Rethinking your waste generation during a pandemic

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Straitjacketing times like these compel us to become more inventive and economical with our resources and consumables. Hopefully, we will keep the good habits going past the lockdown.

Scrounging may be pathetic but it teaches such a valuable lesson about economy, frugality, and optimisation of resources.

We’ve heard it all — reduce and reuse, segregate, change your consumption — but nothing forces one to think about it as much as when a daily practice such as waste collection is affected. As I write this, the dustbin for wet waste (which we halved in size) is almost full and we hope to make it not overflow to the next day. In order to make the groceries last longer and generate less waste in case collection is disrupted, we’ve been trying harder to plan each meal better and have no leftovers, but we’re still generating more than we could. Even after a carefully planned grocery run, there are too many plastic packets to put into the dry waste bag. And as we try frantically to fast track a switch from disposables to cloth diapers for the 3-month-old infant in the house, the laundry load piles in a newly designated nappy bucket.

COVID-19 has hit all of our lives in myriad and unexpected ways, ranging from loss of jobs and income, to merely battling boredom by doing WhatsApp puzzles. But it has certainly made many the middle class think about things usually taken for granted, one of which is what we can do as end-users for our consumption and waste generation.

This has now become quite a hot topic of discussion on social media, and advice abounds on my apartment WhatsApp group — how to cook with fewer ingredients, recipes for one-pot meals to have less washing, what to do with vegetable peels. At home, we discuss how to plan meals that don’t put all our vegetables in one dish, how to make frequent shopping unnecessary (If we aren’t able to go get bread, shall we have rotis with jam for breakfast instead?), how to cook the right portions without odd leftovers that can neither be carried over nor disposed of. While all of this could have been practised any time, the problem feels much closer home when there is no daily waste collection and you realise just how full the bins are getting.

In the apartment we live in, there has been a stringent waste segregation system for a few years with in-site composting. Now, a contingency waste management plan is in place to help the workers work shorter hours. Wet waste collection is only for a few days, and households have been given microbial coco-peat powder to mix with the waste in the event that it has to be kept at home for days. Waste would not be collected from any houses in quarantine.

 

Reusing boxes and containers as much as possible is at the heart of making do — a running joke from my grandparents’ generation is how old ‘Bournvita dabbas’ would go straight to the toilet, as it served the purpose of a mug.

 

With overloaded recycling centres and lack of trucks, dry waste too is to be stored until collected, and tips circulate on how to manage this — cutting plastic packets with food on three sides and washing and drying them, putting smaller paper pieces into a bigger bag and securing them to reduce volume, scraping coconut shells clean. When we actually sat with the dry waste and carried out the process of cutting and washing, we were quite amazed at how a two week’s worth milk packets managed to shrink to the size of a cellphone. And when we replaced the wet waste dustbin with a much smaller container, it helped us to think twice each time we wanted to throw something in.

Residents in our apartment are also being urged to switch to green options for sanitary waste like reusable cloth pads or menstrual cups, as there is no clarity on when waste collection could get further disrupted.

There is of course no reason to not uphold these practices year around — many of us fail to do them simply because we have other options. I have tried several times to make the transition to sustainable sanitary products, but have only managed it partially. Many of the storage bottles in my kitchen are old pickle and jam bottles, but sometimes I resort to buying containers. And there is the inevitable Swiggy order on lazy days, bringing with too many containers, covers, cutlery and napkins.

I often wonder how our grandmothers ever did it (of course, they didn’t quite have a choice) — using old saris and dhotis as baby diapers (and saving a ton of money too in the process). For my grandmother, her children and grandchildren had neither chairs, bath tubs, potty seats or rockers — her legs and feet provided the seat for all of these. Cooking techniques were honed for maximum output and economy — frying snacks from leftover oil, making chutneys from vegetable and fruit peels, and a batter that would be used to first make idlis, then dosas, and then paniyarams or paddus. Reusing boxes and containers as much as possible is also at the heart of making do — a running joke from my grandparents’ generation is how old ‘Bournvita dabbas’ would go straight to the toilet, as it served the purpose of a mug.

The lockdown seems to have brought back some of these practices, if only to avoid unnecessary shopping trips. And in the process make us realise that some changes are more possible than we expected. Now, we don’t quite have too much choice. But once this all passes we will. And hopefully, we will still carry over some sustainability habits from these turbulent times.

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