Various alternatives to plastic items are available such as bamboo toothbrushes, miswak, glass straws, shampoo bars, cloth bars and beeswax wraps
Various alternatives to plastic items are available such as bamboo toothbrushes, miswak, glass straws, shampoo bars, cloth bars and beeswax wraps

It’s not an uncommon sight seeing plastic bags flying everywhere instead of birds. There are probably heaps stored in a cabinet under your kitchen sink. Plastic bags are practically ingrained in our lifestyles, we are all guilty of collecting, storing, using and throwing them.

“People see trash, but nothing stops them from adding to the pile,” says Tofiq Pasha, known for his work in gardening and agriculture. “We produce about 12,000 to 15,000 tonnes of waste a day.Soon the number will reach 20,000, then 30,000 tonnes.” These numbers are increasing alarmingly and it’s clear that we need to change our lifestyles.

“We cannot keep criticising the government, we must act as responsible citizens ourselves,” laments Pasha. “People don’t even sort through their trash. In our house, food scraps go to the garden waste for compost and other materials such as paper, plastic bottles, glass and tins are sorted, disposed of and recycled accordingly.

To eliminate plastic usage, lifestyle changes need to be made gradually

“We also keep a separate box to collect old batteries, energy savers and pressure bottles from inhalers. These materials are hazardous to the environment and shouldn’t be thrown in the trash and must be disposed of correctly. In the same way, people should also be mindful of what they bring inside their homes.”

Shaista Nilofer, a mother of two, says that the constant sight of garbage disturbs her. “A few years ago, I decided that enough is enough. I’m going to do my bit,” she says. “Today, I’m proud to say that I don’t have a single plastic bag in my house. If I have to give something to my househelp, I use cloth bags that I have made myself. I don’t buy cling wrap anymore to store food, instead I use beeswax wraps which are reusable and much better. I do have plastic containers from when I wasn’t as environmentally conscious, but what’s important is that I haven’t bought any new ones.”

In our country, where it’s not easy to go green, it’s refreshing to see how many people are taking up the challenge. Some supermarkets have introduced biodegradable bags while there has also been a rise in eco-friendly businesses. Emaan Rangoonwala, the owner of Code Green, an online venture that makes eco-friendly products readily available in Pakistan, is also a part of this green revolution. Rangoonwala explains how she came up with the idea, “I’ve always been super picky about wastage, whether it’s water or food or electricity or paper.

Around September 2018, after finding out about how hazardous disposable feminine napkins were for the environment — according to some reports, they stay in landfills for 700-800 years! I decided to experiment with reusable menstrual cloth pads. I absolutely loved the fact that, besides being so much better for the environment, they were cost-effective in the long run.” It is estimated that on average, a woman is likely to use 12,000 to 16,000 disposable pads in her lifetime, which contributes to a tonne of waste.

Rangoonwala researched some more and began to look for vendors who sold eco-friendly products in the city. “I found various environment-friendly alternatives to plastic-based products that were easily available,” she says. “I found one place on the internet but their website indicated they were on a pretty long break. Instead of getting better alternatives just for myself, I also wanted to make these products accessible to other people who take this cause seriously, and that’s how I came up with Code Green.”

Currently, Code Green offers a whole bunch of eco-friendly products including USDA-certified shampoo bars, face and body soaps, lotion bars, deodorants and lip balms — all of which are completely organic and wrapped in plastic-free packaging. They also supply biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes, glass/pyrex straws, paper/ washi tape (washi is a traditional Japanese tape made of hemp and bamboo), reusable make-up removing face wipes, organic cotton sanitary napkins, reusable food wax wraps, natural laundry soda, planting kits, steel straws, biodegradable cutlery and produce bags for groceries.

The key to changing your lifestyle involves taking small and mindful steps. Rangoonwala who has a Master’s degree in counselling psychology shares the same thought. “With most people, the initial goal is to completely eliminate plastic products from their lives,” she says. “This is not possible, nor a practical way to start. The way to do it is to start off small and make little swaps. For instance, switch from plastic bags to reusable bags. Switch from a plastic toothbrush to a bamboo toothbrush. Thinking small is more effective when you look at the psychology of shifting attitudes and perceptions.”

This is probably the same philosophy that Shehzeen Rehman is using to promote eco-friendly living on social media.

Rehman is a Sydney-based, Pakistani blogger, better known as The Desi Wonder Woman, who is eager to use her powers for good. She has recently come up with a campaign to promote eco-living with monthly challenges online. The trend has caught on, with many bloggers jumping on the bandwagon.

“Social media is phenomenal, and it’s so heart-warming to see the difference you can make if you talk about the right stuff,” Rehman says. “My very first post got a fantastic reaction. I had no idea people would be so involved. There was instant engagement.” The trend also highlighted several small businesses that were stepping up to make a difference.

“Surprisingly a bunch of small businesses reached out to tell me about all the eco-friendly products they had,” she says. “Though I had never heard of these businesses before, it was amazing to introduce them to people. Just in two months, I’ve seen the conversation go from zero to multiple people reaching out to share what they’ve done on a daily basis.” The lifestyle blogger had herself already been making changes in her life before the campaign was initiated.

“Over the last couple of years, I noticed how small habits weren’t that hard to build, but the difference they managed to bring was quite significant,” says Rehman. “I could also tell that a lot of people were trying to make greener changes but somehow no one was talking about this on a larger platform. I know environmental issues can get boring to discuss so I wanted to make it exciting, fun and simple for everyone and include challenges that everyone would be interested in, not just a few people with access. Initially, when I started there was no conversation around it and I expected lukewarm involvement. But in just two months, everyone is talking about it,” she says. Indeed, a greater change would come about if major brands stepped up to take the challenge.

According to Pasha, the major brands need to start introducing eco-friendly packaging to minimise waste. “What we’ve found is that fossil fuel, plastic and packaging create the most amount of pollution in our environment, and most of this comes from the corporate sector. Whether it is soft drinks or mineral water, it comes to us in plastic bottles. An incredibly dangerous pollutant is being produced in massive amounts, along with all the other packaging that we use, such as styrofoam, tetra-packs and straws. This has to change.”

Pasha discusses how plastic six-pack rings used for soft drink cans were banned abroad. “It was replaced by simply sticking the cans together to eliminate the use of plastic,” he says. “This is a simple solution. Similarly, there are alternatives to packaging, but we simply need to discover them.”

Fortunately, a few eateries have caught on by introducing biodegradable alternatives instead of plastic cutlery. Staying true to her work, Rangoonwala also takes special measures to limit wastage. “We wrap our orders in newspaper, make order labels from used paper, don’t print invoices, use only paper tape and try to use as little packaging as possible, because all that contributes to excess waste, too.”

Hopefully, larger companies will catch on and start contributing more towards the environment. Of course, this doesn’t absolve people from living responsibly. “We must lower our carbon footprint and try to fix the damage already done. This means driving less, using less power, conserving water and cutting out plastic from our lives gradually. We must stop creating trash that is not biodegradable,” suggests Pasha.

While it’s a little naïve to expect things to turn around in a matter of months, with consistent efforts, we may end up doing some good to the planet in the next few years.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 18th, 2019