Plastic Free July is a global movement to reduce plastic waste. It is an initiative that I began to learn about and share ideas from while working in India where the waste crisis is of monumental proportions. One of the fortunate things that the month long event highlights is that there are a range of solutions from saying “no” to single-use plastics to creating new circular (use-collect-repurpose-renew for reuse) methods that address systemic problems in the traditional linear economy (take-make-dispose in landfills).
I wanted to delve into some of these solutions by using my newly released book, Bare Necessities: How to Live a Zero Waste Life, co-authored with Sahar Mansoor founder of her own zero-waste enterprise.
It is an easy-to-use guide that equips you with the tools to make positive changes to your life and the environment by providing activities, insights, recipes, tips and how-to guides. This article is the third of three to be published this July. Today we will be looking at the three broadest chapters of the book that provide ideas and insights in areas of your life where you may not have complete control of the systems and processes occurring but you have a core role to play as an active citizen who wants to live in a clean and healthy environment.
‘India is the fifth-largest producer of electronics waste, or e-waste, in the world, generating close to 2 million metric tonnes in 2016. It faces a huge crisis with e-waste management. Although the Indian government introduced its first dedicated e-waste management policy in 2011 and expanded its scope in 2016, less than 5 per cent of e-waste in India is recycled through formally regulated units. The informal sector handles the rest, with very little control for environmental and worker health and safety.’
With so many parts of our communities generating waste (i.e. home delivery products, packaging from homeware, e-waste from constantly upgraded technology), where can we begin to make a difference?
Humans live and work in amazing systems. These days they are so complex that there is a need for specialisation in many instances from those collecting waste (if you get a chance have a conversation with a waste worker to learn how resource rich with knowledge they are) to people delivering goods and services to various locations around your community. It is this specialisation that I want to highlight today to simplify the process of reducing waste in your community.
Even in a city the size of Mumbai this specialisation can be achieved as Sahar explains: “I would argue that Mumbai is best defined not by its skyscrapers but by its local trains and dabbawalas (the city’s famous lunchbox delivery and return system).
The dabbawalas use the local trains to deliver home-cooked food to (hundreds of thousands) of Mumbaikars. They really need a whole book on themselves, with their entrepreneurial spirit and hustle, but for now these fun facts and a Harvard business case will have to do.”
Of course not everyone can or will become an expert in delivering the famous tiffin boxes across a mega city like Mumbai but by carrying your lunch to work or school, learning where you can recycle your old phone or laptops or promoting change in how waste is collected in your community, you can help make a difference in a unique way.
Below I have detailed a select few examples from our book of e-waste recyclers and organisations that focus on community connections and knowledge sharing to find sustainable solutions to the waste crisis. Learn a little more about them online and find similar enterprises close to you this Plastic Free July! By participating you will be an active and engaged citizen of this month long movement to reduce plastic waste globally.
- Karo Sambhav: This is a country-wide organization currently spread across twenty-nine states, three union territories and over sixty cities. Through a technology enabled e-waste management programme, they provide producers and global brands with comprehensive Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) services.
- Namo e-Waste: They provide ‘door-to-door services to ensure that your e-waste is collected with convenience’ and transported to their recycling plants where they extract those parts which can be reused and sustainably dispose of the rest in an environment-friendly way. Their mission is to ensure that at least 50 per cent of e-waste produced in India is disposed sustainably.
Zero-Waste Community Organisations of India
- SWaCH: Located in Pune, SWaCH is India’s first wholly owned cooperative of self-employed waste collectors.
- Saahas Zero Waste: Located in Bengaluru, Saahas is a socio-environmental enterprise with over seventeen years of experience in waste management and resource recovery.
- Y-East (an initiative of Techno India Group): This is a platform that connects all individual and organizational actors of, from and for east and north-east India, basically all citizens, NGOs, corporations, investors, start-ups, public entities, educational institutions who truly care about social and environmental impact and want to do something about it in these regions, in their own desired and possible capacity.
- Anthill Creations: This is a not-for-profit organization that aims to ‘bring back play for all age groups by building sustainable playscapes’, using contextual designs and localised resources and encouraging community participation.
‘The effectiveness of green technologies in modern cities, especially in waste management, depends on the level of participation of citizens. People are active participants in the life processes of cities and have a direct impact on the urban environment.’
If a community is complex on a small scale cities are exponentially more complex, what ways can you have a direct impact in reducing plastic and other forms of waste in the city you live?
Sustainable solutions from businesses and individuals are having impacts in various ways in the examples we provide in India, from coconut vendors who use coconut-leaf straws instead of plastic to waste pickers gaining more structured employment support. I have expanded on a select few of these examples from the book below for you.
Zero-Waste Champions of India
- Evlogia Eco Care (creators of the coconut leaf ‘Leafy Straw’): This is a start-up that comes up with eco-friendly and healthy innovations meant for daily use by common people.
