Here are some facts about the ecological impact of modern lifestyles that were pioneered by the Western countries and ‘exported’ to the developing ones:
- Developed nations, with 20 percent of the world’s population, consume 87 percent of the world’s printing and writing papers. The By contrast, the developing nations only use only 18 kilograms of paper a year on average. In India, the figure is 4 kilos, while in 20 countries in Africa, it’s less than 1 kilo. Producing one ton of paper requires 2-3 tons of trees. This does not include the paper used for use-and-throw cups and plates and toilet paper. The last mentioned forms about 10% of the paper clogging the landfills worldwide!
- An estimated 1 billion trees a year are required to produce disposable diapers worldwide. Environmentalists are exhorting people to go back to using cloth diapers.
- According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s study in 2001 on plastic bag consumption — somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year. Another study by the U.N in 2006 stated that 10% of the plastic produced every year worldwide winds up in the ocean.
Today having woken up to the havoc they have created and exported to the developing countries they are screaming themselves hoarse about degrading of the environment and want to go back to the practices of olden days, little realising that they were instrumental in changing the eco-friendly ways of the developing countries.
Indian and many Eastern cultures have always been environment friendly. In India, the festivals, customs and rituals have laid stress on these too. The use of clay pots for cooking and leaf plates for eating on auspicious occasions, which are then destroyed and left to blend with the earth, is one such custom. In fact, the use of plastic, paper and china is considered as being impure for such occasions. So also, feeding of cattle and dogs, which is considered good; this took care of the leftover food, and so on.
How was it before the following came into our lives?
Do you remember the time when we used to carry a shopping bag to the market? If you forgot to carry one, you had to rush back home and take one, or if you remembered it too late you had to buy one of those jute or cloth bags from the market!
An entire cottage industry had sprung up in the 1960s when plastic ‘wires’ as they were called, of various thickness and breadth were woven into shopping bags and purses. These were versatile and used for anything from vegetable shopping to carrying books to school.
Then came the plastic carry bags. Initially only the bigger shops and establishments used them and so they were recycled by the customers. Soon there was a glut and our waterways and other spaces got choked with the infernal stuff that didn’t degrade at all! Today thankfully many states have banned plastic bags and there are awareness campaigns to make people recycle stuff – in short, return to our roots.
So after a good half century later, we find stylish jute and cloth bags even in the hands of society matrons and many shops have started selling cloth bags to those shoppers who have come without one, much like during my childhood days!
Paper/plastic plates and cups:
Though today these are used widely for the sake of convenience and economy, it was not always so. Traditionally in India, food was served on leaf plates. Called ‘patravali’ or ‘pattal’ , they were complemented by leaf cups called ‘dona’. Even today, in poojas and other auspicious occasions food is served in these leaf plates. Leaves from trees like sal and siali are joined together with thin slivers of wood or stitched. It is a cottage industry in many states. Areca leaf plates and cups are the rage in many southern states and are not only eco-friendly but also aesthetically appealing, giving paper and plastic a run for their money!
In south India we still have the custom of serving food on plantain leaves. Apparently there is a health plus in this custom as the oils present in the leaves are released when hot food is served on them. Truly the most eco-friendly custom of use-and-throw! These leaves are eaten by cattle along with any food left in them. What a neat way of waste disposal!
Alas, true to our habit of keeping the rituals and throwing out the reason, today we have plastic and paper banana leaves being sold for auspicious occasions!!
Have you guys drunk tea in kullads? They are the ultimate in use-and-throw cups! After a lot of noise by the then Railway Minister Laloo, they never replaced the plastic and Styrofoam cups in the railway catering services and now we have mountains of them all over the place!
This does not merely mean dressing up leftover food and serving it as a new dish. In our culture, recycling has almost a religious connotation. The custom of feeding vegetable waste to cattle and leftovers and stale food to stray dogs still prevails in villages and small towns. What a useful and hygienic way of disposing of garbage that would otherwise rot, while giving the satisfaction of doing a good deed! Today however, with urban and flat-living, huge quantities of food are wasted and disposed off in the garbage.
It is only the present generation of parents that is so widely using disposable diapers. Otherwise it has always been cloth diapers, soft, absorbent and recyclable!
Today we have diaper ads that are targeted at the rural population, while in the west there is a movement to go back to cloth diapers! It will be a sad day when the villager takes to this practice, as it will surely compromise the hygiene factor. Diapers are very expensive in India and the villagers clearly can’t afford many changes, leaving the child to fester in its own pee and poo!
Soiled diapers that are disposed off with household garbage can be the cause of many diseases when thrown in landfills, in addition to taking a very long time to degrade.
Changing lifestyles have made the use of diapers a necessity today because working couples have no time to wash dirty cloth diapers. But I know of young parents who still use the old fashioned cloth diapers at least during the waking hours of the child, and thus cut down on disposable ones.
Immersion of idols in water bodies:
Actually, Mohan’s post on the Green Ganesha set this post off. As he has rightly pointed out, we have large quantities of toxic waste being dumped in our waterways by way of immersing huge idols of Ganpati (and soon Durga too) after the festivals. Why not make simple dye-based clay idols that will blend with the earth from which they are made? Why are we again distorting a religious ritual, forgetting its true significance and twisting it to pander to cheap publicity and commercial gimmicks?
Many of the customs and habits of old can’t be adopted today due to practical reasons, but there are many that we can. Here are a few:
- Use cloth or bags made of natural fibres for shopping and other purposes.
- Stop or at least reduce the use of paper and other use-and-throw utensils and cups and shift to china or clay cups.
- Use cloth nappies for babies as much as we possibly can.
- Stop buying idols made of non-bio-degradable materials and toxic paints and go for greener options.
- Use reusable cups and plates or eco-friendly alternatives like leaves.
- We can opt for the no-paper bills, which will save millions of trees.
If we just adopted even some of our traditional eco-friendly methods within the constraints imposed by the urban lifestyles — which are not only too fast but also hampered by time crunch — we could contribute a lot to the prevention of environment degradation.
The easiest ones we all can do is to say NO to plastic carry bags and wasting of paper. Why don’t we start today?