When we require something, it is natural to turn to others for help. And guess what Mridula Ramesh, the Joint Managing Director of Southern Roadways, is asking for. She wants “waste”! “It is one of the most wonderful resources we have,” she says.
In the last 18 months, Mridula has moved towards an almost ideal situation. She has drastically reduced the generation of waste where she lives and works. As a result, she is practically running short of waste to put into her compost bins. This has prompted her to request for food waste from restaurants, departmental stores and vegetable markets in her vicinity.
Hers is perhaps the first and only family in Madurai that does not send its trash out any more. “Waste affects our health and the more waste we generate and strain our landfills, it contaminates the soil and water and impacts the environment too,” she reminds.
“We cannot reverse the devastating impacts of climate change but at least adapt ourselves to somewhat halt it. And this can be achieved by understanding the critical link between climate change and waste,” she adds.
If waste is the secret weapon to fight climate change, the know-how to reduce its generation or reuse it, is crucial. And this is the message Mridula Ramesh is bent upon spreading now. She got working on it when the bore well inside her sprawling bungalow in Chokkikulam in Madurai went dry four years ago and she had to purchase water from private tankers.
“I had been reading a lot about climate change over the years. With taps going dry at home, I realised it was time for individual action. To be a part of the solution was inevitable and imperative now,” says the young member of the iconic TVS family.
The connection between waste and floods, waste and mosquitoes, waste and stray animals only underlined how waste is important in fighting climate change and she immediately decided to look at two things – her personal consumption and waste production pattern.
“It had to begin at home and we decided to be honest enough to look at our ugly selves in the mirror and address the issue. It meant measuring our mistakes,” she asserts.
For a week in July 2015, her small family of four and the staff observed the amount of waste they were collectively throwing into the municipal bin. Inclusive of 11 kilos of garden waste, it averaged 17.6 kilos a day! And Mridula was shocked to find herself as the biggest culprit of unmindful and irregular grocery purchase. “I don’t cook and yet I was cluttering my shelves with stuff that caught my attention in the market and forgot to use them. And all that was becoming waste.”
She instantly set herself a target – “to go zero-waste at home.”
Displaying the data of what we bought, the quantity of food cooked, eaten and thrown, hit everybody hard, says Mridula. A “name and shame” board was put up on the wall for everybody to see. “Now I strictly stick to a shopping list fully aware of the kitchen requirement and the stocks and our grocery bills have dropped by 15 percent,” she points out. Each item purchased is now kept at eye level and in transparent jars on the kitchen shelves and inside the fridge for easy access and timely consumption.
The next step was segregating kitchen waste. Much of the kitchen and garden waste that is sent to landfills can be turned into an energy source or fertiliser, says Mridula, who rues the unwillingness of the people to segregate waste. To make it simple and uncomplicated, she placed separate, big and open bins for biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste in a way so that the girls in her kitchen did not have to move even a step to throw the waste in the right bin. “If things are easy and hassle-free, everybody will be inclined to join in a good cause,” she notes.
Mridula’s graduation major in microbiology from Cornell University came in handy as she took to composting through trials and errors using aerobic and anaerobic processes. From the suitable size of composters to which bacteria can give the most viable compost under what temperature conditions and period of time, Mridula gradually worked on a complete package. Though her experiments are still on, Mridula says she wants to give people an easy solution for the best results.
The various types of manure she created in her backyard yielded her a flourishing vegetable, fruits and flowering garden in no time. So much so that she is now inspired to market and sell the compost.
The best part about Mridula’s approach is she is a voracious reader of articles related to climate change, experiments in her house before demonstrating the success, tracks daily progress with good quality and measurable data, uses small teams to involve everybody and makes them accountable and answerable.
“In order to sustain what you have started, the system has to run on its own steam, be easy enough with no friction on the path and there has to be a pay-back,” she believes. The outgoing waste from her bungalow today is roughly about 400g. Mostly FMCG packaging material, it is sold to the junk dealer. So there is an economic gain out of waste as well but how the non-biodegradable waste can be further managed continues to worry her.
What satisfies her though is the transfer of the same waste reduction model to her company with an employee strength of 500-plus that generated 200 kg of waste till last year. Within five months, the canteen waste has reduced to less than 10 kilos from 40, the grocery bills are less and the entire garden waste of 110 kg is going for bulk composting and anaerobic management for production of gas.
“We just need to pretend that we do not have a garbage service,” says Mridula, “and then see how our choices and lifestyle will change!”
Time for energy revolution
A small solar energy playroom has been set up for the children.
Water and power consumption pattern is monitored to minimise usage.
A biogas plant has been installed to use the gas, produced out of waste, in the kitchen for cooking.
Mridula Ramesh’s zero-waste lifestyle is distinguished by the fact that she combines her eco-friendly actions with teaching in business schools on climate change and entrepreneurship and also writing on environment. She is in the process of wrapping up a book on climate change. The businesswoman that she is, Mridula also doubles up as a clean tech investor having invested in five clean technology start-ups. “NGOs raising awareness about damage to the environment is not enough. It is the start-ups that create a wonderful impact,” she believes.
The Sundaram Climate Institute that she has set up in Madurai offers waste reduction programmes to students and residents through age-appropriate teaching modules, talks and video screening and encourages innovative ideas and entrepreneurship in clean technology.
To know more about her work, log on to www.climaction.net
The world is warmer than ever before. We are witnessing more cyclones, earthquakes and drought. People and wildlife are already suffering the consequences and the threat of farm yields collapsing looms large. What are we leaving our future generations with?