About Me

Someone who fell in love with the natural world early on and has been smitten ever since. A blade of grass, a mighty mountain, a tiny raindrop, a roaring waterfall, all fill me with awe and wonder. Nature feels home, filled with warmth and love. It pains my heart to see this home being ravaged. This blog is an effort to find tweaks in modern living to preserve the sanctity of this home. I sincerely hope that you join me in this green karmic journey.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Let's Talk Rubbish!

There is a set of people with whom I end up talking rubbish every time I meet them. In fact, I call some of them just to talk rubbish! 

Don't take me wrong, I am not a creep. I and this lovely bunch of people are members of garbage collection committees in our respective apartment complexes.

We attract each other like magnets and get excited about the topic of garbage. 

We can talk for hours together about organic, recyclable, reject and e-waste, the finer points of categorization, the problems we face in motivating residents to segregate, the issues with housekeeping, vendors, BBMP etc. We lend each other a shoulder to cry upon when we face brickbats and are always ready with bouquets when a small battle is won, a milestone reached.

The world is a little cleaner because we love to talk rubbish. I am glad to have these rubbish talking friends.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

How To Be A Green Tourist

Why do we travel? 

Speaking for myself, I travel to see new vistas, gain new experiences, meet different people and enjoy a different style of life. While doing so, I always like it when the place is clean and people are friendly. Who doesn't! 

Recently, I travelled to Maldives. I was saddened to see that though nature has generously bestowed beauty on it, man has sullied it equally generously. Our walk on beach was marred by trash swept in by waves. Cans, bottles, diapers, CFLs, shoes, batteries....you name it, it was there. Who is responsible for it all? All those who have touched those shores and even those who haven't. Because waters don't know boundaries. If we create trash, it is bound to land (beach?) somewhere. Remember, what goes around, comes around?

Here are some steps to minimise our negative impact on the environment :

1. Use public transport: When you are a tourist, you are constrained on time and would be in a hurry to see places. Here, planning in advance might help. Read up about public transport, take help of your hotel and figure out places which are easy to reach by public transport. It won't just help you green your footprint, it will also give you a taste of local culture which you might not be able to experience in a cab.

2. Hotel tips:
  • Towels: It is very tempting to get a new towel everyday. But consider the amount of water, detergent and bleach used to launder hotel linen and you might want to reuse your towel. If dried properly, the towels are just fine to be reused. The same applies to sheets. Request for a change only when really needed. I generally carry my own towel and dry it on the towel rail where it gets ready to be reused the next day.
  • Water and electricity: Use them judiciously. Just because they are included in the price, don't be careless with these resources. Many hotels are doing away with bathtubs these days as they are water guzzlers.
  • Toiletries: Many hotels have now switched to wall mounted dispensers for soap and shampoo, which is an excellent initiative. This does away with small plastic packaged containers. Also, those little bars of soap just get trashed after a couple of uses. Wall mounted toiletries just need to be refilled and cut down waste.
If you're not a fan of hotel toiletries, carry your own and don't accept new ones from the hotel. If you've opened hotel toiletries, carry them with you and use them. Leave unopened ones in the room. 

3. Bottled water: It depends on the country you travel to. If you are in the developed world then you can easily drink tap water. As a rule of thumb, I carry my own bottle and generally request the kitchen staff to refill my bottles from the kitchen tap as I can't drink from a bathroom tap. I do get strange stares at times but I've never gotten a 'No' till now. In India, good hotels would have safe drinking filtered water. Just ask your bottle to be refilled when going for a day outing. Avoid bottled water wherever possible. It would not only save the planet, but it would also save your moolah too.

4. Dishes and cutlery: Try to carry your own steel plate, spoon, and mug. When you order tea or coffee, you can ask to be served in your own mug. The plastic/ styrofoam glasses used to serve hot beverages are very harmful to health as well as for the environment. The same holds good for cutlery. Give a quick rinse to these dishes just after use and they would be good to go!

5. Avoid takeaways: Takeaways would mean packaging and packaging would add to garbage. Avoid if you can. If you have to, opt for minimum packaging. Just get the food packed in a paper bag. Don't accept ketchup or mayo sachets which you won't use. Don't accept plastic cutlery or a carry bag. Again, if you've your own container, just get the takeaway in that.

