A walk down my street leads me to the dark green trash bin, usually overflowing with garbage, plastic covers and bottles. By most evenings, the garbage spills over in a messy circle around the bin.
The Chennai Corporation estimates that in two years, Chennai would have generated so much garbage that we would no longer have the space to store it in the allocated 550 acres. So the corporation is still looking for larger tracts of land.
Urban landfills are not a pleasant sight. Due to the vertical stacking of the garbage to save space, there is extreme pressure on the land and groundwater. Toxic substances from the plastics used to wrap the garbage usually contaminate the soil. Garbage is also burned periodically, thus polluting our air.
Enter the zero waste home
The zero waste home is an environmental Shangri-La: a home which is completely self-sufficient, and does not create environmental problems. It will find smart, reusable solutions that not only do not pollute the planet, but actually sustain the environment.
The first step was source segregation of our household waste. We stored our paper and plastic in a large dry basket. Vegetable waste can be composted and turned into nutrient-rich soil. But by mixing it with paper and plastic, we make it unusable. As a result, only 3% of the vegetable waste we generate in our country gets converted into compost. Even this 3% is polluted with heavy metals like lead and cadmium, and other toxic substances like arsenic as it has been mixed with plastics and bio-medical waste.
By segregating our garbage into dry and wet waste, we are recovering very useful material that can then be composted.
Whatever paper or plastic that does not get used by us, goes once a month to the nearest recycler. If he does not accept it, then it goes to the garbage collector. There are small cottage type industries surrounding landfills, retrieving paper, plastic and otherwise useful materials. Waste-collectors work under hazardous conditions retrieving materials for them. We can do what we can to help them.
We stopped using PET bottles for drinking water at home. Instead, we bought a few re-usable steel bottles that are so long-lasting that they can probably be passed on as heirlooms! We began carrying containers and cans as much as possible – our organic store, for instance, allows us to bring in our own containers and fill them up with lentils and other dry grocery. We also carry our oil can to the store and fill it up on the premises, eliminating more and more packaging.
When packaging is unavoidable, we look for products that use higher grades of plastic. After the goods are emptied into their storage containers, the plastic is meticulously washed, dried and either reused at home to wrap lids (so that insects do not enter the lentils) or for other projects around the home. What is not used is recycled.
After segregation, we felt ready to begin composting. A popular composting system available today is the 3-tier kambha created by Daily Dump, a Bengaluru-based organisation specializing in waste management. This simple clay system has been designed for urban homes with little space.
Composting is a richly-rewarding activity, and deeply connects you to the soil. It is wonderful to see vegetable waste turning into rich, black, sweet-smelling compost and nourishing plants. Within a few weeks, after we began segregating and composting, the volume of the garbage that we put out reduced by 80%!
Buoyed by our successful forays into segregating and composting, we began exploring further ways to reduce household waste. We use for our one-year-old child, diapers made of cloth, further reducing the bio-medical waste we generate. I also switched to reusable cloth napkins, instead of disposable sanitary napkins.
A zero waste home is much like an onion: the more you explore its various facets, the more and more layers and ideas emerge. We are now trying to work out how to grow our own greens, and how to reuse the water used in various washes in the best way possible.
To inspire ourselves further and connect with like-minded people, we started a zero waste home resource group on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/zerowastehome. The creative energy, resourcefulness and enthusiasm in this group have to be seen to be believed.