You are a part of nature, and so, what you do inevitably affects the ecosystem you live in. This basic fact of life is now quite well known, especially thanks to the deep impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had. A 2020 study titled Challenges, opportunities, and innovations for effective solid waste management during and post COVID-19 pandemic, published in the journal Resources, Conservation & Recycling, explains that even as the nationwide lockdowns last year led to cleaner rivers, cleaner skies and allowed natural life to thrive again in many parts of the world, solid waste management became a nightmare.
The study explains that the pandemic altered waste generation dynamics to a large extent, and not just due to increased medical or hazardous wastes. With the supply chains of food, groceries and other household essentials being affected, home deliveries led to increased plastic waste. Consumer fears that essentials will become unavailable led to overbuying and stockpiling of all sorts of goods, which eventually also led to increased food and consumer goods waste. So, even as people have become more aware of the urgent need for sustainability, recycling, and protecting the environment, the problem of household waste has only increased.
With homes becoming the centre of our lives, no thanks to the pandemic, it’s now more important than ever to be conscious of what products you are using, how much waste you’re generating, and how much harm your consumerist patterns are doing to the planet. Here are some everyday household items that you may be using, consciously or unconsciously, that are adding to the waste management disaster.
Packaging materialWhether it’s fruits, vegetables, durable edibles or electronics, décor, sanitation and beauty products, most things you buy online are likely to come in different types of packaging materials. While you may be more concerned about the plastic wrap or bubble-wrap, you should be equally worried about cardboard and paper packages. This is because even biodegradable packaging materials need to go to landfills and composts in your city, which are most likely to be overburdened. So, what’s the best thing you can do to minimise this burden? Simply go for the following options:
• Reduce: Take a closer look at your shopping choices and opt for your needs instead of your wants. Lessen the amount you’re buying, or order everything in one go so that you get one large package (which you could reuse) instead or hundreds of small ones that you’ll need to throw off.
• Reuse: You could easily use cardboard, plastic and even paper packaging material to store household products. For example, that bubble wrap can help keep your glassware safe, while those cardboard boxes can be used to organise and store all sorts of goods.
• Recycle: The internet is packed with easy and brilliant DIY projects that you can take up to recycle packaging material into everything from placeholders and picture frames to lights and showpieces. You could try this, and if you have enough artistic flair, you could even gift or sell these recycled décor pieces!
Toothbrush and toothpasteThere’s no denying that your oral hygiene is very important, but have you ever paused to think how every dental hygiene product you use affects the environment? The toothbrush you use is made of plastic, and so is the toothpaste container, mouthwash container and most dental floss varieties. What’s more, studies—like the one titled Toxicity of fluoride in the journal Archives of Toxicology, 2020—suggest that toothpastes contain chemicals like fluoride and triclosan, which can then contaminate water bodies if waste water isn’t managed properly. These chemicals are known to have a neurotoxic effect on microorganisms and animals living in water, as well as on animals or birds which may consume the same water. The simplest way to counter this cumulative and intense damage to the environment is to replace your plastic and chemical based dental hygiene products with organic ones. For example, go for bamboo toothbrushes, vegan or biodegradable floss, and zero-waste toothpastes and tablet toothpastes.
Wet wipes and tissuesAsk anybody living through hot Indian summers, or a bout of cough and cold—or even someone with a newborn who needs to be cleaned and changed five to six times a day—and you’ll know just how valued wet wipes and tissues are at home. But though these items are convenient and easy to store, they have a heavy toll on the environment. A study published in the journal Water Research in 2020, titled The role of wet wipes and sanitary towels as a source of white microplastic fibres in the marine environment, shows that most commercially available wet wipes are manufactured from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene, or a combination of PET and cellulose. Even after being treated at waste water plants, these products leave behind microplastic fibres, which in turn can add to the marine plastic waste crisis and harm the marine ecosystem. Switching to biodegradable wipes and tissues, or better still, going old-school with reusable wipes and washcloths, may help remedy this part of the climate crisis.
Tea bagsA 2019 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, with the self-explanatory title Plastic Teabags Release Billions of Microparticles and Nanoparticles into Tea, shows that every time you steep a tea bag in a cup of boiling water, the plastic tea bag releases approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics. Consuming that tea can therefore cause toxicity to your body, and worse, when you dispose of the tea bag, it releases the same toxic chemicals into the environment and the food chain. So, while those handy green, black, hibiscus or rooibos tea bags are making your life easier, they are also harming your body and the planet at the same time. How to counter this harm and still enjoy a freshly brewed cuppa? You could go old-school and buy loose tea leaves and a strainer. Or, you could invest in a biodegradable, refillable tea bag if a strainer is not what you want.
Cleaning productsAs a study published in the journal Indoor Air in 2019 (tiled From one species to another) suggests, the advent of marketed cleaning products over the last few decades has revolutionised how we keep our immediate surrounding free of unhealthy microbes. And yet, most of us tend to forget that every time we use a disinfectant to clean the bathroom and floor, or a shampoo, soap or gel to clean our hair and body, the chemicals in these products are not only harming us but our surroundings too. When you clean a surface with a disinfectant, the chemical residue it leaves behind can easily enter the food chain. The dirty water you threw away after washing your hair or wiping the floors can enter the ecosystem again through the drainage system, because waste water management is still underdeveloped in India. So, beware of the products you use in your everyday life and opt for chemical-free, organic and biodegradable ones. As for the plastic containers these products come in, go for the reduce, reuse and recycle mantra described before.
Non-stick cookwareWho doesn’t use non-stick pots and pans these days? However, this type of cookware comes with its own hazard for you and the environment. A study published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research in 2017, titled PTFE-coated non-stick cookware and toxicity concerns, explains that the inner side of most non-stick cookware are coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) like teflon. These synthetic polymers, when exposed to heat, release a variety of gases and chemicals that can lead to mild to severe toxicity.
But entering the food chain or causing indoor air pollution is not the only harm this type of cookware does, because its manufacturing process also uses more chemicals and releases toxic wastes directly into the environment. Moreover, once the coating gets scrubbed off or damaged, most people tend to throw these pans away and buy another, leading to the continuation of this vicious cycle of toxicity and pollution. How to stop the cycle? Invest in eco-friendly cookware made of cast iron, clay, terracotta or soapstone.