6. Leave a green trail: Leave green vibes around. If the hotel has any outstanding environmental practice, appreciate it. If not, suggest green tips in your feedback. Someone, somewhere, always gets affected by what you say.

7. Refuse plastic bags: When you step out for the day, carry your own little cloth tote, one of those cute foldable bags or even reused plastic bags. Whip them out whenever you need to buy anything and refuse plastic bags. I always pack a couple of cloth and plastic bags before my trip.

8. Maps and brochures: Take them only if you need them. If you have taken one and not used it, deposit it back while leaving. Sometimes you like to carry brochures back home to read at leisure. Be realistic. Would you really read them? A lot of information is available online, so use your judgment.

9. Buy ethical souvenirs: Choose souvenirs which are meaningful, boost the local economy and are not made of banned or endangered things. Don't buy kitschy or plastic stuff just for the sake of buying.

Travelling is always carbon intensive. Let's make it as planet friendly as possible.

Bon green voyage!

Monday 7 July 2014

The Bane of Affordability

I often feel that while economic prosperity is doing wonders for people, it's turning out to be a bane for the planet. Financial abundance fosters an aspirational lifestyle and fuels consumerism. We buy because we can afford, so who cares about repairing or recycling or borrowing or that famed 'jugaad' ? Money is in abundance while time is scarce. The result is:

Increased consumerism = Depleted resources 
Use and throw culture = Mounting landfills

The challenge is to inculcate a respect for resources and an awareness that the resources are finite. So while we can buy because we have the means, we should be cautious about how much we buy and that we don't end up wasting resources. 

An example of this mentality surfaced in our monthly residents meeting. Due to increasing urbanisation and depleting water table, our part of the city is reeling under water shortage. A suggestion for water rationing came up. There was a huge uproar and many residents simply said 'Buy more tankers. We are ready to pay more.' 

Nobody wants to practice frugality. Most people believe in paying more and avoiding any discomfort. Is that a good attitude? 

I heard about a restaurant in Germany where people are fined if they waste food. No rationalisation on the lines that 'I-have-paid-for-my-food-so-I-can-waste-all-I-like'. Bravo!! We need more such efforts. There is an invisible social and environmental cost in all our actions which is very high and which we would cringe to pay if we could see it clearly.

So, how to resolve this issue? I asked a few fellow greens on why they tread this path of environmental activism. The answers I got echoed a pattern. Most of them have been raised close to nature. They have come to respect, love and appreciate nature. Now you can't hurt what you love, can you? 

Once this love of nature is instilled in people, they will try to protect it. What better age to instil this love than when they are kids! That's why I prefer taking my daughter to a nature trail rather than to a mall. Please visit my other blogpost for more tips on how to raise a nature loving kid.

Thursday 9 January 2014

CFLs - A Double Edged Sword

Fluorescent lamps have been darlings of green-minded people for quite some time now. Greening tips inevitably nudge you to "switch to CFLs". Governments encourage CFLs since they're more energy-efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs. CFLs use about 75 percent less electricity and last up to 10 times longer. With such impressive stats, what's not to love! But there is a dark fact about CFLs that many people don't know, for which I wasn't prepared and when I got to know, my green sensibilities took a harsh beating.

How does a fluorescent bulb or CFL work?

CFLs contain mercury vapour which produces ultraviolet light when stimulated by electric current. This light is radiated as visible light when it strikes the fluorescent compound phosphor painted on the inside of the bulb.

Issues with CFLs

CFLs were my rockstars till I discovered some ugly truths about mercury, which happens to be a neurotoxin. Frankly speaking, I felt utterly betrayed. I always took an avid interest in environmental issues and read quite a bit. Most of the articles I read were busy comparing CFLs with incandescents and singing paeans on their energy efficiency. None of them highlighted the truth about mercury. There are a couple of major issues with CFLs:
  • Mercury levels - According to a study by "Toxics in that glow", the average mercury content in  CFLs in India has been found to be 21.21 mg which is four to six times higher than that in the developed world. The highest mercury content of 62.56 mg was found in 11 watt CFLs which are most purchased in India. In contrast, bulbs with as low as 1 mg mercury are also available in the US. There is no mandatory cap on mercury in India. Currently, the US cap is 4mgCFL for units up to 25 watts and 5mg/CFL for units over 25 watts. In EU, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (ROHS) law mandates the cap to 5mg/CFLInterestingly, the quantity of mercury is not mentioned on packaging in India (it just says "Hg"). So even if a consumer wants to choose a CFL with lower mercury levels, he simply can't! 
  • Unsafe disposal practices - India has no collection, recycling or disposal rules for fluorescent lamps. These lamps are indiscriminately dumped in landfills where mercury can escape and contribute to air and water pollution. It can easily leach into groundwater. Workers in waste processing industry regularly come in direct contact with broken CFLs, facing serious health hazards. 
How does mercury affect us?

