Guest author Emma Street, founder of The Sudie Mae School, writes about her journey to India, how she became motivated to reduce her environmental impact, and how she helps others do the same.
In October 2016, I accepted an international work assignment based in Bangalore, India. My husband Mat and I packed up our New York apartment and headed to South Asia, excited and nervous, unsure what to expect. Once we’d arrived and settled in, we began exploring this vibrant and diverse country that was so wonderfully different from anywhere we’d ever been.
We weren’t there very long before one thing became glaringly obvious: in every region of India we visited, in every city or remote village, without exception, there was trash EVERYWHERE.
On the sidewalks, in the roads, in the parks, in the canals, rivers, and oceans, on the beaches. We even found trash on a remote hiking path in the mountains of Kerala, in southern India, one of the most naturally beautiful places I’d ever been.
It broke our hearts that in the midst of such natural beauty, people were throwing bottles and plastic wrappers on the ground without a second thought. It was clear that this habit of littering was cultural and widespread – everyone was doing it.
It wasn’t long before my sadness at this culture of litter turned to fierce anger.
How could they have so little respect for their home country that they were willing to defile it in this way?
It didn’t make sense to me, because I knew from my interactions with the locals I’d met that Indians love their country passionately and speak of it with great pride. So why were they unable or unwilling to keep it clean?
The plain truth is, there simply aren’t the same systems in place in India for dealing with the rubbish.
If trash is collected, it is usually taken to a local dump, which is sometimes located very close to residential areas. I saw several of these mass dumps during my time there, whose smell is detectable from a mile away. Litter pickers forage these dumps for recyclable items which they can cash in. The rest of the refuse is left there to rot, at the expense of the health of the residents who live nearby.
Compared with the US, widespread plastic use is relatively new in India, and the refuse disposal systems haven’t caught up with this new quantity of things that don’t decompose. I came to realize that it’s not that Indians create more trash than people in Western countries – quite the opposite.
In fact, on average, US citizens create nearly ten times as much trash per person per day as Indians do.
We are just really good at putting it where we can’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind.
If the trash Americans created every day stayed in plain sight, we’d be drowning in it. Having a visual representation of just how much disposable stuff there is in the world (and what it looks like when it piles up in our natural spaces) was a huge wake-up call.
Mat and I decided that we needed to drastically cut back on how much trash we create.
We needed to start living less wastefully, and we had no idea where to begin.
I came home from work one day, sat down at my computer, and literally Googled “how to live less wastefully”.
One of the first resources I came across was Lauren Singer’s blog, “Trash is for Tossers”, which opened my eyes to the many small lifestyle changes you can make, that over time save a huge amount of waste.
The first change I made in my journey to less waste was swapping my plastic toothbrush for a bamboo one.
I bought one for Mat as well, and we both enjoyed the feeling of holding a natural material in our hands when cleaning our teeth. We repurposed our old plastic toothbrushes as bike chain cleaners, and we haven’t bought a plastic toothbrush since.
Once I got rid of one piece of plastic in my home, I started thinking about other ways to cut out plastic.
This led me down a rabbit hole of DIY projects that caused Mat to start calling me a “mad scientist” – I played with making my own toothpaste, mouthwash, body lotion, face cream, and lip balm (some of my science projects were more successful than others).
I bought a stainless steel safety razor and double-edged blades, and I started using package-free bar soap, instead of body wash bottled in plastic.
We bought a water filter and stainless steel water bottles and started refusing the plastic bottled water that was delivered to our apartment every day.
I started keeping a compost bin under the kitchen sink and taking it to our local park when it was full. I bought a wooden dish brush and quit using plastic sponges.
I stopped dry-cleaning my clothes and found natural alternatives instead. I started taking my own tote bags to the independent local grocers in our neighborhood, and I found a shop where I could buy dried fruit and nuts in bulk. I kept my eye out for plastic packaging and avoided it whenever I could. I quit buying clothing I didn’t need and started buying carbon credits to offset the air travel I was required to do for business.
Mat and I stopped eating meat.
Once we decided we wanted to reduce our footprint, our efforts expanded to every area of our lives.
That’s when I started writing The Sudie Mae School Blog, partly to chronicle my journey, but also to serve as a resource for others who may be looking to do the same thing.
Since I started the blog and have told other people about it, some of them have challenged my endeavors, saying that it should really be up to policymakers to affect real change and that we can’t rely on individual efforts to make a significant impact. But I did and do disagree with them.
I was influenced by one single person to begin with, who helped me kick off my own journey to a less wasteful lifestyle, and I’m one of the thousands of people to be inspired by her story. If the thousands of us who decided to make a change in our lives after reading a single blog can each influence a handful of other people, the conversation about living responsibly will continue to get louder and louder.
Though it would be helpful if there were more and better laws in place to support low-waste living, I can’t, in good conscience, wait around for lawmakers to change things, when there are hundreds of little changes I can make that will add up to a big difference. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
My work assignment in India ended in August of 2017, and Mat and I now live in Manchester, UK. I’ve continued to write the blog, and this Spring I’m opening an online shop, offering products that support a zero-waste lifestyle. And featuring prominently in my product range will be Humble Brush bamboo toothbrushes.
I obviously love that Humble Brushes are made of a sustainable, biodegradable material, but I also love that The Humble Co gives back, helping provide preventive oral health care to people in the most vulnerable parts of the world. This mission greatly resonates with me, given my experience in India, where poverty is extreme and widespread and the most rural citizens have little education about or access to preventive care.
Will buying a bamboo toothbrush save the world? No. But it’s a great place to start a journey toward a more conscious, less wasteful lifestyle.
By Emma Street