04 November 2017

A year of trying to live sustainably

I was never much of a shopper. Shopping malls made me anxious. Even before hearing of minimalism, zero waste, and similar concepts I wasn't comfortable with our "disposable" culture. Perhaps my background in alternative journalism, some values handed down by my parents, especially my mother, and a connection with rural life saved me from a life of splurge.

But, of course, I have been guilty, too. Most of my sins against the Earth were because of ignorance. That's no excuse, I know, but the fact remains that I like many people didn't know how a habit or some possessions of mine were injuring the Earth beyond repair or didn't know of alternatives that existed. Even now, a year after I became conscious of the waste I create and my lifestyle, I have hardly become carbon-negative or even -neutral. Far from it.

So, I write this post not from a holier-than-thou standpoint. I recognize that I have only begun and have a long way to go. I am also mindful of my own previous ways, so I would not be the first to cast a stone. Still, I write this so that it may inspire others to join me on this journey of fearlessness and love.

For, cutting down waste, reducing our carbon footprint is a lot about letting go of the things that bring ephemeral joy. Hence, it is about being fearless, as it does require courage to go without the things that we thought were essential for our existence or helped build a sense of security, albeit false. That is, zero waste is not just about avoiding plastic or having an empty dustbin--though these are lofty goals to have by themselves.

Cutting down on waste and making an effort to live sustainably is about, among other things, realising our true self worth, our place in the universe, our connection with nature. If this doesn't make sense, start on the journey and you'll see how it all fits in.

For me, it is also about truly loving your children. If I wish them to be happy and lead a wholesome life, how can I with my own hands pollute the soil, water, and air that my children need?

I’m writing this post to commemorate a year of drastically cutting down on unnecessary consumption items or replacing them with plastic-free, naturally or locally available items, or ones that have a place in the circular economy. In this period, I have taken complete responsibility for the wet waste I create. As for dry waste, the emphasis is on striving to not create it in the first place. But if it does get created, then I make efforts to take responsibility for it. Here's my journey so far.

Wet/Food waste or kitchen scraps
We cook our food fresh and try as much as possible to not cook more than what we need for a day. So, most of our leftovers are vegetable and fruit peels, but then there’s also food waste sometimes despite the best of our efforts.

From our food waste, we give to the neighbourhood cow whatever she will eat. The rest finds its way to our compost pots.

Composting was how my waste consciousness started. Food scraps is something everyone produces everyday – and that’s true even when you eat out. Food scraps or wet/organic waste accounts for 50-60% of the daily total waste you produce. So, it was a revelation of sorts for me to realize that everyone can actually take care of this major constituent of their waste on their own. And, this is true even for city-dwellers.

For me, composting has been pure poetry (but hey, I’m not the only one). For, how else can I describe the experience of seeing food waste turn into rich, black, sweet-smelling mud?

(Above is a picture of my first harvest of compost earlier this year. Since then, we have made about 20 kg of compost from our kitchen waste.)

The other magical thing about composting is that it automatically makes you sensitive to all the dry/inorganic waste that you generate. And, once you segregate to compost, handling dry waste becomes easier and manageable. Your dustbin is no more that big pile of intimidating, stinking waste that you know not what to do with and hence bag and throw.

Now, you can actually reach into your dustbin and start categorizing your dry waste. You start “seeing” all the waste and began to think about how it came to be in your dustbin in the first place: did you need that item at all? If so, what's the non-toxic, local alternative to it that could come from renewable sources? And, now that it's in your dustbin, how best can you handle it, so that it doesn't reach the landfill?

These and related questions fill up your mind. There’s no going back from here. There’s no more randomly picking up things that you may never need from the shelves of a supermarket. Hell, I’d doubt if you’d even want to step into a supermarket, unless it's the last resort. (Whenever you can, and this is very much possible in India, buy from kirani stores. It's best to have a human being between you and the commodity. The very process of the shopkeeper asking you what you want and then handing it over to you physically poses stumbling blocks to impulse buying.)

I began looking for ways in which I, personally, and as a member of a family, could reduce the amount of dry waste I generated.

The usual plastic waste in my home is mainly of these types: HDPE cans of domestic cleaners, PET bottles of medicines, plastic bags used for food packaging, and other random items such as an old plastic clock that may have conked out. In the last year, we have been able to cut down all these types of waste majorly by simply (1) refusing to buy things that come packaged in plastic; (2) finding plastic packaging-free alternatives for those items that we can’t do without; and (3) lastly, recycle.

