Circular Economy : How India Is Unlearning, Smitten By Consumerism

Growing up in India, I assumed certain things in life were meant to be reused or repurposed until they couldn’t be anymore. Broken shoes were mended by shoe cobblers partly because if a stitch could fix it, why bother spending money on a new one and partly because buying a new shoe was indeed costly. Broken chairs & tables were often repaired or repurposed by carpenters. Dumping furniture in the trash had never been witnessed. Dinner left overs were kneaded into flavored dough next morning for fresh bread or offered to the maid for lunch. Take-out food from a restaurant meant you carry your own food boxes/utensils from home to the restaurant, there was no way for restaurant to ‘pack it’ for you. Old newspapers and scrap metals were sold to ‘kabadiwala’ or scrap-dealer, who would repurpose them and sell to industries for recycling.

The first time I used a plastic bottle was when I travelled to New Delhi by train. I reused it at least 20 times before it crumbled — I didn’t know it wasn’t meant to be reused. How could I throw a ‘good bottle’ without using it again? I wasn’t programmed that ways.

All of my programmed wiring went berserk when I moved to the United States. The sheer dependence on single-use items baffled me. The economy was a 180 to what I saw growing up. There was no easy way to not use toilet papers or kitchen towels. Straws were a default in every single drink in every restaurant : be it water or a lemonade.

There is no surprise that a study by World Bank estimates OECD countries contribute to almost half of the trash generated globally every year, while South Asia contributes only 5%. Also, Higher Income sections of societies globally contribute to almost 46% of trash while lowest income contributes only 6%.

Waste Generation by Region. Source : World Bank

The reasons are pretty obvious. In OECD countries, people wouldn’t want to reuse or repurpose anything because it is cheaper to buy a new item. Consumerism drives these economies. Not to forget, being able to toss something out after it broke or got boring or just didn’t ‘feel’ right, is the face of financial independence. That’s what motivates the higher income sections to mindlessly generate trash.

That is where India is headed. Towards a rich and cool lifestyle, driven by consumerism. ‘If you don’t like something trash it and get a new one’ : a lifestyle shift increasingly observed across the country. If you’re not tossing things out, it simply means you’re poor. And no one wants to be looked down upon as ‘poor’ in a country with a booming economy and GDP. What I learnt growing up and has been deeply engrained in my DNA, the future generations refuse to learn and accept. They refuse to believe there is strength in being able to conserve. They want to continue pushing forward the agenda of having an equivalent carbon footprint as the ‘Western’ countries, even if it doesn’t conform to their culture. The realization that theirs has always been the smarter, circular, earth-friendly economy, is yet to arrive.

As the world looks to find ways towards being circular and zero-waste societies, this is India’s moment to grab the opportunity and lead the way. Simply because the country already knows what to do!

References:

  1. The World Bank Group. “What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management”. 2016

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