A shocking amount of plastic, paper, cardboard and food waste is generated every day. Here's how to recycle and dispose them

Sooner or later, as we drive out of our leafy neighbourhoods and happening cities, we see them. Piles of garbage, stinking, oozing, and spilling on to the freshly tarred road. Somebody in the car says, ‘Why can’t they incinerate? Why can’t they recycle? Why can’t they do something?’ But this particular issue has to be addressed with ‘Why can’t we do something?’

Those stinking, oozing piles come from households very much like ours. We generate endless streams of plastic wrapping and thermocol from white goods, paper and cardboard from branded purchases, and heaps of food waste.

Living sustainably is a movement, not an event. Yes, it’s important to evaluate the products we buy for their impact on the environment, but first let’s take a hard look at what we produce — our household garbage.

What's in the dustbin?

Most of us have no clue what is in our dustbins. It’s all tied up in a plastic bag, and a heroic rag picker salvages what can be salvaged, or our maids toss it all into someone else’s backyard while we pretend not to see. If we did look into the dustbin, what would we find? Banana peels, leftover rice, tea grounds, a dried-out pen, three milk packets, cardboard and oily plastic from the gobi manchurian brought home last night, and a ketchup bottle too small to be useful. They are a disgusting combination, but take them apart and what could they become? Banana peels and leftover rice can be composted along with the tea grounds and nourish your potted plants or suburban garden. The raddiwala would have bought the cardboard if you had kept it dry, and he would have taken the pen, milk packets and ketchup bottle. The oily plastic? That is trash. Now that you see it, you probably wish you hadn't made it happen.

What makes something trash? The fact that it is mixed with unlike things. When we store or serve food, we routinely separate wet from dry, perishables from non-perishables, and yesterday’s leftovers from today’s fresh food. Why not do the same with the waste we generate?

For the squeamish householder, the easiest place to start is paper, plastic and glass. It is especially important to keep paper and cardboard dry. Most of us imagine we recycle most of it, but what goes to the raddiwala is just newspapers and magazines. The rest gets mixed with the kitchen trash and makes a small household mess into a huge public problem.

It’s not hard to start putting much less into your dustbin and much more into your recycling bin. Let’s take that first step toward a better planet.

Keep a separate bin in your kitchen for dry and clean cardboard packaging from oats, cornflakes, tea, soap, toothpaste, light bulbs, biscuits, and especially large boxes. Collapse the boxes to save space. Use a large envelope or bag for small scraps such as tickets, receipts, torn envelopes, flyers, junk mail, gift wrapping, and aluminium medicine strips.

Do the same with milk sachets and other plastic packaging.

If you don’t want your jam jars and health drink bottles, keep them clean and out of the garbage to be reused by people who make pickles, ghee or other products at home. If there are no takers, offer them to the raddiwala.

Involve every member of the family in the new system, including your maid.

Remember that your raddiwala is taking away things you don’t want. If he is reluctant to pay for an old plastic dabba, give it to him free and cheerfully. If he doesn’t make a profit and stay in business, recycling will become your headache.

(This is the first article in a 10-part series about how to live sustainably every day. It will appear on Mondays.) Next article: Easy composting.

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