Mumbai: Driven by a passion to empower the downtrodden women in the society, when Mumbai-based T. Lalit joined Stree Mukti Sanghatana, an NGO in 2018, little did she know that it would one day change her life choices. After having done her Master’s in Political Science, she started working for the NGO that deals with the rights of women waste pickers and got a first-hand experience of the city’s garbage crisis. It didn’t take Lalita too long to identify the root cause of overflowing landfills that involved people’s reckless dumping habits. However, the turning point came when she visited C P Talao landfill in Thane.
Describing that visit to NDTV, she says,
As a citizen, I have always been worried about the issue of garbage treatment in Mumbai, but it was only when I interacted with the waste pickers, I got to know that people lacked basic civic sense. Three months after my joining, when I visited the landfill along with the waste pickers from the NGO, I was startled to see the volume of waste dumped at the landfill. To add to that, all kinds of waste was dumped together, and the waste pickers had to handpick the dry waste, which is often their only source of income.
From inhaling poisonous gases like methane ammonia and carbon dioxide, witnessing the deplorable conditions of waste pickers that affected their health to thinking about how the waste can be managed, the visit to the landfill served as a wakeup call for Lalita.
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It is very easy to put the blame on the authorities but introspecting your own habit and rectifying it is very difficult. It was not easy for me to accept that I was also contributing to the garbage crisis. That’s when I decided to act on it and go zero waste, the 23-year-old says.
Lalita’s 4-Step Journey Of Going Zero Waste
1) Waste Segregation
Just like the rest of us, Lalita also didn’t know where and how to start. Being an amateur in the field of waste management, she approached experts and waste pickers from her organisation to understand the issue in detail. At the end of her research, she concluded that waste segregation can significantly cut down the overall waste generation and at the same time improve the lives of waste pickers.
Disposing of dry and wet waste separately is a practice that requires no experience or expertise. If the dry waste is dumped separately it can be recycled. It can also make the lives of waste pickers easier. Instead of rummaging through the garbage at the landfill and compromising their health on a daily basis, they can directly sell the dry waste and earn money, says Lalilta.
To begin with, she educated her family members on waste segregation as it can be confusing. In her initial days, she made sure that dry and wet waste are deposited in the allocated bin. It took her family less than a week to effectively implement source segregation.
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Knowing that waste segregation is only the first step, she purchased a composting basket from her NGO to do in-house composting. Titled as ‘Magic Basket’, the composting unit takes about 45 days to convert the biodegradable waste into manure.
Dispelling the myth that composting at home can be time consuming and unhygienic, Lalita says,
On an average my family generates 500 grams of wet waste daily that I keep adding to basket till it gets full. Once it is full, I add the culture that came with the basket to activate the bacteria. All it requires is oxygen and bacteria to process the waste through aerobic process. Within a period of 45 days, the manure is ready. The entire process takes 1-2 minutes of my day and is completely ordouless and hygienic as the basket is sealed.
So far, Lalita has prevented approximately 20 kilos of garbage from going to the landfill.
When asked about the dry waste, she said that since only 30 per cent of her household waste is dry, she gives it to the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC).
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3) Menstrual Hygiene Management
A few months ago, I watched a video where two girls narrated their experience of switching from non-biodegradable sanitary pads to menstrual cups or cloth pads. It cleared all my apprehensions about using a menstrual cup. It was through the same video that I was educated about the time it takes for one sanitary napkin to decompose. With almost 800 years per sanitary napkin, I was shocked to calculate the time, millions of pads would take to degrade, says Lalita who has now switched to a menstrual cup.
Another reason that made her ditch the conventional pads was the way in which they are disposed of. During her visit to the landfill, she realised that sanitary waste was the worst waste anyone can come in contact with.
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“It was disheartening to see the waste pickers coming in direct contact with the menstrual waste. Since both, leftover food and sanitary pads, are usually wrapped in newspapers the waste pickers open the wrap. Imagine if instead of food, someone’s diaper or sanitary pad comes out of the newspaper, says Lalita.