There’s a reason that recycle is the last option in the ways to handle plastic waste. That’s because plastic has a limited recycling life and despite how you upcycle it, the truth is that it will end up as waste in the true sense of the term.

We carry cloth bags whenever we step out, even if we are not going out specifically to buy. Often, we remember a grocery item or some vegetables that we need to buy when we see them in stores or on the street outside. So, always having a foldable cloth bag on you is a good idea.

Next, for items such as rava, rice, etc. that we buy loose, we are in the process of getting cloth drawstring bags stitched, like you see in the pic below.

And, while we were never big consumers of packed and processed food items such as chips, if the craving does strike us we buy from the local bakery which has the transparent plastic bags, rather than the branded ones that come in metallised polymer film packaging, which is notoriously hard to recycle.

I send plastic bags to a recycling unit in Hyderabad, which turns them into fuel. To me, this seems like the best possible end to the plastic bag cycle. Here’s their address:

Poil Technologies,
B-25, BHEL Ancillary,
Near Priya Cement Godown,
Ashok Nagar, BHEL RC Puram,,
Hyderabad - 502032
Cell phone: 9348499922 

I have here a photo list of all the different types of plastic bags that they accept. If you wish to send your plastic bags here, ensure that the bags are clean and free of any food or organic matter.

As for the HDPE bottles of domestic cleaners, I have been able to minimize their use by making fruit enzymes. As fruit or garbage enzymes take time in making, I haven't yet been able to maintain the supply chain. Personally, I wouldn't care to use any cleaners regularly for floor or sinks and toilets, as they are not required at all. But other members of my family insist on adding some cleaner, hence the need to make fruit enzymes.     

The one thing that every Indian recycles is newspaper, so you’d probably think that we’re doing all we can at least when it comes to paper. Well, actually, we recycle less than a third of the paper we use.

This could partly be because we don't think of all the bits of paper, cardboard, packaging paper, envelopes, etc., as recyclable. And, again this is because our raddiwalas refuse to take any other paper other than newspaper and magazines – at least, mine does.

Luckily, I have been able to find a paper products factory in my town that accepts all types of paper and even old cotton clothes for pulping. I collect each scrap of paper and collect in sacks. Every couple of months, my sack fills and I make my trip to the paper factory.

I have been giving our old newspapers to a local charitable organization that uses it to make paper bags and craft items.

The plastic packaging industry has made glass recycling very unprofitable.  So, scrap glass now goes for Re 1 per kg. No wonder scrap dealers in my town don't touch glass.

I searched high and low for a glass recycler in my town, but in vain. Finally, I serendipitously found a wholesale scrap glass dealer in the bigger, neighbouring city of Hubli. I usually happen to go to Hubli once every six months or so. And, that’s when I haul my glass waste to this bemused person. Of course, he won’t take broken glass or bulbs: that goes on an entirely different trip to Kolkata, which I visit once a year or so.

Currently, I generate none, except batteries occasionally. A local wholesale scrap dealer agreed to take them and I was very surprised, given his peers’ general apathy towards used batteries. One of these days, I must have a discussion with him on what actually happens to these batteries.

Though e-waste is not something I generate daily—hardly anyone would, I guess—I am mindful of the fact that I use devices and one day they may turn into electronic waste. So, I am trying to reduce my device usage in the hope that it will increase their longevity. I also try to take better care of them like protecting them from dust.

Un-compostable organic waste
We use a lot of coconuts in our house to make wonderful chutney, of course, and to make oil. This leaves us with loads of coconut husk and shells. I have now started to use the husk as mulch material in my garden. We give away the shells to our maid or the tea stall vendor in our area who use it as fuel for their ovens.

By un-compostable, I mean that it can't be composted easily at home. 

Sanitary napkins
For a long time after I became conscious of the waste I produce, my periods were a disconcerting time. I was creating so much waste every month through sanitary napkins and there didn't seem to be a way out. Until I found out about the menstrual cup. I read up all about it, yet was a little suspicious of its efficacy and ease of use. But that didn't stop me from trying and I am so glad about it.

There was a small learning curve, of course. And until I became fully confident, I’d wear a back-up cloth napkin (yes, I had discovered cloth napkins, too, by then) or not venturing too far out from home on the heavy flow days. I could afford to do that as I work from home. But I got the hang of it pretty quickly and now there’s no fear.

