Using a circular economy methodology, which promotes the use of products that do not end up in landfill and can be reused in a variety of ways without harming the environment, is the only sustainable option. Small changes in your daily life is all it would take to bring about that big change
What is waste? It is a poignant question that is often answered the same way in waste education workshops conducted by the Bangalore-based social business, Bare Necessities (that promotes adoption of zero waste practices, circular economy methodology and sustainability to consumers and businesses throughout India and further abroad through designing zero waste products, running educational workshops and providing sustainability consulting) as ‘waste is plastic’, ‘chip packets’, ‘chocolate wrappers’, ‘food scraps’, ‘drink bottles’, ‘juice boxes’...
These are all correct answers and there are many more of those fantastic responses that are received from school children as young as five or six years to well educated adults with tertiary degrees and many other people between. The feedback is exceptionally specific, which has its benefits, yet, for our discussion here, let’s look at it on a broader note — Waste, as we would all agree, is humanity’s excess.
Humanity is overproducing and over consuming (or not consuming at all if we take a look at landfills), research shows that the “average person buys 60% more items of clothing than they did 15 years ago”, and, “an estimated one-third of all food produced — equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes worth around $1 trillion — ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers, or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices”. These are two of several examples that could be used to illustrate this point. However, instead of finding more cases, let’s think about why these situations occur? It has been noted that within the textile industry, within India, the one major reason why there is so much waste is because of a lack of awareness and education about how fashion can fit within a circular economy. Textile industry is the third largest producer of waste in most Indian states behind plastic and paper.
Notably too, research has shown that the current food system “exerts a considerable impact on the environment. It drives deforestation and biodiversity loss, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for 70% of water withdrawals”. This is a problem that affects every individual on the planet no matter where one is standing, but has the potential to disproportionately affect locations with larger societal inequalities — “almost 2 billion people go hungry or undernourished” across the globe. Thus, part of the reason why this is occurring is because of a lack of awareness. But, that is only a part of the problem.
For, if we were to look at similar types of excess in other areas of life, such as energy use (large cars, technologies such as smartphones) or in the areas of lifestyle and personal care products, we are forced to rethink if it is only about awareness. At an individual level, the focus should be to divert waste from landfill by using innovative design that fits within a circular economy.
A growing number of Sustainability businesses, such as Bare Necessities, aim to raise the level of awareness about the amount of excess that humanity is producing through their talks and workshops while providing alternatives and brainstorming ideas with consumers in order to assess whether there is a need for a product and then designing it for a market that desires innovation that reduces excess. These businesses target a specific and growing market of conscious consumers.
Within the Indian market, the growth in conscious consumers has been led by leaders both individually and in business. Sharing of facts and figures is one important way to raise awareness. For instance, not many are aware that there is “estimated as many as 8.3 billion plastic straws (that) pollute the world’s beaches”. Or, that for dental care items such as toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, “the package is not noticed during purchase, transport, and use of the product. In fact, it is not noticed until the minute the product is consumed and the package has fulfilled its function and turns into waste”. Similarly for soap, “though one wrapper of soap or one bottle of shampoo might not seem to matter, it can definitely make a difference when multiplied by over a billion people, who live in India and who comprise one-seventh of the world’s population”. Individuals, businesses and groups, by becoming more aware and implementing action plans (through design, reduction in use of products and other areas) are steadily able to do more to limit waste and humanity’s excess.
This brings us to our next question — why is it such a struggle to change? There are a growing amount of facts about these areas of excess that illustrate the detrimental effects of a linear life cycle — the take, make, dispose system that sees many of our products resources being extracted from a limited resource (the planet) before being used and then disposed back into the environment.
Research demonstrates that using a circular economy methodology, which promotes the use of products that do not end up in landfill — instead the products can be reused in a variety of ways without harming the environment — is the only sustainable option. The circular economy is hugely beneficial in ensuring that humanity no longer produces and consumes products with a take-make-dispose methodology, and thereby helps to sustain both us and the environment we live in.
When you think about it on a day to day basis, there are numerous systems around you that call for your attention — where you buy your food is one example and how often you wear your clothes is another. All systems have set processes that are, more or less, controlled by majority stakeholders, who have the greatest say of how a system functions, in terms of production and consumption. This is not, however, doom and gloom, the thing to remember with systems is that until there is enough consumer demand, change often will not occur. Currently, slowly but surely, large companies are becoming aware of the growing consumer demand.
There is a growing focus on designing new solutions that must be valued by all for long term reduction in the contamination of water, land and air — our environment. Examples of this can be seen as far afield as Mexico where a company is transforming avocado pits into disposable bioplastic straws and cutlery, and in Indonesia where the root vegetable cassava is used to create biodegradable bags. By designing new products, along with minimising single use items, correctly disposing of used products in correct categories and limiting the amount of non-organic material, cleaning agents for example, used on a day to day basis, creating a zero waste environment for our all important planet can be achieved.
Consumer demand, and a willingness to accept responsibility as an individual, is at the heart of production and consumption. Fortunately there is a growing number of consumers, especially in the larger urban centres of India, who are currently wanting change and already taking responsibility. Businesses too are making their stand, for instance, Bare Necessities provides sustainable options to toothbrushes, cosmetics, detergents, soap, and even the humble tote bag among other products. These are all simple ideas that matter.
What, then, is waste? The answers heard at the beginning of a talk or workshop are largely those pointing to excess, yet, if we were to look at it in a different light, perhaps it is simply that it is a resource that we have yet to use, because everything matters when taking positive steps toward sustainability on a planet with finite resources. Therefore, we must endeavour to value every item, whether that is a piece of fruit, an item of clothing or any of the specific answers to the waste question touched on at the outset, we need to take the responsibility right down to the most bare necessities.
The writer is a Sustainability Consultant and Education Officer