The Commercialization of Zero-Waste

This article highlights the evolution of zero-waste from a mundane way of life for millions in developing countries to a term owned and promoted by mostly white west. And a woman's journey practicing it.

The term zero-waste comes with immense pressure. Personally, I have been unable to go completely ‘zero’ but am mindful of reducing waste in every aspect of my life. Waste is of so many different kinds. We not only waste money on things we don’t need, we also waste resources such as water and we waste our energy and time on things that aren’t useful or productive without even realizing it.

My time overseas (USA) was perhaps the worst when it came to plastic (& single-use product) overuse. Single use plastic and single use paper was widespread, and it was unheard of to use a kerchief or a cloth napkin. I was judged every time I wiped my nose with my dainty, hand-embroidered cloth kerchief instead of paper tissue which I was later taught was ‘more sanitary’ unlike kerchiefs that got dirty and were reused. I tried explaining that I carried several kerchiefs which were washed at the end of the day but it didn’t seem to convince my well-meaning cultural-tutors. My steel dabba with home-cooked food was too drab compared to the colorful single-serve yogurt and clingfilm wrapped fruit. Plastic cutlery, cling wrap and single use tissue was so rampant that you couldn’t go into a cafeteria or restaurant without being inundated by it. The food always came with a small serving of juice or water in a tiny bottle that was just too cute to give up. I knew I was losing my resolve against plastic and single use products when it no longer bothered me to see piles and piles of waste in the trash bin. Scores of reminders about the detrimental effects of plastic on health didn’t seem to matter.

A few years into this wasteful lifestyle, I made some friends with ideas which were not mainstream – ideas about the individual’s role in the environment and the emphasis on supporting the small business. Coincidentally, my parents visited me during my questioning phase. They reintroduced me to the benefits of living with less, focusing on circular economy and sourcing from locally made businesses – the pillars of my life in Mumbai. This encouraged me to entertain the idea that living how I did back home in Mumbai was amazing after all. I know, face-palm moment! But like they say, sometimes it takes going millions of miles away from home to find your way back home again. I started reading up and educating myself on the harmful effects of plastic on my health. Soon enough I replaced my plastic cutlery with steel & glass bottles, steel tiffin boxes & storage containers and steel straws. I began carrying my own reusable shopping bags made with old bed sheets & saris for grocery shopping, for buying fresh fruit and veggies at farmers market. The initial investment in good quality steel (and glass) containers in the US was high (it’s much cheaper in India) but cost over time turned out to be cheaper because they were sturdier and didn’t need to be replaced.

Zero-waste products are now a completely unique market segment. A market that never existed before – actually it did exist before but it was completely underutilized and de-glamorized unlike right now. Many cities are now banning single-use and disposable plastic just as the state of Maharashtra did on 23rd June, 2018. Even schools are enforcing the no plastic rules in their classrooms – be it the tiffin box or the pencil case, ensuring that kids are carrying more steel & tin containers like we did, back in the day.

Now the zero-waste movement has caught on with millions around the world, spurring many new businesses in its wake. These ‘Zero-waste’ businesses encourage consumption but, since when do you need 10 steel straws, a brand-new makeup wipes, and a glass coffee-cup with silicone sleeve and bamboo toothbrushes?! Personally, I am celebrating the fact that we now have zero-waste businesses. But some of these businesses have commercializing zero-waste, hiking up prices, making it unavailable to the masses and deviating the conversation from zero-waste to glamorous consumption under the cloak of zero-waste. Zero-waste which was once the cornerstone of life in India is finding itself more and more glamorized & less and less accessible because of its emphasis on buying rather than reusing or recycling. For instance, use of neem and other tree twigs for brushing teeth was quite common in India as was the use of steel and other metals in cooking and food storage. We’ve grown up watching plastic boxes reused and milk bags washed and converted to ‘chillar’ pouches and snack bags for school lunches. Yet somehow these are sometimes overlooked, forgotten and very often looked down upon instead of celebrated and encouraged.

If the zero-waste movement must be a mainstay in our lives, it is up to us, who actively practice zero-waste to bring existing and age-old practices to light. We need to highlight and celebrate the different ways in which our families and ancestors lived their life with zero-waste, in a circular economy, before it became a thing.

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