Waste Not Want Not

 

Almost everything about the way people live their life seems different in India: people wash their clothes by hand, carpooling is taken to an extreme, and almost everything is reused before being discarded.

There’s a lot that can be learned about how to live sustainably from how people live in India (or how people in my grandparents’ generation lived in America).


When starting to write this post, I was reminded of something my dad shared on my Facebook wall earlier this year. He shared a story about an older woman being chastised at a store for not using reusable bags. The young cashier criticized the older women’s generation for not taking care of the Earth. This prompted the older woman to describe practices that she does and Americans used to do before the “green movement” that are more environmentally conscious than what most people do today. Some of the habits she mentioned are listed below:

  • Walking places rather than driving
  • Washing cloth diapers rather than using disposable ones
  • Returning milk and soda bottles to be sterilized and reused rather than just thrown away
  • Drying clothes on the line rather than using energy and a machine to do it
  • Wearing hand-me-downs rather than new clothes
  • Exercising by working, not using treadmills that require energy

This post reminded me that many of the practices that I observe in India used to be commonplace in America as well.

 

Energy

One of the most obvious causes for the lower per capita energy usage in India comes from a lack of appliances that are common in America:

  • Refrigerators
  • Washers
  • Dryers
  • Dishwashers
  • Ovens
  • Microwaves
  • Air conditioners
  • Hot water heaters

I know I’m personally used to having all of these and have complained about doing dishes by hand or taking my clothes to a laundry mat in the past. But living here without most of them (we do have a point of use, tank-less water heater in our shower) has made me realize how much more energy I use in America because of these appliances even when trying to efficiently use appliances: only running full loads of laundry or dishes, using cold water for laundry, turning off the heated dry on the dishwasher, having our thermostat set to temperatures close to those outside, etc.

Farming is very common in rural India – Austin and I have seen lots of sugar cane, rice, and mango tree farms. Unlike in America where the processes is very industrialized – using lots of machinery and few humans – people do everything by hand here. This is beneficial in that their approach provides jobs to more people and doesn’t require expensive equipment that must be maintained.

The electrical outlets all have switches to turn them off to protect appliances from surges but have the added benefit of preventing phantom loads from unused electronics. I’d love to see this building practice brought to America!

In addition to not using energy for appliances, people here are very good about turning off electronics when not in use or lights and fans when they leave a room. There were a few times we forgot to turn our fan off – we’re not used to having one so it’s a new habit to make – and when we did other people in our building were sure bring it to our attention.

After a couple months here, we received our first electrical bill. Back in America, I think my friends would vouch that I’m a pretty “green” or sustainable person. Here in India, I knew that Austin and I had been even more conscious than usual of our energy consumption, so I expected a fairly low bill. I got it a bill for 764 rupees… which meant nothing to me since I had never received a bill here. I went across the hall and casually asked Paresh, “What was your electric bill?” He said, “270 rupees. Why?”…

His bill was a third of ours! He spent the next 5 minutes trying to come up with polite excuses for why our bill may be so large. During the discussion he mentioned that him and his wife don’t even use their hot water heater! The only conclusion I could reach from our discussion was – Austin and I are overconsumptive Americans who can’t even be truely sustainable when we want to be.

 

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No ovens means no cakes. This makeshift tomato Birthday cake was made for me by my friends at the restaurant we went to.

 

Our clothes hang dry (and get washed by hand) since we don’t have a washer or dryer.

Goods, Consumption, and Waste

Trash in America is kept out of site – it’s picked up and hauled away never to be seen again. This is not the case in India (at least rural India). In Kharel there is no trash service so people just dump their trash somewhere near their home. When Austin and I have filled our bathroom-sized trashcan, we walk behind the hospital, through a field, and dump it into a hole. We are made acutely aware of how much trash our hospital community has made. While staring at the hole of trash that’s in some ways not very big given the number of people that dump into it, I wonder if American’s would generate as much waste (on average over 4 pounds a day) if they had to watch it slowly accumulate week after week, year after year.

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The hole where the hospital and three apartment buildings dump their trash.

When thinking about why there might be less trash generated in India than in America a few thoughts and observations come to mind:

  • Food is made from scratch – minimizing the packaging and chemicals used in processed foods
  • Grains and beans are bought in bulk – again less packaging
  • Families use small trashcans – maybe this provides some psychological priming?
  • People use reusable bags and stores in cities often charge customers for disposable bags
  • People reuse things before throwing them away:
    • Printing paper packaging is used as book protectors
    • Beverage bottles are reused
    • Newspaper is used as paper towels to put snacks on or as shelf liners
    • Old boxes are pressed into plates for to-go ware at restaurants
    • Bags that stored grains are sewed together and used as tarps
  • There aren’t trashcans in every room – one day I had to wait to get to the cafeteria to throw away a gum wrapper because I couldn’t find a trashcan.
  • In general, people buy less stuff here. This is especially apparent with office supplies in the hospital: each desk only has one pen and almost no scrap paper.
  • No one uses toilet paper – obviously this isn’t related to waste that usually goes in a trashcan
  • Everyone carries around handkerchiefs because disposables like tissues and paper towels aren’t common here – this is also true for diapers; kids just wear underwear here and get wiped down after going to the bathroom. The one year old that lives next to us has both pooped and peed on our floor (but we still adore her fun, sassy personality).
  • Homes are smaller here and less filled with stuff that will likely one day be thrown away.

