With all the buzz around sustainability, climate change and plastic pollution, it is good to see businesses around the world including PepsiCo and Nestle starting to talk about eco-friendly choices. Everyday, news reports highlight the innovative strategies of businesses to combat plastic pollution.
For decades, we have been polluting our environment with plastic disposables, obsessed with the use-and-throw culture. Now we read about many inventions to replace plastic disposables with other types of disposables that are environment-friendly, labelled as pro-earth, biodegradable, compostable, food-grade etc.
But are we going in the right direction by replacing one kind of disposable with another which is less harmful? Have we thought about the whole life cycle of these disposables – from manufacturing, segregation, collection to processing of the waste we generate?
The invention of plastic was supposed to save trees by replacing papers. We have fooled one whole generation in the name of recycling, and given rise to the dependency on plastic.
Now, are we fooling another generation in the name of biodegradable and eco-friendly disposables? Is non-biodegradability the only problem? Are disposables the only solution? Why do we use and throw? Why don’t we adopt a green circular economy where we don’t throw things away after single use, and keep reusing as long as it lasts?
With the climate change emergency, water crisis and air pollution, we can’t afford to get it wrong this time. Sustainability means reducing our carbon footprint and retaining nature’s cycle to return back to earth whatever we consume.
Our problem is not only recycling, but the cycle of recycling – from manufacturing, shipping, segregating, collecting and processing. We need to go back to a circular economy following the 5 Rs hierarchy of sustainability – Refuse, Reduce and Reuse, before Recycle and Remove.
So, here are some of the tips for businesses like Chai Point, Swiggy, Zomato and BigBasket who are showing the right intent in this direction, but with misguided choices:
- Disposables at dine-in: There is no sense in serving in disposables for dine-in. Water consumed for washing dishes is way less than that for procuring, manufacturing, shipping and purchasing disposables, and then segregating, collecting and processing these.
- Difficulty composting: Most so-called biodegradables, compostables and disposables require industry conditions to get composted, and that too only if these are segregated properly. We don’t have enough composting units for regular food waste, and absolutely no specialised units to compost biodegradables.
- Areca plates: These are totally chemical-free and natural, but composting these takes about six months, and requires additional efforts like shredding. Imagine, at the rate people are eating out, we will end up digging the whole earth to bury those areca and wait for them to get composted.
- Low levels of segregation: Let’s accept that we are terrible in segregating our waste even in two categories. And once waste is mixed, it becomes useless, good only for landfills or polluting lakes. Bengaluru, being at the forefront of segregation, still has less than 40 percent segregation city wide. Doesn’t this haunt us before we claim certain materials to be pro-earth or sustainable though they will end up in mixed waste? Let’s not generate waste that can’t be managed.
- Clay pots: They reduce guilt, but are not eco-friendly. They are made using topsoil which is fertile and should be used for growing food. Also, claypots do not degrade or disintegrate over centuries. We still find clay pots from civilisations like Harappa. But our ancestors were wiser than us. They reused clay pots, and didn’t throw it away after single use like we do. So think before using clay pots as single-use items.
- Paper napkin vs cloth: Paper napkins can biodegrade quickly only if its segregated and collected with wet waste, and if no chemicals had been used to make it glossy. But then do we really need to grow trees for years and then cut them to wipe our hands for seconds? Instead, cloth napkins can be used, washed and reused at a mass scale.
- Sugarcane bagasse disposables: As a disposable, sugarcane bagasse is much safer than areca since it composts in 2-3 months and no chemical is used in its manufacturing. But it has its own carbon footprint in the whole supply chain, from collection of sugarcane waste to manufacturing, distribution and so on. So, use it wisely in situations where there is no viable option to carry or wash reusables.
- Plastic packaging: Chips, biscuits etc have been sold for centuries. But after the plastic invasion, it becomes unthinkable to pack every biscuit without wrap. Low-value mixed material is used for this. More elite the biscuit or cake is, more the plastic wraps around it. The wraps increase shelf life, but this means more stale products. Why do we want to feed ourselves and our children stale products that look crisp in folds of shiny packaging material, rather than going to local stores and getting fresh products if we don’t have time to cook?
- Choked by cling wrap: An apple in cling wrap, shipped from New Zealand, doesn’t rot for a month. Just imagine the kind of chemicals that are used before suffocating these fruits and vegetables in plastic trays and wraps. Our bodies are designed to digest local produce as per local climate.
- Butchered by tape: Business switch from plastic bags to so-called paper bags, bagasse disposables, cardboard boxes, and then kill it all by covering these with plastic tape. Simple paper bags then become mixed waste comprising paper and plastic. Who will sit and separate the tape from paper? If the bags really need to be sealed, there are paper tapes. Growing up in the 70s-80s, we always saw shopkeepers packing with a newspaper piece or used notebook page, skilfully folding the top to make it spill-free. It was like fancy origami to children.
- Delivering cutlery: Most people order food either at office or home; both places can have cutlery sets. Sending cutlery by default is just overkill. Some like FreshMenu even claim to have cutlery made of cornstarch. It’s good to see some online giants giving users the choice to avoid cutlery delivery, but we don’t mind anything coming our way free. So let’s make it ‘no cutlery’ by default, and let people add it if it’s really needed and pay a little extra.
- GoBox/Dabbawala: Here comes the plastic boxes, again sealed by tonnes of tape. Is someone giving out free tape as a master plan to kill the planet? When an online platform delivers from many food vendors, why can’t it provide reusable boxes? These platforms collect food and deliver to the same office spaces and communities many times a day. There is no extra trip, no additional carbon footprint involved here. Since this industry has few players with big funding, it may be child’s play to have technology added to their app to track reusable lunch boxes and manage supply chain along with food delivery. Here is an example.
- Paper bags vs reusables: We get it, restaurants have started giving paper bags for food delivery. But why not just have reusable bags, give only the food dabba to customers, and have your delivery person keep the bag for the next delivery?
We need to leverage every opportunity to refuse single use, reduce disposables, reuse, then rot (compost whatever we can), and only the very last resource should be recycled. Only then can we claim to be ‘pro-Earth’, ‘eco-friendly’, and so on.
We need to start thinking of the whole product cycle before calling something sustainable. Change needs to come from business design, right from inception. Some of us refusing single use can only bring about so much change. It leads to personal satisfaction and inspires some, but can’t keep pace with climate change. Sustainability is not a project or campaign. It’s a mindset, way of mindful consumption and owning producer’s responsibility.
Let’s redesign businesses and let’s rewire our lifestyle to think outside the box. We don’t have enough time left to go wrong once again.