When she decided to use a menstrual cup, that lasts for ten years and is cost-effective, her mother was against it.
In a country like India, where women are travelling to space and heading multi-national companies, a biological act of menstruation is still considered to be a taboo. Being from a typical family my mother was against the idea at first considering the idea of menstrual cups is alien to many in India. However, when I told her about menstrual waste problems she eventually came on board, she adds.
4) Going Plastic Free
People have become so addictive to plastic that despite knowing its disadvantages, it continues to be a large part of our lives, claims Lalita. To ensure she doesn’t contribute to plastic pollution in the future, she tries to eliminate every product that comes in plastic packaging.
Today, almost every product is packaged in plastic and but that wasn’t the case back in olden days. I learnt about the alternatives to plastic from my Grandparents and other senior family members, she says.
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Lalita embarked on her plastic-free mission by giving up easy items like straws, paper, cups, polythene and bottles. Every time she steps out of the house, she carries with her a water bottle and a cloth bag. When any member from her family goes for shopping, she makes sure to handle a cloth bag to them.
Admitting that she has still not eliminated plastic from her life completely she says that she has become more conscious about her choices, “If I know that I am going to buy grocery or food, I carry a container or a tiffin with me to avoid plastic. Through conscious choices it becomes relatively easy to give up plastic,” adds Lalita.
With a little guidance from her mother, Lalita has also started making organic products at home as a way to lessen plastic. To make soap, shampoo, conditioner and other cosmetic or skin care products at home she relies on ingredients that are available at home or in the local market.
Sharing examples of using traditional approaches, Lalita says,
I soak reetha (soapnut) overnight whenever I have to wash my hair. A paste of gram flour and hibiscus leaves has replaced conditioner bottles. Hair masks have been replaced by methi (fenugreek) seeds. The leftover from the above ingredients is composted.
She has also stopped ordering food or any other products online to eliminate the plastic packaging.
Besides, safeguarding the environment through her lifestyle choices, Lalita has also been able to cut down her costs. Ditching sanitary napkins, packaged food items and skin care products has been cost-effective.
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My journey is extremely economical. I don’t buy pads, shampoos and soaps anymore. All the products I use are found in the kitchen or can be sourced from the local market. I don’t advocate usage of expensive DIY products, so I try to pluck neem leaves and hibiscus leaves to add to my face and hair masks respectively as well, she says.
Lalita’s first hurdle in the journey was her own attitude towards consuming products that would take several years to decompose. For instance, after she decided not to purchase shampoo bottles, there were times when she used to forget to soak reethas in the night.
Making a switch from a habit is difficult. Upon not finding eco-friendly solutions in the beginning, I wanted to quit my journey. But working with the waste pickers every day gave me the strenght to continue, she says.
Besides making changes is her own lifestyle, she had to bring a change in her family’s consumption pattern as well to ensure no waste was generated in her house. Hesitant at first, the family eventually came around says Lalita.
On social occasions or gatherings when Lalita started refusing plastic items, her friends did not understand the purpose behind it. Turning that into an opportunity she started spreading awareness among them. Now, the tables have turned, and her friends often ask Lalita about living an eco-friendly life.
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From not finding enough eco-friendly options, spending extra hours in making her own products to facing opposition from her own family, Lalita’s journey had its share of difficulties and there also have been times when she wanted to quit. While the challenges were big, they were not big enough than her willpower to fight against waste. Today, she has been able to cut down her waste generation by 20 per cent.
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Lalita, who has been sharing her journey on social media handles to spread awareness, believes that people are willing to alter their lifestyle choices for the environment, but lack of knowledge often acts as a hinderance.
“I have started getting queries from my near and dear ones on how to switch to eco-friendly options. This goes to show that people care about the planet and are only hesitant to come out of their comfort zone. I believe that today’s children who will be tomorrow’s adults, must be sensitised at an early age if we have to save our degrading environment, she signs off.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollution, clean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.