I will put my hand up here and say that I did not achieve my grand goal for #plasticfreejuly of living plastic-free for a month in India. I have now lived in India for a year, I know my way around the city I live in, the geography of the country and I can communicate without being able to say the words in each language. Despite that, despite everything that I knew and know and will learn I chose to seek perfection in an environment that is beautifully imperfect. A chaotic blend of everything that was and anything that will be. I lost my battle of perfection within the first 18 hours of the first day of July.
I cannot drink water from the tap in my house without, at the very least, the thought that I will gain an upset stomach and an extended time sitting above a bowl the following morning, from when I quenched my parched throat. Instead, I walk to a local convenience store a block from my home. It has small packets of detergents and chips and other snacks hanging from clips and pegs near the ceiling. It sells chocolates and noodle packets wrapped in single-use packaging, some of which are a mixture of materials- not solely one type of plastic for example. In the fridge to the right- it is a red fridge with double doors and sits outside the inside of the store (in case you are curious)- are packets of milk, curd, butter, boxes of juice with straws and other items that I never need and never think of buying because they are wrapped in plastic. However, I do need water.
I pay my eighty rupees in a combination of 10s, 20s, and/ or 50s, or present a larger bill to the shopkeeper. In return, in that instance, I receive a combination of 10s, 20s, and/ or 50s. Either way, in a quick fluid motion, I (all but) launch the purchased 20-litre bottle of H2O onto my left shoulder and wander back down the street. At the first corner, I need to twist far to my left because I am blinded by the object on my shoulder from the oncoming traffic, which is generally a combination of bicycles, scooters, motorbikes, green and yellow autorickshaws, cars, potentially a cow, a couple of dogs and once I saw a cat, a goat and two chickens but for simplicity sake let’s exclude the cat, the goat and the pair of birds. In this manner, I pass the largest hurdle of my trip home, cross the road without being knocked over, and walk passed the juice store that advertises sugar cane juice as though it is going out of style and the organic vegetable store that sits there with limited marketing in comparison.
I subsequently turn right and walk two-thirds of the way down the street I live on and place the bottle on my front fence, which is made of concrete. Then I open my gate and open my double wooden door. I pick up the bottle, take my shoes off, walk on the red-painted floor through two rooms, and place the bottle on the ground in front of the stool where the base of my manual water system resides. I tear off a filament of single-use plastic that is wrapped around the teal lid. The plastic crumples in my hand like the sound of the leaves that fall down from the tree that sits outside my front gate, dry and lifeless. I unscrew the cap and remove the three-millimetre ring that sits below the teal lid that I will return to the local shop with the 20 litres bottle after all the drops have fallen. Then, with a more gentle launch than the one I have practised and refined at the shop, I place the lidless bottle upside down into the bottom compartment of my manual water system where, with a gulp and a plop, all the water is contained.
On the 1st of July 2019, at roughly five thirty-three and twenty-nine seconds, I was left standing there, as the gulp and plop sound faded in my ears, with a three-millimetre teal coloured plastic ring and a thin filament of plastic that sounded like dry leaves when I crumpled it in my hand. Perfection had ended.
On Friday the 19th of July I was standing in front of a large rock in a park, as part of my professional capacity here in Bangalore, India. I was at a small event I had been invited to where I was undertaking a short talk for a youth group, #FridaysforFuture, about the zero waste business I consult for (Bare Necessities- Zero Waste India). They had taken it upon themselves to come together to speak about the concept of living plastic-free and about the need to address climate change within India. Both are pivotally important things to speak about, especially in this country where awareness and education about these issues need to increase.
Among the groups were newcomers and veterans to the realm of trying to live a plastic-free lifestyle in a country where it has become increasingly difficult to do so in the past couple of decades as the ease of plastic has outweighed tried and trusted methods of carrying products such as tiffin boxes. I applaud them all, they had terrific ideas about how to increase awareness and education, from returning plastic bags to a supermarket if they had to take one, to visiting rice traders instead of buying bags of rice from a shop, making shampoo out of Soapy Nuts and using menstrual cups. Yet, they were disheartened at points too.
For example, between the twenty-five of them they could not work out how to successfully gain spices on a regular basis. According to their attempts gaining spices from a market is increasingly hard in this city, which is forcing them to buy packets packed in single-use plastic from a supermarket or a local shop. Similarly, they were concerned about the cost of organic products, detailing to me that across the board, no matter where or which business they shopped from things seemed out of proportion (from a financial perspective that excluded the environmental costs of plastic products etc.) to the same items in plastic. Although they were committed to their cause and would spend the extra, they had reservations about my positivity that others would come on board eventually and then prices would reduce because of consumer demand.
It is with that positivity that I would like to draw all this to a close. My first year in India. My failed attempt to live a 100% plastic-free month. My talk to the young group who sat in front of me and the rock in that park on a Friday evening in July and on this week’s ponderings. All too often when I speak to people about sustainability and environmental matters in this country I am met with the fact- and it is a fact- that the majority of people use plastics in this country and there is limited waste disposal. However, what I need you, and the next group I speak to, and the group that Friday, who began to understand my thought process, to come to terms with, (if you are feeling negative about not being able to achieve perfection today), is that there only has to be a certain amount of us trying to live waste-free today. Tomorrow we will try and add on a few more and so on, of course, but, for now, in the present situation we are enough, we’re making the effort. An important effort by enough of us for today.
Positivity about this situation can be derived from the knowledge of what we are able to achieve now, even if it is only 90% plastic-free instead of 100%. Far too often, from the feedback I receive, I hear that we are missing 10%. Yet, if we are missing 10%, then we are achieving 90% and for today, that is a fantastic achievement. Not perfection of course, but for now it is enough.
Think for a moment, if you are feeling less positive about this situation than I am, how much difference has been made from all the combined ‘yesterdays’ before today, and how much more we will be able to achieve tomorrow when it becomes today.
I continued to strive to live a plastic-free lifestyle throughout the month of July from the moment the single-use plastic was rustling in my hand. I failed again on the next 20-litre bottle and I picked myself up again because I knew I could still achieve my 90%.
For example, I collected, into a bin, waste outside my house after I placed the bottle in its place. The children playing cricket, with a stump missing in their wooden trio of pegs, watched me. I believe the children learnt something about what I was doing even though I had failed perfection inside. They used to throw their rubbish on the ground, with the other debris, now they take it into their homes and place it in their bins. Similarly, I believe that the group on that Friday will set examples and continue to search for options to gain spices that do not come in plastic. Their consumer habits can change the shopkeepers selling methods and the cost of the products they now find expensive.
With each of those steps, whether it is increasing awareness through showing people what you are willing to do, or trying to change shopkeepers habits by telling them what you and I as a consumer want, we’re moving toward a new day where we can make more of a difference. Everything hasn’t been achieved by yesterday, nor is it perfect today, but we can make sure that there is an improvement tomorrow. There is always a tomorrow, even if it is no longer my first year in India, or, if it is not July, with its grand purpose of raising awareness of the detrimental issues related to plastic use, any more. It can still be a day where we try and rely less on plastic and by doing so, encourage more people through awareness and education.