green living”; it comes with an awareness of the need to consume less of everything — so, no ordering in, riding a cycle to work, minimal online deliveries, groceries carted in cloth bags, and almost a zero-detergent policy. “Detergent is more toxic than the dirt on this floor, or on my clothes. It pollutes our water bodies. I wear dark-coloured clothes and dunk them in plain water for 50 washes before using detergent once. My clothes never go into the washing machine,” he says. Most of the appliances in the house are second-hand, as is the beautiful Ikea chair in which his dog has snuggled in for a nap.
If construction waste can be turned into a house, what can we do with the discards of everyday life? For artist Medha Bhat, the answer to that question led to First Forest, a platform she set up in Trivandrum in 2009. It began when a landfill in a village near Trivandrum had to be closed down because it had begun to contaminate the groundwater sources. As the municipal authorities stopped collecting waste, it was up to each house to deal with it.
“I was convinced that upcycling should not cater to just a few recesses of society. I started with my neighbourhood. I went door- to-door, giving an empty bag in which to segregate and accumulate household waste like old clothes, paper, cardboard, cornflakes boxes, plastic bottles, knick-knacks etc. for upcycling. First Forest then got a studio space where the waste was cleaned, stored and upcycled into uniquely designed handcrafted products,” says Bhat, who has now moved to Gujarat. It showed her the limits of individual action, and the need to strike a conversation collectively.
A mother-daughter duo in Guwahati, Alaka and Parmita Sarma, has also started on that difficult conversation. If people decide to burn their garbage or plastic, the Sarmas are the first to protest. They have also distributed bamboo baskets to their neighbours to collect polythene bags. “We take these to the school where it is recycled,” says Alaka. The school they run, Akshar, is located close to the beautiful Deepor Beel, a wetland. Here, it is compulsory for children to give 25 items of plastic waste every week, which is then converted into “eco-bricks”. “Eco-bricks are basically plastic bottles — big and small — stuffed with polythene bags, that would have been dumped or burned. These then serve as ‘bricks’ for simple constructions in school: either used to build roads or bathrooms on campus. Imagine achieving this without burning plastic, without spending anything,” says Parmita.
This awareness is up against apathy and systems of waste management that are simply not up to the challenge. For some, that has meant taking the message to the next generation. In Auroville, Puducherry, an NGO reaches out to schools across Tamil Nadu with their “garbology curriculum”, to educate students on climate change, pollution and health hazards. It also trains them to tell good plastic from bad.
“Quite often, the talk about plastic is like background noise for people. Unless they are trained to read the language of plastic, they will not make better choices,” says Ribhu Vohra, co-founder, WasteLess. The children are trained to read resin codes, found at the bottom of an item or on a label, which is either the number or the acronym in a triangle. Code 1 indicates single-use plastic, Code 4 plastic lining, which makes things waterproof, but should be avoided. If a plastic item has no code or number on it, the manufacturer is either using a very high-grade quality or one that is extremely unsafe for one’s health and environment.
The urban Indian household once ran on frugality, squeezing the utility of every object through darning, mending, and repurposing — from toothpaste tubes to chappal straps and Milkmaid tins. Bhat recalls growing up in Pune, using second-hand textbooks, reading comics and storybooks bought from raddiwalas. In the 1980s, Sarma spent a few years in the hills of Nagaland, which set her on a life of “voluntary simplicity”. “It wasn’t like they were taking conscious decisions to live simply or say, even avoid plastic. It was just their way of life. Plastic is only a part of the problem — the consumerist attitude in most developed societies is to blame,” she says.
“The rate at which we discard does not match up to the speed of upcycling. Sustainable, green, eco-friendly labels on products reinforce the myth that there is someone out there to recycle! But only by buying less, reusing and making informed choices can one hope for a cleaner environment,” says Bhat, who also looks forward to a day when every neighbourhood would have a toy repairing shop that children would flock to.
That dream came close to reality in Bengaluru last week, when 40 children of an alternative school took part in a special edition of repair café for young ones. “They repaired bicycles and soft toys, bound torn books and mended clothes. They were surprisingly very good with their hands,” says Purna Sarkar, co-founder of the only repair café in India.
In a consumerist economy, repair is a radical act. But in India, with deep-rooted traditions of jugaad and fixing, repair is a way of life. Since November 2015, the 40-odd repair café pop-ups organised by this group of dogged repairers in Bengaluru has saved 4,500 kg of stuff from reaching the landfill. People have turned up with broken cassette players, toasters, fans, as well as earrings, umbrellas and WorldSpace radios and returned with them fixed. “We find that young people — college students, those who have just started earning or those settled in professional lives — are not that interested. Sometimes, if you use trendy words like upcycling, they are drawn in. Children are always very enthusiastic about repairing and fixing things. But it is senior citizens who are very attached to their things, who want to fix and keep them,” says Sarkar, a former HR professional, who started the cafe with her friend Antara Mukherji, and then found other enthusiasts joining in. “We realised that this was a major disconnect in our lives. But we didn’t want to service people for money. The cafe is not for you to come and get things fixed, but get involved in the process,” says Mukherji.
The café is held every few months in the basement of a hospital, or travels as a pop-up to different neighbourhoods. Much like the informal economy of recycling run by less privileged entrepreneurs, repairers thrive under the radar of the organised economy. “But the city is becoming too expensive for them. They are being forced to move from the main roads to the inside lanes, or even out of the city,” says Ashok, a retired professional from a chemical company and a repair café regular.
For each of them, repairing goes hand in hand with attempts to live a more conscious life. Ashok once made an e-waste bin for use in his neighbourhood; Sarkar carries her bins to the grocer’s when she goes shopping for monthly utilities; Mukherji makes different kinds of soil for her terrace garden by composting. “But, most of all, we have all discovered the immense joy of working with our hands,” says Sarkar.
For many sceptics, the call to change individual lifestyles is a cop-out in the absence of structural changes to the economic system. Sarkar shares that scepticism. “I am not driven by the idea of being sustainable, which has become a fad. We can save stuff from going to the landfill, but how much more is being produced? I am driven by the sense that we cannot leave the world in such a mess for the next generation,” she says.
For her, repair instead has become a way to mend the holes in social relationships. “What I treasure is the community we have created. In cities, we all live lonely lives. Here, we come together. We share our skills. We do not compete,” she says. “This, too, is sustainability,” adds Mukherji.
With inputs from Vishnu Varma, Dipanita Nath and Tora Agarwala. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Last Straw’