How my mother taught me more about recycling than Google.

Green living ideas that really work

Summer 1990, Rajasthan, India

Photo by Kristof Rasschaert on Unsplash

It is noon. The loo, is relentless, blasting you in the face and threatening to shrivel you like the leaves around. It is easily 100 degrees Fahrenheit, although back then, I never knew for sure what the temperature was. I could feel the heat on the cement roads through my thin rubber slippers. Not a bird, animal or insect could be seen. It was just another summer in my hometown in north-western India.

The fierce heat brought other problems. Thirsty, blood sucking mosquitoes, power cuts and water scarcity.

Oh, the wretched power cuts! Long stretches in the afternoons when the only respite we had from the heat would stop. Drenched in sweat, my brother and I stared up at the ceiling, willing the fans to turn back on.

Water scarcity was the norm and became more pronounced during the summer. In fact, the concept of running water was practically foreign. We filled water in large drums, rationing it out and keeping a vigil. Some times, large water tankers came to fill up our supplies.

A mango fruit seller in India

Amidst juicy mangoes, cold kulfis, the soothing drone of the water coolers and long summer days filled with the promise of adventure, we came to learn the two ground rules of our household.

Ground rule one: Water was not to be wasted.

Ground rule two: Power was not to be trusted.

Everything we did some how linked back to the ground rules.

Power cuts could happen anytime so we had to be prepared always. Homework had to be completed during the day. The duration and times of power supply determined what chores were done first.

Water left after boiling vegetables was never thrown away. It was strained and added to the lentil soup.
Hot water left over at the bottom of the pressure cooker was used to get the grease off pots and pans. After all, heating water again meant using up more gas.
When we washed clothes in buckets, the leftover soapy water went into the flush tanks.

Onion peels and tea leaves were deposited in the soil near the rose plants, to compost and nourish the blossoming flowers.

Old clothes were turned into rags. Torn bed covers were re-purposed into curtains or other items of upholstery.

Clothes we grew out of, went to the maid or the milkman’s kids. Old greeting cards were saved, to be pulled out when we wanted to make a new one. Old sarees were exchanged for shiny steel utensils.Cereal cartons were turned into pencil holders. Wrapping paper would end up as a book cover. Newspapers, magazines, cardboard boxes and glass bottled were neatly stacked to be sold to the kabadi wala every month. Plastic cartons were drilled with holes and converted into plant pots.

I rarely saw my mother blatantly throw away things. ‘Things’ in the home went through her hands atleast twice before being consigned to the trash bin, like the t-shirt, converted into a dusting cloth, converted into a rag, that finally got so torn that the maid refused to use it anymore.

My mother was practicing the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Rcycle) even before it became fashionable and companies started using the green triangle on packaging.

Fast forward three decades later when I started paying attention to ‘recycling’ ‘saving the landfills’ and ‘reducing use of plastic’. As I started scouring websites for tips, I also started getting frustrated. How can I compost when I live in an apartment? Toy stores simply don’t sell wooden cement mixers and diggers. How about the time we wanted to go sledding and the only sleds available were plastic?

I still plodded on, reading more, connecting with ‘green’ folks, reading ‘green’ blogs and educating myself about planning ‘green’ birthday parties.

Until the day when my mother, now 65, visited us in the U.S. As we cooked in silent camaraderie, she took out a pot of curry from the electric stove and replaced it with another one containing hot water.

‘That’s a lot of heat in there. Enough to heat water for a cup of tea’, she observed.

That was the day I went back in time, back to our home on the hills, reliving my summer days. I realized I already knew a lot about green living, courtesy my mother. I also realized that it is not a one-solution-fits-all. State and county regulations, green laws in the country we live in, culture, attitudes and lifestyles play a big role in the footprint we have on our environment.

Here are my rules of thumb for anyone who wants to live green but isn’t sure where to begin or isn’t sure if what they are doing is making a difference.

Look back

Our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents have lived through history. If extreme survival conditions and scarce resources were part of their life, you have a great starting place. Observe how they live and use resources. You may not be able to replicate everything they do but like my mother’s observation about the electric stove top, you will come back with sprouting seeds for ideas.

Start Small

Going green can be overwhelming. County and state regulations vary drastically. What is recyclable in your county could land you with fines to pay in another. Sometimes, it feels easy to just put everything in the trash bin.

Start with one thing and do it right. Say, paper. Find out what kind of paper your county takes and won’t take. Greasy paper and cardboard cannot be recycled. Same for used paper towels and wax paper.

Assess where and how much paper you use. Does your team need printouts of the agenda for a 30-minute meeting? Encourage electronic note taking and double sided printing.
How about re-purposing old greeting cards into new ones? Do you really need tonnes of wrapping paper for the birthday present?

Once you have a handle on how you can conserve paper within your lifestyle, focus on the next thing that works for you.

You don’t have to save everything, all the time. Every drop maketh the ocean.

Focus on what you CAN control

Irrespective of where you live, you cannot control what happens to the blue bin once you put it out, but you can control WHAT and HOW MUCH goes into it. Start paying attention to what you purchase and consume.

Every single thing that you bring into your home has to leave at some point. Be a conscientious buyer and consumer.

Do you really need plastic silverware for a home delivery?
Planning a birthday party? How about sending kids back with healthy snacks instead of cheap plastic toys?
Downsizing?Try to give your possessions a second life., craigslist and local consignment stores are great places to start.

For more ideas, here is a great article about living more with less.

If you recycle, do it right

When experts say that ‘recycling’ should be the last resort, they are not joking. When you put your jar of peanut butter into the blue bin, you may be walking away with a clean conscience, but that is just the beginning of a long and unpredictable journey.

For one, in January 2018, China announced an import ban on certain types of plastics. States like California were hit hard, with recycling costs spiraling and most recyclables ending up in landfills. Read here about how your state has been affected.

Two, recycling is associated with a cost. Recycling costs vary by city according to a set of factors, including proximity to landfills, labor costs, amount and method of recycling and real estate prices. For instance, Glass, metal and plastic recycling costs New York city $240 per ton, almost double what it costs to just throw it away. (Source:

Three, contaminated recyclables further raise the cost of recycling. Plastic grocery bags are notorious “tanglers” that can damage equipment and shut down a recycling conveyor belt for hours. A sweatshirt, a shoe, or a garden hose stuck in a case of empty water bottles could send the whole load to the landfill. Source

As far as my own recycling story goes, I am far from there.

On my ‘bad mommy days’, I forget to take my cloth bags to the grocery store.
I have far more plastic take out containers than I am happy about.
For my son’s birthday, I walked out of Party City with a bag full of cheap plastic toys because I was doubtful that 5-year-old boys would appreciate the beauty of potted plants.

But what I am proud of is the DVD about garbage and recycling that my kids ask to put on sometimes. They know what mommy means when she says not to waste paper. A few days back, my almost 3-year old came up to me with a orange juice carton and asked, “Garbage or recycling?”

I will live with that for now.

Strategic communications. Non profits. Sustainable living. Living more with less. Living green with kids

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