“Waste is not waste until we waste it.” – William James, American songwriter
“What we are doing is not enough. Not even close.” These are the words that ring louder in my ears each time I come across another grave report or alarming statistic on climate change. In the anthropocentric era, we have become oriented to look at everything our surroundings provide through a narrow lens of profit and loss. The industrial revolution and rapid urbanisation have cemented a consumerist lifestyle across the planet, which seeks to mindlessly accumulate and generate economic surplus. The correlation is quite simple- the more we consume the more we waste. As stakeholders, we make some choices in our daily lives, we inadvertently participate in an economic network of supply and demand that is complex, interdependent and fragile in nature. By making impulsive decisions, we take part in destructive commercial practices, increase carbon emissions. The most important point to note here is that once that inner voice awakens in our minds, it urges us to reconsider our actions, and our view of the world becomes radically different from before. “Maybe I don’t need another new pair of shoes, maybe it does not hurt to carry a cloth bag to the marketplace, maybe I can buy my favourite novels second hand”- small, consistent, and conscious nudges result in big shifts in our thinking patterns. What happens then, is that we cannot go back to our old ways of functioning, as we realise the imperative of making individual contributions; as activist Greta Thunberg said in a speech at the United Nations- “Our house is on fire.”
We grow up believing that the journey of the waste ends at the garbage bin. But that is not true, for the waste we dispose has a long journey of its own, finally ending up in landfills, water bodies or incinerators. Through this essay, we will learn, that waste not segregated is humanity’s worst enemy, while segregated waste can prove to be a resourceful companion. Minimising waste and developing efficient mechanisms for waste segregation forms a crucial juncture in the struggle to curb climate change. This requires compliance by every community, every household, and ultimately, every individual. But first, we need to equip ourselves with every tool possible to ensure that we evolve efficient waste management procedures.
The first Law of Thermodynamics taught to us at schools states that “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.” Energy is only transformed from one form to another. What follows is that any form of segregated waste, even plastic waste is valuable, it can always be converted to energy, remodelled and repurposed. That is also where a circular economy can step in and help; to develop a self-contained economic system that does not allow for a dissipation of waste.
INDIA: CURRENT CONTEXT-
India, has almost doubled its waste generation, in the short period of the past few decades. Especially in the context of a population explosion, Indians are left to deal with has a grave waste management problem whose impact spills overs onto other sectors. A classic example of this would be through the means of ever-increasing landfills that circle the outskirts of India’s megacities. The piles of plastic packaging, shards of glass, or e-waste that we often ignorantly throw altogether into the garbage bin, ultimately are segregated by rag-pickers, (who are often children), inhaling the dangerous toxins as they are not supplied with any protective gear. They do so despite severe health hazards of their occupation, in search for a meagre income. Some of the chemicals also leach into the soil, causing a degradation of the groundwater and the surrounding air, destroying aquatic ecosystems. The 2018 Ghazipur landfill disaster is a painful reminder of social realities untreated waste creates. In such a scenario, segregation of waste solves the majority of the problem. For it is only as we develop a culture of segregate our individual waste into categories such as ‘wet’ or ‘dry’, ‘recyclable’ or ‘non-recyclable’, that we can inspire community- wide change of waste disposal. This step allows waste to turn into something valuable. Then the management of other processes, of deciding whether to compost, recycle or to convert waste-to-energy becomes much easier to traverse. It is also overwhelming to observe the stark inequalities; while India is one of the biggest food producers, significant proportions of our society do not have access to basic nutrition-this means we regularly waste a lot of food, be it at mass events such as weddings, or even at the home sphere.
LIVING THE ZERO WASTE LIFE
A concept of a zero waste lifestyle has been emerging amongst environmentally conscious citizens across the world. How do they do it? Well, they assert that nothing should find itself to the trash can, instead they reuse, buy local produce in bulk, are conscious of the food miles, instead of opting for ‘fast fashion’ they buy clothes second hand, support sustainable brands, donate what they do not require, compost and make a lot of things themselves instead of purchasing from stores. Adopting a zero waste living has multiple benefits, such as better health, more savings, and is compatible with the modern way of living. However, the cause of taking responsibility for our waste is not a mere luxury, but rather a moral and social obligation that should permeate into every sphere of life. A window of creative possibility, to choose a surplus-free future, remains wide open for us.
An anthropologist, James Suzman, in his work, ‘Affluence Without Abundance’ asserts that we can learn a lot from the bushmen culture from isolated tribes of Africa- they have remained unaffected by forces of agricultural and industrial revolution, having few needs of their own. They lead a strikingly different life, offering a radical alternative. Sustainable habits, such as making objects of daily use last longer, spending prudently, living a content life with less, is embedded in the Indian tradition. From the time of Harappan civilisation, there have been evidences of proper waste disposal, elaborate drainage systems, and use of organic methods such as composting. Our grandparents have often provided quick fixes to make old things appear as good as new, be it stitching worn-out clothes or cooking a meal at home from leftovers. These rewarding habits considerably lower one’s individual carbon footprint. However, influenced by a Western model of living, the availability of material abundance, the “use and throw culture” makes us forget to value what we already own. Instead, advertisements and commercial enterprises are always in a bid to try to get us to switch to the next best thing- thus, the cycle of consumption never truly ends. The philosophy of minimalism whereas, preaches that a good life can be led without striving for material satisfactions.
LESSONS FROM ACROSS THE GLOBE
Sweden one of the leading examples of boosting waste management through individual contributions. Over the past decade, it has developed extensive practices so “less than one percent of the total waste generated in the country makes it to landfills.” Bhutan, falling in the category of a ‘carbon-negative country’ is one neighbour from which Indians can borrow lessons in mindful environmental progress. Its citizens and leaders prioritise health and happiness over economic or military gains, and that reflects in their unique way of living in the midst of nature. France, Denmark, USA, and Germany are all trying to eliminate food waste. Access to innovative technologies, (such as plastic vending machines) from parts of the world can also help us in promulgating the waste management and relaying information.
The COVID-19 pandemic also has given us the space to slow down. It is only when stop seeing nature as a commodity made for exploitation, and begin to respect its intrinsic value, then an ethics of care for the environment can develop. Minimising individual waste is a work-in-progress, but we won’t be able to solve the problem if we hesitate to take the first step. Initiatives such as acknowledgement of ‘Earth Overshoots Day’, which “marks the date when humanity consumes more from nature, than the planet can renew within a year,” are ready reminders of our unsustainable patterns of consumption, of how we cannot afford to go down the same road.
Youth can be at the fulcrum of this movement, leading by example, integrating a culture of ‘reduce, recycle, reuse, and donate’. We as students, should claim responsibility to promote awareness campaigns in our institutions that allow others to understand the hazards of e-waste, benefits of composting/refusing single-use plastic, participate in the local drives that promote the segregation of waste, support eco-friendly organisations that enable a redistribution of resources, buy recycled goods, use public transport all comprise of fulfilling habits. Without individualised efforts, waste generation is projected to peak in the coming years. Change always follows by fundamental reimagining the world; a vision that allows us to see the world not only as it is, but also how it could be. Our little drops of effort can fill the ocean of change.