Mercury is toxic in all its forms - organic, inorganic and elemental. Inhalation of mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on respiratory, nervous, digestive and immune systems. Methyl mercury is the most toxic form of mercury. Consumption of fish and seafood is the major source of this particular contamination in human beings.

Low awareness on vital facts about CFLs

The pros of  CFLs are heavily advertised but the cons are rarely publicised. The government is aggressively promoting CFLs in rural India with Bachat Lamp Yojana. Announced in Feb 2009, it aims at large scale replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs.

However, no proper collection and disposal facilities have been launched alongside. Leave alone consumer awareness campaign for safe handling /disposal of CFLs, there are no instructions on packaging about how to deal with a broken CFL. Hence it's no surprise that even highly educated people are not aware of the mercury presence in CFLs, the potential hazards of a broken CFL or how it could pollute air and water if disposed of irresponsibly. 

To give an example, an engineer friend had casually left a broken CFL on her bureau and it lay there for a couple of days waiting to be disposed of. (Mercury vapours keep emanating from a broken CFL). She has two kids who were merrily playing around the CFL. If this is the case with the urban elite, the awareness level in rural folks can only be imagined. 

The government is creating a Frankenstein and when ill-effects reach alarming proportions, it would scurry to douse the fire but by then it would be too late. The government should stop taking a myopic view of the situation and arrange for safe recycling and disposal infrastructure.

What to do when a CFL or fluorescent light breaks?

It is important to know how to clean-up in case a CFL breaks at home or work. We need to understand that we are dealing with hazardous material. 

1. Evacuate everyone from the room. Babies and pregnant women should be the first to go as mercury vapours are most harmful to them. Make sure nobody steps over spillage while moving out.
2. Open external doors and windows to air the room while shutting off any doors to the rest of the house.
3. Shut any central air conditioning or heating. Let the room air out for at least 15 minutes.
4. Wear rubber gloves and change into old clothes. You might have to discard these clothes after cleaning. Collect cleaning supplies like cardboard or paper sheets, duct tape, wet wipes, 2-3 Ziplocs (or similar bags) or a glass jar.
5. DO NOT vacuum or sweep the place with a broom. Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor to a larger area. DO NOT let kids help you
6. Collect broken pieces with the help of cardboards or paper sheets. Finer pieces can be collected with duct tape.
7. Clean the place with wet wipes or damp paper towels. Put everything including wet wipes and gloves in sealable bags or glass jars before putting it in the trash. 
8. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water.
9. Do not wash clothes which have come in direct contact with mercury in the washing machine."Direct contact" means if the broken glass and mercury-containing powder came in contact with your clothing or furnishing, it should not be washed in the washing machine. It should be discarded. 
10. If possible, air the room for 24 hours. If not, at least for 7-8 hours.

As prevention is better than cure, be very careful when replacing CFLs and don't break them. One time exposure to mercury vapors might not do any harm but I for one, am not taking any chances. 

CFLs versus LEDs:

While researching on CFLs, I vowed to switch to LEDs. LEDs, though expensive, are even more energy-efficient and last longer. But when I probed deeper, LEDs have their own disposal issues as they contain lead. Phew! More on LEDs in another blog post.

What can we the consumers do?

1. Raise your voice. Write to government authorities and pollution control boards asking them to:

a) Cap mercury content
b) Set up recycling units
c)Make it mandatory to display mercury content on fluorescent lamp packages.

2. Write to manufacturers to reduce mercury content and display mercury content on packages. 

3. Buy CFLs with low mercury content. Havell's apparently has a green CFL. I haven't seen the product or packaging, but if you are going shopping, do check it out. Keep abreast of any such developments by asking the shopkeeper.

4. Reduce the need for energy by responsible consumption.