- Kabadiwalla Connect: They help leverage a city’s existing informal waste infrastructure in the collection and processing of post-consumer waste.
Additionally, innovations from zero-waste champions have an impact at the national and international levels, involving prominent people in the government who are in positions to promote these solutions. Sahar’s thoughts in the chapter provide a great perspective for you that may enable you to focus on tangible actions rather than becoming overwhelmed at the complexity of your city.
“These are terrific role models for sure! However, not everyone can be a big influencer or start a business that has the opportunity to bring about city-wide changes. In fact, many don’t want to be, which is perfectly fine! Remember that every little effort, added with others across the city, can make a monumental difference. You can move towards a zero-waste lifestyle in numerous, easy-to-achieve ways.’
There are many other ways that you can become an active citizen from using reusables to taking waste back home with you for correct recycling if there are no bins available when you are out and about. Another fantastic fun and interactive option provided in this chapter is to organise your own clean-up.
How to Organise Your Own Clean-Up
- Identify a site (try to choose a place that needs a good clean and ensure that volunteers can get to the site safely)
- Visit the location before the clean-up to make sure it is ready (by checking beforehand you can change the site if you need to)
- Appoint someone in charge who can coordinate
- Gather supplies and safety equipment, such as bags, masks, gloves or ask your volunteers to bring their own
- Good planning is key. Make sure you know what you will be doing with recyclables and non-recyclable items beforehand. You can coordinate with nearby recycling centres, for instance
- Depending on the size of your event, you could get event partners on board
- Ensure that everyone knows what to do for hazardous waste. For instance, you could have a specific container to place dangerous material in
- Advertise the event online and in your community to gain volunteers
- On the day, stay organized and visit your site. Stay safe when collecting the waste and placing into the bag and keep up good levels of hygiene so that everyone leaves as healthy as they were when you began
- Make sure to take pictures to share the good work that your team has done!
An important thing to remember is that change is about steady progress toward understanding how goods and services are created, delivered and collected by key groups of stakeholders within the city. By valuing the resources around us we will likely all be amazed at what can be achieved, whether that is in our homes, our communities, cities or as we will see below, the world.
‘Getting a grip on the mountains of solid waste produced by humanity is central to the (UN Environment) assembly’s goal of moving earth “towards a pollution-free planet”. After all, poorly contaminated rubbish contaminates our air, water and soil, and represents a colossal waste of the planet’s finite resources.’
Who feels the impact of the waste you or I generate on a daily basis and what can we all do about it?
“I want to conclude these insights with two terms that I have found to be really useful. I discovered these while travelling to locations in India and abroad: responsibility and balance. I think about my niece often when I reflect on these things. . . I really want to be someone who helps my niece have similar opportunities to what I have had. I want her to be able to see the natural world without waste discards on mountaintops, littered across desert plains or bobbing up and down in the water. She did not cause any of those issues, not yet, but she will most likely be confronted by them, like many young people are today, if things do not change.”
As in all the topics within the book we provide a couple of useful illustrations that build on the thoughts expressed by Sahar above. I’ll detail a few more solutions that you can become a part of by being an active citizen and valuing resources below. First, have a look at the differences between a linear style system on a global scale and a circular, make sure to get your hands on a copy to learn more about these concepts.
A large part of creating a world that implements the circular economy will be personal, formed on the basis of decisions based on an understanding of the effects of individual and wider-scale actions. It is also about knowing that you can make a difference with small changes. Acknowledging that all of these factors are nuanced is important, too, as is learning about changes to the waste system that are occurring globally.
Many examples of organisations provided in the book have seen a positive change for the environment because of knowledge sharing and partnerships like the couple I have listed from the book below. You can become involved with these groups, share the impact they are making and connect with like-minded people near you. Learning about groups like these two can really inspire to see what is possible for you, me and the other 7 billion of us.
Indian Adventures with a Social and Environmental Ethos
- India Hikes: This is an organisation of like-minded nature enthusiasts, hikers and adventurers who aim to leave the mountains in a better state than they found it. They take compostable bags with them to collect any waste that they find. It’s an amazing community that grows every year.
- Green Venture: This is an experiential and educational start-up that brings together knowledge, wisdom, learning in biodiversity, horticulture, gardening, trees, insect-plant relationships, etc., connecting and engaging individuals to the natural world.
There are so many resources and ideas to share these days. Keep making incremental steps to reducing your waste this Plastic Free July! This is the final article in this series, thanks so much for showing an interest in this month long initiative and the knowledge we are sharing from our book. Feel free to connect with myself or Sahar if you have any questions.
You can gain your own copy of India’s first zero-waste guidebook here:
- Bare Necessities
- Penguin India
- Amazon for an e-book (Kindle) version
- Rakuten for an e-book (Kobo) version
- Bookstores across India.