The last two months, my travel focus has been home, Bangalore. I decided not to miss special occasions both happy and sad, and I’m glad I went back. Through it all, there was a parallel track running in my head, something that has been on my mind an awful lot this year. Sustainable living, both at home and while travelling.
There are so many vectors to sustainable/green/eco-friendly/zero-waste living. To paraphrase a fellow ASUite and aspiring zero waste inhabitant of planet earth – reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle, rot (read her unique journey here). Reduce and refuse are consumption choices. Reuse, recycle and rot are disposal choices. Through this lens, I ponder a few things – about Asia in general and about India in particular.
Green At Home
Paradoxically, India has the best and worst of living with a minimal footprint, driven by economics and mindsets.
The spectrum is huge. The really poor will recycle practically everything because there’s money at the end of it from the scrap-dealer, and in the really tiny villages composting is a way of life and not a fancy R. As you traverse the many layers of middle class, you’ll find people selling their trash or giving it away to maids and drivers who benefit from selling them. As the top of this spectrum transitions into the well-off, the prerogative of the privileged kicks in. They are either well-educated in sustainable living and living it in many ways, or their recyclables fall prey to the curse of convenience and they chuck everything into the garbage that heads to landfills.
Much has been said of the Indian lack of cleanliness in public spaces while they keep their personal spaces spotless. I’m not going to retell that story (although I have many anecdotes!). While middle-class Indians segregate for the scrap-dealer, there are many who treat their surroundings as their trash can. And why it matters is that it adds up just due to the sheer number of people that India has. Only when this is first tackled and the waste at least brought inside, is there any hope for segregation awareness to work at all.
India has a ban on plastic bags at stores, that’s a score for reduce. But we largely don’t know how to refuse free cloth bags even if we don’t need them. Reuse is seen in the middle-class families who ran a house pre-liberalization, but it takes extra effort for the millennials because there’s so much new bling to buy post-lib. Rot is now prevalent, thanks to the wet waste segregation at source. Recycle, now that’s where the challenge is.
I just came across CitizenGage and my heart did a happy little dance. Brilliant idea and execution. Uber for waste, if you will. Check them out, and if you live in Bangalore, use them!
Travel by itself is not green. There are flights to board and busses to catch and cars to gas up. But there is food to takeaway, drinks to be enjoyed on long days out and local shopping to be savoured. And therein lie choices that can be made. The more I travel in Asia, the more I see that proactively being green tremendously helps both the locals and the local environment. The region here is very sensitive to tourist trash – cheap plastic is easy for the locals to sell and make money from, but there are barely any recycling facilities to handle all of this.
My thoughts turn to the massive swath of Asian tourists who are the newly minted middle class. They have just enough disposable income to start venturing outside their towns to see the world, but not there yet to think about the impact they have on the environment. The next huge wave of green travel innovation lies in this segment. How do you make green defaults for them at affordable prices? How do you change behaviours of this large demographic which is more important than all the external facilities you provide? Again, it matters because of the sheer numbers of this strata.
Here are three cool shoutouts for sustainable travel.
I tried to start sorting through the various vectors of green travel in my head, and then I found Ms.Filatelista. Keep up with her eloquent tips here.
Another shoutout to the Green Trails effort at Indiahikes, India’s largest trekking community. What an effort! They take full responsibility for the trekkers they take up into the pristine Himalayas, and they attempt to leave the region cleaner than they found it, while employing local labour to sort and up-cycle the trash. This is what I turn to on days that I start losing hope in the world.
SecondsGuru put together a cute green travel kit that I’m ogling at, take a look here.
What Does It Take?
Like how India is paraded as the poster child for emerging markets for consumer goods, it is also ripe for many opportunities at each level of the 5Rs where a huge untapped market lies waiting to be harvested. What it takes is extensive groundwork to educate the population, new startups to handle the waste that emerges, and government policies that either help or at least get out of the way.
From my reading on behavioural economics, I extract two theories which can be leveraged by all three stakeholders above. The first is Richard Thaler’s “nudge” – to make the green option the default. The second is Charles Duhigg’s “3Rs of habit formation” – Reminder, Routine, Reward – and also trying to make the routine easy to do. These behavioural tactics will work in Asia only if the economics vector is suitably met – green options need to be affordable to the middle class Asian tourist and not a fancy item at a niche store!
The extreme is a blanket ban on plastic. Societies are moving towards this at various speeds across the world, one can only hope that plastic is replaced by something more sustainable and not just something else that is single-use and disposable.
I’m not aiming for perfection, and I don’t advocate anyone else to. If we do, we lose sight of the many small things that many people can do which will add up to create a more sustainable and scalable impact than any one person can ever aim to achieve in a lifetime.
If I am ever brave enough to leave my corporate day job whose paycheck I am addicted to, I’d like to seek out a internship in this sector. Till then, I have a newfound purpose to my travel. It’s no longer all about me and feeding my own lust for novelty, I now have an external focus. And I’m going to hold myself accountable in this space, my public diary of sorts. It’s taken me a decade to get here, but hey, better late than never!