We've all been brought up learning that the mantra for an environment-friendly existence is to 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle'. But, given the rate at which we are generating solid waste, estimates say India will need a landfill the size of Bangalore by 2030 to accommodate the 165 million tonnes of waste we will be producing by then! That's 66,000 hectares of land! Not only are existing landfills bursting at their seams, but because of lack of of waste segregation at source, mixed organic and non-biodegradable waste are burnt in open piles releasing a potent mix of gases.
In the light of the changing nature of our consumption patterns, it's time to add another R to the 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle' mix: REFUSE.
Every item we use in our lives has an environmental (and health) cost. Single-use disposables, in particular, have a huge environmental footprint. As their name suggests, they have a short life span and are designed to be used just once and discarded. Unless they are segregated and sent to appropriate recycling facilities, they usually end up in trash piles where they are burnt. Often, after we use them, these items are soiled with food, grease or moisture, making them impossible and uneconomical to recycle. Other items, such as multi-layered packaging, just cannot be recycled.
Undoubtedly, single-use disposables make our lives easier. Being able to buy water at any store or restaurant whenever you want is what progress is all about, right? But those bottles add up. As do all the styrofoam plates and plastic spoons, the plastic bags and the paper cups of coffee. But, out of sight is not out of mind and disposables have a way of coming back to bite us - in the food, water and air we consume.
If there's one action you want to take to make your life eco-friendly, there's a simple motto to follow: Refuse single-use disposables.
Here are 8 single-use items to refuse:
1. Plastic water bottles
From an environmental and economic standpoint, buying bottled water only to throw away the bottle each time makes little sense. It is estimated that every one-litre bottle of packaged water requires 162 grams of oil and 7 litres of freshwater to make! Yet, India's market for bottled water is surging ahead.
Many of these bottles end up littering streets, burning in street corner piles or polluting water bodies. Plastic is virtually indestructible and will remain in the environment forever where it breaks down into tiny microscopic particles that get into the soil and water and reenter the food chain. Even if you do end up reusing the bottles, this is possible only for a limited period of time before they begin to release antimony with repeated reuse. Consider buying a reusable stainless steel bottle which is convenient to carry around, just as easy to clean and way healthier.
2. Plastic bags
Much has been written about the hazard that disposable plastic bags are to the environment and urban wildlife. The government's ban on single-use plastics in 2016 listed plastic bags and non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) bags at the top of the list of banned items. Yet, they continue to be ubiquitous and freely available, clogging drains, choking cows and smouldering in open bins.
NWPP bags are especially undesirable because, although they may appear like cloth, they are a blend of plastic and fabric which is impossible to recycle. Even more so if they are dyed in different colours. Equip yourself with a few reusable cloth bags of different sizes. Keep a few stashed around the house, in your backpack and vehicle so that they are handy when you need them.
Every straw that humans have used and disposed continue to exist somewhere on land or in the ocean, often killing or maiming marine wildlife who mistake them for food. Unfortunately, we think of straws as small and innocuous and underestimate the risk they pose. Restaurants hand them out carelessly and we use and dispose them without a second thought. The next time you order a drink, let the restaurant know in advance that you don't need a straw. If you can, go a step further and urge them to provide straws only upon request. If you do need to use a straw, consider investing in reusable options made of stainless steel or bamboo. or get cups with attached straws for children.
4. Paper cups
Bet you're saying, 'But paper is biodegradable, right!'. Paper cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic to make them waterproof. Some are also coated with a wax layer to prevent the liquid from wetting the paper. Pouring hot liquids may cause the wax or plastic to melt and enter the stomach along with the beverage. At work, keep a ceramic or steel mug that can be easily washed and reused. Request your office to replace disposables in the pantry with reusables. They might not be as attractive, but they're infinitely healthier for you and safer for the environment. If you're hosting an event, ask around for caterers ready to supply reusable glasses.
5. Disposable plates and spoons
Once contaminated with food, oil and moisture, plastic tableware is impossible to recycle unless it is washed clean before disposal. Styrofoam options are especially detrimental to the environment because the material absorbs the food and is impossible to wash and clean. Styrofoam or polystyrene is not recyclable and only ends up in landfills (even if it is sent to a recycling facility).
6. Laminated packaging
Laminated packaging is easy to identify - it's shiny on the inside and appears like plastic on the outside. Most packaged food, snacks, biscuits, ketchup and sauces are packed in laminates which contain an inner layer of aluminium foil and an outer layer of plastic which are impossible to separate and recycle. Laminates are without a doubt heading to the landfill unless you refuse to use them.
7. Cling wrap
Nowadays, it is common to see fresh produce - fruits and vegetables - come pre-packaged in cling wrap. Some lucky items even come tucked into soft styrofoam beds, swaddled in multiple layers of cling wrap so thick as to be bulletproof. Cling wrap is designed for use and throw and will never be recycled. Once crumpled or stretched, it is not reusable. You are better off buying items in bulk or opting for goods pre-packaged in plastic with higher recycle value.
8. Disposable diapers and menstrual hygiene products
Both products contain 90 percent plastic and a host of other chemicals such as absorbent gels, bleaches, odour neutralisers and fragrances. Once discarded, bio-medical waste heads either to landfills where they are burnt to release dioxins or to open water bodies and drains where they absorb water, bloat up and clog the city's sewerage systems. A range of reusable diapers by a variety of brands are available in India as are healthier, safer menstrual hygiene products like cups and cloth pads.
An unmistakable presence at every celebration, a colourful bunch of balloons floating up against a blue sky sure make a pretty sight. But once they've been released, balloons are nothing but floating litter. Balloons are made of a latex-plastic mix to which dyes and preservatives are added to impart colour and prevent bacterial decomposition. They are not biodegradable and once they land, they are a hazard to wildlife on land and in water who mistake the shreds for food and choke or starve to death from internal blockages.
Featured image: Wikipedia Commons