As for cloth napkins, I find them a little inconvenient during monsoon. After every wash, it takes a napkin nearly a week to dry in damp weather. But it’s fine during the drier months.

Below is a list of items that are either made of plastic or come packaged in plastic; or unsustainably made that I have been able to refuse, replace, or find alternatives to.  

Replaced plastic ones with bamboo. The bristles are still nylon, but I’ll take bamboo brushes over plastic ones any day. They are quite expensive, if you compare it with the maximum retail price of plastic brushes. A bamboo brush costs Rs 120. But it might be actually cheap if you take the cost of recycling the plastic brushes and the fact that it’ll ultimately reach the end of its recycling potential and pile up on ocean beds.

I initially switched to handmade, perfume-less soaps made of natural oils. Soap-making seems to be quite a cottage industry these days -- I have found several individuals who are making soaps using coconut oil and other locally available materials. Some of them are expensive, though.

About a month ago, I went soap-free, except to wash hands. It’s been smooth sailing so far.  

I use soapnuts to wash my hair. Superb lathering. Never need anything else. When on the road, I use shampoo bars.   

I soak the soapnuts overnight in just enough water to drown them. Boil it the next day. Then use the boiled water, plus the water squeezed from the soapnuts. Throw the soapnuts in your garden or in your compost pile.  

Soapnuts again. I soak them overnight in about 500 ml of water and boil them the next day. Then, I squeeze them with my hands and tie them up in an old sock and chuck it in the washing machine along with the water I boiled it in. The whole process takes about 10 minutes more than adding detergent.

Switched to Colgate toothpowder. Because, this is the only toothpowder that still comes in a metal tin.

I still have dental floss with me which I had bought in bulk. Will have to figure out what do I do for flossing when these get over.

I had stopped using all cosmetics except lipstick and kajal many years ago. These still are my favourite and I use them occasionally. While I have switched to a lipstick that has natural ingredients, I can’t escape the fact that the packaging will end up as waste. I am hoping to find a lipstick and kajal that perhaps come in a metal container. Kajal used to in the old days. Else, I will simply have to give this up or make my own. Kajal can be made at home, I’ve heard.

This hasn't been a huge challenge to me. I used to buy clothes twice a year: once for my birthday and then for Durga Puja or Deepavali. From now on, I have resolved to buy only when I need to. So, it may not even be an annual purchase item. I have a knack for making clothes last long, thanks to the training given by my mother. So, I still have clothes from more than a decade ago and in very good shape. It gives the impression that I have a lot of new clothes, but many of them have simply been well-preserved.

And, when I do buy, it will be cotton. That’s the easy part, though. The tough part will be ensuring that the cotton is grown organically and is non-BT; has been stitched by people who don't work in sweatshop conditions; and is dyed with natural materials. Ticking off all these boxes is not going to be easy. But then, when apparel buying itself becomes a rare event, you can do enough research and find organizations that are striving to produce such cloth and buy directly from them.

I own some synthetic clothes. They account for about 5-10% of all the clothes I have and most of it was gifted.

I didn't know about microfiber pollution until last year. And, what I have done about my synthetic clothes since? Nothing. I am not throwing them away, as that’s not going to help either. They will simply stay in my wardrobe. All I can do here on is just not buy them anymore and hope that no one ever gifts them to me either.

I only use a pen when I have to fill in an official form, where writing in a pen would be mandatory. And, I hardly have to do that everyday, so it’s been months since I touched a pen. It’s all pencils. Recently, a friend gifted me a paper pencil. It can’t get better than this.

 Challenges still ahead

One very common hurdle in trying to cut down waste is that the people whom you live with may not always be on the same page. And, many a time, it may affect your own efforts to live sustainably. This is a difficult part of the journey. I try to navigate through this in two ways:

1.     Never to assume a ‘we’ versus ‘they’ position. No place for self-righteousness.
2.     Show, not tell. Doing rather than telling works better. When people can see for themselves, they understand. Gradually, there is a shift.  

Next, I feel that zero waste is just a milestone, not a destination. And, this is why I am not completely convinced about the use of the term “zero waste”, but I understand its spirit and would rather not quibble on terminology.

