I wrote this post back in 2017, but left it languishing in my drafts folder. Present day reflection at the end of this article.
“Garbage City”. The city that I live in, Bengaluru, has been conferred this unceremonious moniker in one too many articles of late. An increase in waste generation, poor waste segregation practices, non-operational processing plants and apathy from the citizenry has spawned a growing environmental and health crisis in the city, which has in turn affected the aesthetic beauty of the “Garden City of India”.
And the rest of urban India isn’t far behind. Mumbai, Chennai (link to a previous post on garbage in Chennai), Delhi and Kolkata face their own equally daunting challenges. “According to a World Bank 2015 report, India produces 109,589 tonnes of municipal solid waste a day which is projected to triple to 376,639 tonnes a day by 2025.” [Ref.]
Confronted with these terrifying facts, what is a concerned citizen to do? My first impulse was to read up on the problem … and soon enough, I discovered that there are many forces at play here, including a lack of standard procedures, inadequate enforcement of regulations and corporate greed.
The strongest force in effect, however, turns out to be the sheer volume of waste being generated in the first place. Bengaluru generates ~0.5 kg per person per day, which is ~35% higher than the national average for Tier-I cities at last measure. And if we go the way of developed countries like the US, which stand at >2.5kg/person/day, then we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg … or should I say “skimmed the froth on Bellandur lake?”.
That got me thinking: never mind segregation and recycling, can pure self-discipline help reduce the scale of the problem? How far can just the first of the 5 Rs (Refuse) take us in the context of this problem?
My curiosity piqued, I resolved to set myself a simple target — to reduce my garbage footprint by 50% within a month, as measured by the volume of waste in my garbage bin.
At the outset, I thought this would be a really challenging task. But what followed next turned out to be surprisingly easy. All it took to achieve my target was the adoption of a simple rule: each time I made a purchase or used a disposable item, I learned to pause and ask myself the question —
How much waste will this decision generate and can it be either avoided or reduced?
Here’s a log of the key decisions that I took as a result, and the habits that I developed:
- Tissue paper: Started using cloth hand towels instead of single use-and-throw tissues, to wipe spills and dry my hands.
- Plastic bottles: Refused plastic bottles at trains, buses, restaurants and particularly, at weddings. Even if they were already paid for. Carried my own sleek bottle when essential.
- Bottled juices: Started drinking fresh juices, having them delivered in reusable containers where possible.
- Straws: Refused straws when offered, and later learned to actively ask that they not be provided.
- Food delivery: Opted to dine at eateries nearby, instead of ordering in. On the now rare occasion that I did order in, I opted for meals that required limited packaging (usually food without gravies, like wrapped burritos). I also learned to ask the delivery restaurant not to send plastic cutlery.
- Payments: Began paying with cash to prevent unnecessary receipt generation.
- Ziploc bags: Switched from Ziploc bags to reusable containers to store food.
- Chewing gum: Stopped chewing gum — they offer little nutritional value anyway.
- Bulk buying: Started buying items in bulk to reduce excessive packaging.
- Soaps: Started using bar soaps with no plastic packaging (Dove) instead of liquid soap.
- Ecommerce: Stopped ordering products online if they happened to be available at a store a short walk away.
- Aerosol sprays: Tried to proactively keep my surroundings a bit cleaner.
- Books: Began using my Kindle exclusively, suppressing the occasional itch to buy paperback.
- Clothes: Restricted purchases to free-hanging clothes in stores, over those wrapped in several layers of plastic.
- Pocket reusable bags: Started carrying foldable bags in my pocket whenever I went shopping.
- Plastic cups: Refused sweets and payasams served in plastic cups, especially at weddings.
- Vegetables: Skipped buying vegetables wrapped in plastic.
- Digital statements: Switched to digital statements to reduce snail mail where possible. Charities are still surprisingly difficult to opt out of though.
With this, I’m now (empirically) down to just 30% of the garbage that I used to previously generate. What’s heartening is that I didn’t have to go out of my way, do anything wacky or compromise the quality of my lifestyle in any of these scenarios. Minor conscientious decisions were all it took.
Of course, I’m still several strides away from hitting zero waste. For starters, I don’t compost my biodegradable waste. Moreover, I still buy shampoos, pulses and electronic items in plastic packaging. But even without without having to do the research needed to get over these barriers, I’ve been able to meaningfully reduce my waste output.
And that’s my learning here — most of the waste that we generate can be avoided with simple efforts, without more than a blip on the quality-of-life radar.
I’d be amiss to end this article without pointing out that there are many who have made the jump to near zero waste, both globally and right here at home. If you’re looking to go the extra mile, you’d do well to learn from these people.
In sum, I think informed choices by citizens at the start of the journey of waste generation can go a long way towards easing the city’s waste management burden. More conscientious decision-making, coupled with active efforts to segregate waste and improve operational efficiency downstream, can make a meaningful difference towards the fight against the garbage problem.
Since I wrote this article, I’ve let slip on about 20% of these habits — discipline is easier to exercise when there’s a target to achieve.
World view wise, I’m more pessimistic about the scale of impact that ethical consumer behavior can have. For real changes in consumption to happen, incentives need to be altered. And this has to be paired with efforts to engage organisational stakeholders such as manufacturers, municipalities and even the garbage mafia.