 

The diet in India is primarily vegetarian and omnivores are more similar to what hunter gathers used to be in that they only eat meat once or twice a week. This is much better for the environment than the typical American diet that has meat as a primary component. Meat production requires more energy (think of all the grain animals have to eat before we can eat them), requires more water than plants, cows especially release high levels of greenhouse gases like methane, and many animals are given antibiotics before they are sick which leads to antibiotic resistant strands of bacteria that we can then be infected with. (Even just cutting back on one’s meat consumption can have a big impact so consider giving Meatless Mondays a try).

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This bike protector is a an example of the packaging turned into tarps.

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Austin used newspaper and other old packaging to wrap my birthday gift 🙂

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In India, people who choose to buy cars have to pay for a mirror on the passenger side. Not sure if this one is a positive because it discourages unnecessary consumption or is a negative for safety reasons…

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Space is definitely a commodity in India – this shop where we bought some kitchen supplies was filled to the brim with products, had things hanging all over the ceiling, and had an attack that stored even more.

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Talk about efficiency – this truck was carrying as many empty bottles as it could to be recycled

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I spent a week working in this tiny pharmacy with this group of people – both standing and sitting space were scarce here.

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This is our tiny trashcan – we keep a plate on it and chemical chalk around it to keep the thriving insect population out of it.

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India is very good about labeling items as vegetarian and restaurants as vegetarian friendly. Even this box of cereal has a symbol on it marking it as “100% Veg.”

 

Transportation

As we’ve mentioned before, roads are dramatically different in India – the experience of riding in a taxi in Mumbai should be turned into a video game. There are something I would like to see become more common; things like wearing seat belts or helmets, using blinkers, and staying within lanes. Nevertheless, there are a few practices America could definitely benefit from adopting.

  • Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOVs) are rare – Even people with cars often use a scooter or motorcycle for trips when it’s only one or two people going.
  • Bikes, motorcycles, trains and buses are super common.
  • Car pooling is taken to an extreme.
  • There are lots of vehicles that run on compressed natural gas which they’re able to refill at most gas stations.
  • Roads are shared by cars, trucks, bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians (and animals: cows, donkeys, dogs, goats).
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Even Domino’s uses motorcycles for delivery!

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At the end of a festival celebrating Ganpati – the most popular Hindu deity in India- statues are taken to a river, dunked 7 times (with a wish made the seventh time), and released into the river. We all piled into this truck for the adventure after throwing colored powder at each other. This truck is very full (Austin is actually in there too)!

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On one of our nightly walks we got passed by this rowdy car filled with 3 adults and at least 6 kids from the hospital apartments we live in.

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This motorcycle is carrying two guys and a brand new bicycle.

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This is our friend, Paresh’s, car that has compressed natural gas (CNG).

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When Paresh stopped to get gas with us, we were interested to see what the pump for natural gas looked like. As a safety precaution, we all had to get out of the vehicle while pumping.

A cow that decided to take a nice nap in the middle of the road

Cars, animals, scooters and rickshaws coexisting in peace.

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Austin and I got to ride a Rickshaw to a nearby town (Chikhli). Our Rickshaw fit an impressive 13 people – the middle row that we were in had a small bench at our knees for children to sit on.

 

 

 

Much of my commentary has focused on the actions of individuals and hasn’t accounted for general air and water quality or the difference in population of size between America and India (300 million versus 1.2 billion). Because of India’s size but lack of infrastructure, there are definitely areas they need to work on as a country. Nevertheless, given America’s relatively small population, it’s actually quite impressive how large of a portion of the world’s resources we consume – for example American’s consumer a quarter of the world’s energy and operate a third of the automobiles.

While in college, I spent much of my time outside of class working to reduce the environmental impact of my university and myself. The initiatives I worked on encouraged people to make small changes to reduce their impact – recycle more, use fewer items that are only used once, turn off the lights when you leave a room. Living here makes me frustrated that we couldn’t get more people to take these small actions to reduce their impact while also making me want to push my fellow Americans do alter their behaviors even more.