The point is that as we reduce our waste, we also need to become increasingly vigilant about what we consume. It involves:
1.     Knowing the food we eat. Where does it come from? How is it grown? Who are the people growing it? How much of this food can we grow ourselves?
2.     Knowing the clothes we wear. Where does it come from? Is it natural fiber or synthetic? If it’s natural fiber—cotton—how were our resources affected by its production and what will happen when they are finally disposed?
3.     Knowing the resources we consume as a domestic unit? Can we create humanure, instead of sewage? How to use local materials when building a house? Do we need the second or third flat, which we’re buying as investment, rather than for a real need?
4.     Stopping to consider if we are snatching anything from someone in the process of our consumption? (Hint: We almost always are.)
5.     Using transport systems judiciously. Can we walk to the neighbourhood store, or perhaps cycle there? Can we take a bus or any other form of public transport? If we must own a car, can it be an electric, or at least a petrol one?
6.     The education we give to our children. Will it teach them to live in harmony with nature and other fellow human beings? Do they understand how we are interconnected and inter-dependent?

The first and big step here is to seek to understand. This will open up many questions ranging from “How do I get packaging-free X?” to “What do I do about the fact that 1,000+ people attended my wedding and caused God-knows-how-much waste apart from setting a very wrong ‘aspirational living’ example?”

The past is not a thing you can change, but the present and future are full of possibilities. And, questioning and seeking to understand our existence is a powerful process, which can and does open up the paths ahead. So, while it may initially seem depressing and overwhelming, hang in there and take it slow. Sustainable living is as hopeful and meaningful as it gets.

30 April 2017

Hating or loving Dangal?

A few days I had an email conversation with a friend of mine on the movie Dangal. She said she hated the movie for the following reason:

Mr Phogat, played by Aamir Khan, foists his wrestling dreams on his daughters. While the girls go on to excel at the sport, this does not take away from the fact that Mr Phogat is undoubtedly a patriarchal figure, who actually may need therapy over his unresolved issues, my friend says.

I could understand her line of reasoning, but I presented some counterpoints:

If you switch wrestling with, say, academic excellence, which would certainly ring a bell with most of the audience, then you would not have a movie. (Actually, academic excellence may be the wrong term. It's just acing the exams that we are after.)

For, that's what it is about: your parent making your career choices for you and making you bring their dreams to reality. 

Yet, there's also a few other things to consider here: there comes a point in the movie where the girls realize they are privileged for having wrestling as a career option as compared to a life of domesticity. Here's where they stop pushing back and own their father's dream. Of course, you may ask what choice do they have? 

But if we do find joy and meaning in what we are doing, does it matter so much how we came unto that choice? Does it matter that there were other roads (worn out though they maybe)?

Thing is, yes if Phogat weren't in rural Haryana, he should have been consulting a shrink. Or, if he was asking his daughters to ace the JEE exams. But because he is in rural Haryana where female-male ratio is one of the lowest in the country, the choices he makes for his daughters definitely make him swim against the mainstream, and thereby qualify him to be a hero. 

Yes, he is making the decisions for his daughters, but would feminists be happy if he were not to? That is, if he were to just accept that wrestling was not for his daughters and married them away? 

If you remove the particular circumstances of a story, you end up with a controlled environment. But then all human reality would more or less be the same, removing perhaps the necessity for art and its criticism.

Dangal can be looked at from the alternative education viewpoint, too and you would arrive at much the same points and counterpoints. Phogat’s way of parenting is very much mainstream, parent-led rather than being child-led.

But does the outcome justify the means? Again, this is not an easy question to answer. For, if it were just mainstream academics that the father was pushing the girls into, the answer would be straightforward enough. However, in rural Haryana, if Phogat hadn’t exposed his girls to another possible world for them, they would have hardly had a chance at life, much less sporting excellence. How would the girls know what they had in them if their father hadn’t shoved them into the akhada?

But does that validate the rat race Indian parents enter their children in, with the justification that they know what’s best? Hardly, I’d say. Still, this movie does pose some tricky questions.

Life, and living it

This is a post I wrote in 2008 and never published. My grandmother (Ajji) lived five more years. Among the people whom I have seen pass away, she and Jyoti Sanyal are the ones who still live fresh in my memory. 

Ajji was a remarkable woman. She once gave me her definition of beauty: "When you have two hands, two legs, and all other organs given by God in perfect shape, what else can you be but beautiful?" She was the kindest, most loving woman I have known. And, her love for children stayed intact after the many years of bearing and rearing children. 

