The Pursuit of Cleanliness and Convenience — A Perspective

“I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom, for me and for you, and I think to myself, What a Wonderful World….” So goes Louis Armstrong’s lilting song.

Each time I listen to Armstrong’s child-like and soulful rendition of this song, I cannot help but mull over what we are turning this world into, hackneyed as it may sound.

Habits, objects, lifestyles and attitudes once considered luxuries or extravagances, are now deemed necessities.

My dear grandmother ran a large, yet zero-waste household in small-town Mandya, in the Southern State of Karnataka, India, where I spent a fair amount of my childhood. The wet waste from the kitchen went into the compost pit in a corner of the vast garden area to be used as manure, or ended up as a meal in cow pails set aside for the milch cows, lovingly tended to in sheds in the backyard.

Grocery shopping was a meticulously planned monthly affair. The maid and man-Friday were packed-off in an auto rickshaw equipped with a big woven wire basket, an assortment of cloth bags for grains, steel cans for oils and a long shopping list of monthly staples, to Jwaalamaala Store.

Jwaalamaala Store, the one big grocery store in the market area of the town sold wholesome staples, minimally processed and naturally farmed like most farm produce of the time. The shop stored and displayed an assortment of whole grains, pulses, cereals and cooking oils in large tin containers. One could sample the ware and for good measure, pop a few grains into one’s mouth on the pretext of a quick quality check!

The store, like all stores in those days had zero packaging other than for groceries of smaller portions. Even these were wrapped in recycled newspaper sheets shaped into neat cones, folded expertly at the top and secured by a jute twine (Suthli Dhaara as we call it in Kannada) tied around the parcel.

Fast forward to present times where our shopping trips to the neighbourhood super market or the mall are designed for convenience — walk in with your wallet, pick staples packaged in colourful plastic off the shelves, toss-in a few more items not on the list but added anyway thanks to the attractive offers and rack displays, all designed to tempt and cajole consumers into deviating from their shopping list. And there is online shopping too, but the packaging does not go away.

Ironically, one ends up bringing along nearly as much or more packaging material as the shopped goods, all of which eventually end up as a reeking, lethal mess of dry and wet waste in a landfill somewhere near a village, far away from the source of garbage generation.

While our ancestors converted vegetable waste into wholesome meals for their domesticated cows, present-day cows in Indian towns and cities choke to death trying to consume kitchen waste tied-up in flimsy plastic covers in public garbage bins.

Hoardings, television and newspaper ads have successfully linked sparkling white with cleanliness in our kitchens, bathrooms, our clothes, teeth and our skin too……and woe betide the house proud home-maker who lets even a single speck of stubborn stain settle anywhere!

Deadly chemicals and acids are marketed as mandatory cleaning agents in every household — one for each appliance, surface and type of vessel or garment. The fumes and chemical traces these so-called cleaning agents leave behind are far more dangerous to human health than any hygiene-hampering, disease-inducing bacteria. The frothy, stinking, lifeless excuses for streams in the outskirts of Bengaluru stand testimony to the fate of the water bodies these toxic cleaning agents eventually end-up in.

Paper tissues and towels are another set of non-essential convenience hazards fast turning into essential household and personal hygiene items in pollution and dirt-inflicted Indian cities. Tree-derived paper tissues are quickly replacing old-fashioned cloth handkerchiefs and napkins. They have invaded our bathrooms, boardrooms, bedrooms, cars, kitchens, hotels, offices and even baby bottoms!

What was traditionally and till recently handled hygienically and efficiently with water in the Indian sub-continent, now requires reams and bundles of tissue paper derived from wood pulp of forest trees or from large monoculture tree farms where lush forest habitats once thrived.

Diapers and sanitary pads with Super Absorbent Polymers (SAPs) are now indispensable modern-day convenience aids. Used diapers and sanitary pads can take over 500 years to degrade in ideal environmental conditions. SAPs have been linked to health threats such as Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Are there alternatives? Plenty, if one is willing to adopt minor lifestyle changes rather than ride the superfluous convenience and cleanliness wave. I cannot and will not profess to have found clean and safe alternatives to every harmful urban household habit, but there are many options within everybody’s reach. One just needs to look to our ancestors for inspiration.

Carrying one’s own shopping bag is already a much-touted and accepted green alternative. Even so, the primary packaging of many ready-to-eat items remain, and I frequently wish for alternatives that require no packaging altogether. I try to buy at least some of my staples at a small grocery store near where I live, where grains are sold loose without any packaging.

Stubborn stains? Let them be, as long as the area is clean. White or zero-stains is overrated and not worth the acid burn.

The task of wiping oneself and just about anything else can be very well accomplished with good old handkerchiefs and cloth towels. They are way more hygienic and in my personal opinion, cooler than flimsy tissue packs and rolls. Wash and dry after each use, and they are good to serve you again.

I too am guilty of resorting to the convenience of diapers when my two boys were infants, but only on long-distance travel. Barring those rare occasions, their rear-ends were strictly outfitted with cloth nappies and an outer layer of reusable waterproof nappies if needed, with scheduled visits to the bathroom. And my reward? Both my boys were potty-trained even as toddlers thanks to the discipline of regular loo breaks and their own discomfort with wet and soiled cloth nappies, something diaper-babies never experience and as a result, let go at will whenever and wherever, not to mention the prolonged use of diapers event at age three or more!

The humble soapberry or soapnut derived from trees belonging to the genus Sapindus, works as an effective cleaning agent for floors, counter tops and clothes. While I confess to still using chemical detergent bars to wash utensils and hand washed clothes, I have been using the soapnut effectively in my mopping bucket and as a natural detergent powder tied-up in a little muslin pouch in my washing machine for a few years now, and our family of four is alive and well without any of the germ-annihilating, chemical cleaning agents. When my stock of soapnut powder runs dry, I run my laundry load with just water. The warm water, the tumble action and drying on a clothesline in the Sun is enough to leave the clothes clean, fresh and crisp.

Natural Soapnut detergent powders are now available in the market, but thanks to their steep price, I usually procure loose, powdered soapnut for household use. Try it?

Options abound for eco-friendly alternatives to sanitary pads too including menstrual cups. Just Google and many more easy options abound on the internet for every environmentally harmful lifestyle habit you want to alter. Making up one’s mind is but a small effort.

I often read and hear of how fragile planet Earth is. I believe though that our Earth is hardier than our egotistical human brains and minds can ever comprehend. We are the fragile ones, and may not be able to withstand Earth’s fury when she decides to draw curtains on our time with her. So don’t get her mad……tread light!