That’s all for now – here’s a cute picture of the baby I mentioned 🙂

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This is the expressive Aneri – the one year old that lives next to us 🙂

 

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The Well Fed Americans

“God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but God is not the one who’s supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid upon us.” Paul Farmer

 

Walking around in India, I feel out of place. Not only am I white – the only other white person I’ve seen outside of advertisements has been Austin – but I am clearly well fed. This is apparent by both my width and height.

 

Antenatal Checkups:

One of the first days at the hospital, Austin & I observed women receiving free pregnancy check-ups. So many women come for these checkups that hospital staff lay a blanket on the floor in the hallway for the women to sit on as they wait to be seen. Sitting on the floor rather than chairs is a fairly common occurrence in India where chairs, space to put them, and ways to transport them are scarce commodities.

Austin and I sat in chairs that lined the hallway that functioned as a waiting room and observed as the women came in and squeezed onto the rug. Once the staff was set up they invited us to come into the room where they would first weigh the women – this room is larger and less crowded than the examination room. As the women entered it was hard to believe that they were all pregnant. I can’t remember seeing a single woman who had a large belly like the one’s I’ve seen on pregnant women in America. Seeing the women’s actual weight made it even more clear how small (and underfed) these women were.

I’m used to measuring weight in pounds so seeing weights in kilograms (kgs) is already unsettling since it takes 2.2 kilograms to make 1 pound. Nevertheless, we only observed a range of weights from 30-50 kilograms or (66 to 110 pounds).

Outreach:

There’s an entire building of the Gram Seva Complex dedicated to Community Health and Outreach. In addition to going to check up on patients in their homes, organizing 160 microfinance groups, creating jobs through “handicrafts,” seeing patients in the office, helping feed and educate children in the community, members of this office also spend multiple days each week driving out to small satellite centers to give children checkups and provide them with vitamins and extra food if they’re malnourished.

After morning chanting and breathing exercises, two community health workers organize the supplies we’ll be taking: lots of iron supplements and a protein and vitamin enriched, high calorie flour. At 10:30 we climb into what looks like a small school bus painted white. Our drive along no fault (unlined) roads takes us to a one-roomed building filled with young children sitting on a rug on the floor. There is a similar building for every 1,000 villagers that the hospital cares for and each one has two of the villagers trained to help assist with the care Gram Seva provides (empowerment through employment). These two workers prepare a meal for the children before we arrive and help as we weigh the children in what looks like a swing attached to a scale to measure produce before they are seen by the physician Hiral Dave.

Hiral shows me the chart they use to see if the children are normal or malnourished level I, II or III. I had read in Gram Seva’s yearly report that when they started this program, malnourishment in the surrounding villages was 76% and that it has since decreased to 53%. Nevertheless, it was still difficult to see so much malnourishment in person. It was disheartening to see how thin many of the children’s and mothers’ arms are when I know that there’s food in America that’s being thrown away or eaten in excessive amounts.

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One of the workers from the hospital waited on the bus to hand out medicine to children after their checkup

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Hiral listening to a fussy baby’s heart

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Wende learning to measure blood pressure on some very giggly girl volunteers.

 

Shopping for clothes

A young couple that live across the hall from us: Paresh a physician and Nirali who’s 5 months pregnant are the people we’ve explored the surrounding area the most with. They’ve taken us to a Buddhist temple at the top of a hill, to family’s houses or work offices, helped us get screen for our windows, kitchen supplies, and cell phones. On one of these outings to a nearby town we purchased Austin some short sleeve button up shirts to keep him cooler. The store we found was about 15 x 8 feet with a counter running the length of the store. There was no dressing room so Austin tried on different size shirts as we all stood in the small shop. It turns out that while in America Austin is definitely a “small” when it comes to shirt size, in India he’s a “large” or even “XL.” We both knew that I was definitely more well fed than most of the women we’d encountered, but we hadn’t really stopped and thought about the fact that Austin was indeed larger than most of the guys. The fact that he has large bicep muscles doesn’t just show that he has spent time working out, it also demonstrates that he has access to enough food to grow his muscles.

This also made us think about height. In America, I would be considered a tall girl, though there are definitely taller girls. However in India, we both tower over both women and men. Here, height seems as related to how much nourishment one received while growing up as genetics.

 

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Nirali, Austin & Paresh picking out handkerchiefs

 

 

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Austin in front of a Hindu temple

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Nirali and Nandini looking at the view from the terrace on top of the temple

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Tree in front of temple

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Austin, Paresh, Nandini & Nirali on the terrace

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The view from the top

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Obligatory temple selfie

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On our trip we stopped by to see some of Paresh & Nirali’s family

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Paresh took Austin to go get us cell phones one day during lunch break

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Wende working on cutting the velcro for the screens for our windows

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Austin nailing the velcro to the window – no peel and stick here