Ajji is standing beside me, peering into my laptop. I ask her if she wants to try her hand at the computer. She doesn't say anything, but comes closer, grinning. I type out her name in very big font. She reads out each alphabet, puts them together mentally, and says with a wide smile, “LAKSHMI.” She stumps me with her life spirit each time I see her. She always has been, all these years. Then, she asks if I can take pictures from the laptop. I say there's no camera attached.

“Oh, I wanted you to take pictures of me,” she says. Am a little surprised, but I just tell her that I can take pics from my mobile. “Oh good, then you must take pictures of me. You'll need it ... later ... give a copy to your mom here..., you too take a copy and go. Aamele bekaagtade (you'll need it later),” she says.

I understand, but only a moment later. My stupid grin disappears. I feel empty in the stomach. My mom is raising her voice over the din of the music am playing, and explaining some recipe to me. My eyes cloud over. I look at ajji, she's still smiling, standing beside me. I tell her I'll take her to a studio. She likes the idea.

My phone rings .... work calling. Ajji moves away.

Life's incredibly beautiful, isnt it, thanks to death?

19 February 2017

Too loud a solitude

Sometime ago when I heard about Ann Morgan’s journey through the world through books, I was fascinated by the idea. Apart from the cost of the books, I can’t see another affordable and authentic way of seeing the world. Of course, it can be argued that one book or one author can’t possibly tell you all there is to tell about one country. But think of it like this: when you meet someone from a distant land on a train or bus, you’re grateful for that opportunity – at least I am – to have been able to peep into another world and other lives. You don’t think of complaining, “Hey, not fair that I only got to meet one person from xyz country?”

I have decided to follow in Morgan’s steps and for those countries that I have no idea where to look for books or authors, I will follow her even in the books she has read. I think there will be a lot of such countries.

So, Too Loud a Solitude is my first step in this world tour. It’s written by Bohumil Hrabal in Czech and translated by Michael Henry Heim. Coincidentally, there’s a thread of commonality between my choice of the book and my renewed interest in waste management: the protagonist Hanta’s job is to compact waste paper. (There are accent marks missing from his name that I know not how to reproduce.)

Of course, the last thing that Hanta wants to do is to send fine books to their death. He’s been saving books from the paper compacter throughout his career of 35 years and has ended up with a stash of nearly two tons of books at his place.

Quaint things happen in Hanta’s life. Like for instance, the misfortune of his girlfriend who always seems to get faeces on her dress at the most public of moments. Or, how the kind, absent-minded philosophy professor routinely mistakes Hanta for his employer, an older man, when he has his hat on.

I keep looking for clues to the politics and culture of a place when I’m reading fiction. In Hrabal’s book, it comes in the form of the new-age paper compacting machine and its eager attendants – the Brigade of Socialist Labor – that Hanta feels threatened by, what with its inhumane vigour and its un-reading, uncaring staff.

Hanta is scandalized to see them drinking milk at work: “But the biggest shock came when I saw the young workers shamelessly guzzling milk and soft drinks – legs spread wide, hand on hip – straight from the bottle… think of drinking milk at work when everyone knows that even a cow would rather die of thirst than touch a drop of the stuff!” But his heart breaks when he sees them put in bales and bales of books without stopping for a moment to think about the thoughts and words they crush with their machine.

Soon, he finds himself replaced with these men from the Socialist Labour group. He has nowhere to go and roams around the city, guzzling down beer after beer. Finally, he decides to compact himself in his machine with his beloved wastepaper.  

I loved what he has done here by showing capitalism under the guise of socialism. The doing away of any appreciation of art is, of course, given here, but it also shows a disconnect between even man and the machine.

To Hanta, there’s no way you can travel to Greece without having read about Aristotle or Plato or even Goethe. So relevant in our times of consumerist culture where we flit about from land to land, ticking off places from our bucket list.

There never was a greater lover of books than Hanta, for he chose to be a wastepaper handler just so he could lay his hands on books. “…just as a beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth…”

As I read the book, I become very conscious of the fact that I too am holding a book in my hand and hope that I will never be callous enough to toss it in amidst waste paper. Hrabal renews my gratitude to authors who enable time travel, who pack their thoughts into words and share them with us, who lay bare before us beauty as well as misery. For, “real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.”