A few months back, I decided to start making the transition toward a zero waste lifestyle, realizing that making this transition while living in India would present its own unique challenges. I started by doing the little things: I bought a bamboo toothbrush, learned how to make my own moisturizer and mouthwash, bought a reusable water bottle and started to carry my own grocery bags when I went shopping. It was easy to do the things that relied only on me, and my willingness to change. It was much more difficult to do things that relied on outside people or services, like recycling or buying in bulk, for the simple fact that these options are not readily available where I live.
ENVIRONMENTAL AWARENESS IN INDIA
India is several years behind the western world in terms of environmental awareness. Compared to the U.S. or Europe, disposables are still a relative novelty here, especially in rural areas. It’s nearly impossible to visit a public space and not see plastic garbage littering the ground - it’s almost always within eyesight. Even in the most remote areas (which in my mind should be the most sacred) hikers and campers still leave their plastic bottles and food wrappers behind, desecrating ponds, streams, and trails.
There is actually a small but growing waste management movement going on in India, for which I’ve seen signs posted in places like metro stations and on social media. Local governments and community groups are encouraging families and businesses to segregate their dry waste for proper disposal at dry waste collection centers, which is a great and positive step toward waste management.
Generally, though there is still not enough education about the proper disposal of plastic, paper, metal, and food waste. I think there is a cultural issue here too, and an attitude that if it’s not in your home or on your own doorstep, it’s not your problem. Most people therefore have no problem throwing their food wrappers and plastic bottles on the ground in public parks, by the side of roads, behind businesses, and in canals. There is clearly very little awareness about the health problem this refuse creates.
PLASTICS & FOOD SHOPPING
It’s hard to get away from plastics, no matter where you go. In mainstream food markets, almost everything is packaged in plastic, including produce. Though their selection tends to be much more broad, I tend to stay away from the bigger stores in favor of the small, less conspicuous vegetable stalls. I frequent one such stall in my neighborhood, down the block. It’s tiny storefront, hard to spot unless you’re right on top of it, but the owner manages to pack a pretty impressive selection into a small space, and I can usually find everything I need. My local guy has no problem with me bringing my own produce bags to carry my vegetables home, because it means he can hang on to his plastic bags for other customers.
There is one upscale food market where I am able to buy nuts, dried fruits, and spices in bulk, but I get the feeling that the bulk dispensers are there more for show than for the purpose of cutting down on waste, as I always have to convince the salespeople to put them in my own containers, rather than the cellophane bags they’d prefer to use. This market does carry some oils, vinegar, and nut butters in glass containers, though I pay a premium for them.
DOES ANYONE CARE?
I found myself wondering if there are any business in Bangalore that care about cutting down on packaging waste. At first, I thought, I would understand if the answer was no. This is a country with a huge population and insufficient resources to support it, where millions of people are living in absolute poverty. Most people are just trying to get by, survive, and feed their families, and concepts like keeping single-use plastics out of the oceans are beyond their purview.
The truth is, though, that the most impoverished Indians are not the ones who are creating the most waste. It’s those of us who can afford to shop at big supermarkets who are dumping our plastic produce packaging into our environment. Those of use who can afford to shop these stores can also afford to give a little effort to reduce our impact. I wondered, are there any businesses in Bangalore that share this view?
One night, on a whim, Mat and I attended a sustainability event at a local co-working space, where we heard from a woman who runs just such a business. She opened her first shop, Buffalo Back Collective, on the outskirts of Bangalore in order to help local farmers (who mostly farm only for their own sustenance) sell their small quantities of surplus crops to local consumers. The shop was so successful that she now has two additional shops, one of which is about a 20 minute drive from where I live. So last week, I stopped by to check it out.
ZERO WASTE HEAVEN IN BANGALORE
The shop is nestled in a residential neighborhood, and in fact was itself once a residence. I took a cab to the address on google maps, and when I saw some pulses drying on burlap bags inside the front courtyard, I figured I must be in the right place.
I removed my shoes before walking inside, where I found a lovely open inner courtyard, and four local saleswomen working. In the center of this courtyard were about two dozen large baskets, each filled with a different local grain or pulse. Behind them were about fifteen baskets of local fruit and vegetables, including pineapples, pomegranates, avocados, bananas, okra, gourds, onions, and garlic.
In one small room to the right of the courtyard there were shelves stocked with glass jars and bottles, all filled with different ingredients: oils, ghee, homemade apple cider vinegar, honey, cocoa powder. There were also bamboo toothbrushes, homemade soaps and laundry detergent. In another room there were all sorts of different flours, all made from local grains. At the checkout counter were some bulk spices and tea.
I was in heaven. I couldn’t believe that this all existed in Bangalore, or that a local business cared enough to support small farmers and artisans, and to provide quality product to Bangaloreans, and best of all, to provide it all free of plastic packaging! I couldn't believe I found a business in Bangalore where I didn't have to explain why I didn't want to create unnecessary waste!
Since I started this zero waste journey, I've been asking a lot of questions about where things come from and where they go, and I’ve found that most locals are confused by my questions, and don’t understand why I’m asking.
For example, when I asked if the dry waste from my building gets taken to a dry waste sorting facility, housekeeping didn’t understand why I wanted to know anything other than that it was removed from my apartment daily. Why would I care where it goes if it’s out of my house? When I asked whether the produce at the supermarket comes from local farms, the salespeople didn’t understand why I cared about anything but the price.
But here, at Buffalo Back Collective, was someone who got it! Someone who understood! Hallelujah! I was downright giddy as I browsed the selection and made my choices.
After I had made my choices and the saleswoman had weighed them and was totaling my bill, she asked if I needed any greens. Just outside the front door was a long wooden table covered in a burlap cloth. Under the cloth were all sorts of varieties of gorgeous local greens. I picked out a beautiful bunch of “palak” (spinach) and added it to my haul.
The saleswoman saw that I had brought my own bags in which to carry my groceries, and she happily packed them for me, without any questions. I paid my bill, which was slightly more expensive than my roadside grocer, but still dirt cheap by my American standards (and worth it considering I was supporting local small farmers), thanked her heartily and went on my merry way.
WILL IT STICK?
I’m so happy that Buffalo Back Collective exists, and I will definitely return in the next couple of weeks before Mat and I depart India. I wish I had known about this establishment sooner, as I probably would have patronized it every week.
I do worry, though, that it may be before its time. Though the local food movement is healthy and robust in the U.S., I don't know if India is ready for it. I don’t know if there are enough Indians who prioritize eating locally and reducing their carbon footprint for a similar movement to flourish here. I hope I’m wrong. Clearly there are enough locals who care to support the Buffalo Back stores that exist today.
I would love to see more businesses like this succeed, and to see more people support the local and independent guys. I would love to see people start to move away from plastic packaging, or at least become more aware of its ubiquity. I would love for more people to understand that when we throw plastic packaging on the ground, it never really goes away. It’s still out there in the environment that belongs to all of us, and it is our collective responsibility to keep that environment healthy and free of unnecessary rubbish, for ourselves and for our children.