I live in Toronto, a city whose identity includes “Environmental consciousness” in a country who also thinks of itself as environmentally conscious. It’s easy to think that we’re on the cutting edge of everything. Just take a look:
Our province, Ontario, has eliminated all coal fired power plants – and this has noticeably cleaned up the air. Our view from hundreds of feet up used to be filled with smog on a summer day. While smoggy days haven’t been eliminated, there is a noticeable improvement in how far we can see and how clearly we can see.
In the city we separate our waste in to three different streams: mixed recycling (paper, plastic, metal), compostable waste (mostly food), with the remainder going to landfill. (last I heard, hidden away in rural Michigan) When you go to the mall food court, there are reusable plates and the waste is even separated when you get there.
Travel really shows me a lot about what we do well and what we don’t do so well. When I would travel to the southern US on business, I had to adjust to there being only one trash container in most places. Asking “Where’s the recycle bin?” gets a blank look. In some states like my home state of Vermont there is a bit more of a sense of environmental consciousness. This is helped, no doubt, by the fact that bottles and cans have a five cent deposit on them. I still remember as a pre-teen being out and wanting a Coke. I didn’t have an allowance at this time so I was resourceful: if I found 10-11 bottles or cans and brought them to the store I’d get 55 cents – enough for my drink. In those days I could often do that in about 5 minutes – sometimes less. It was not unusual to see 2-3 cans sitting on top of the public trash can in the park: people were disciplined enough to not throw the can on the ground, but not enough to bring it back to the store. Their loss was my gain. And really, nickels add up. I remember in the mid 1980’s, an older man I would always see hanging out at the local country store named “Dickie” but affectionately called “The Mayor of Bethel” once came to the store in a nice used station wagon. He bragged that he had paid for the car by “picking bottles” – and we all believed him. When he wasn’t in the store he’d often be walking along the road looking for cans and bottles.
Sometimes, though, travel gives me a bit of perspective on how we could do better and how some of our practices here in Canada could be better. My travels to India really illustrate this.
While India is facing many challenges when it comes to the environment: air quality, solid waste and water management – challenges made more difficult by the sheer scale, there are many ways in which they’re quite far ahead of where we are here in Toronto.
Something I found confusing on my first trip to India were the sheer number of switches in any given room. There might be 6-8 for a small bedroom. But there’s a logic to it. Some are for various lights, others are for the fan. However the ones next to the outlets are the ones I wonder why we haven’t adopted here: Every outlet is on a switch that can be turned off. That phone or laptop charger that is slowly drawing current seems like a tiny bit – but multiply that times the number of houses in your town and it adds up quickly.
We consume a ton of water in the west. In many places I stayed in India there were no showers, only a bucket to wash in. I would use 2-3 gallons of water in the morning and be done. Compare that to what a shower looks like in the average North American home: 2.1 gallons per minute for 8 minutes. If I go at the average rate (and I confess, I tend to go longer than 8 minutes sometimes if I have a lot on my mind – it’s where I think!) then I’m using a week’s worth of wash water every week.
But it doesn’t end there. All of the water I use to wash myself, the water I flush the toilet with, the water I mop the floor with – all of it is treated. I am doing it all with drinking water.
In India my experience hasn’t been like this at all. Every home I’ve stayed in has had a filtration system installed in the kitchen. The water you cook with and drink is filtered and is as safe as what we drink here. The water that you flush the toilet with or bathe in isn’t filtered – it doesn’t need to be.
In North America, hot and cold running water on demand is assumed to be a given. If I wake up at 2:30 AM and want a hot shower, it’s simply a matter of turning on the water. A large tank of water is kept hot 24 hours a day seven days a week.
In all but the fanciest of hotels, my experience in India has been different. Each bathroom has a small heater called a geyser (pronounced “geezer”). When you are ready to have a shower you go in to the bathroom, turn the switch on the geyser and wait a few minutes for the water to heat up. Once you’ve washed up you turn off the geyser. The tank is small so the amount of electricity used for your short shower or bucket bath is minimal as compared to keeping a big tank of water hot all the time.
The more I think about it, the more it seems our way of doing things: washing ourselves with 8-10 buckets of filtered drinking water each day that we keep hot 24/7.
But the differences aren’t just in water. Since my last trip to India in 2018, I noticed a major change in solid waste management. But first let’s go back to 2009 in Toronto.
In 2009, Toronto City Council voted to require businesses to charge five cents (Rs.2 for my readers in India) per plastic bag to discourage people from using disposable bags in favour of bringing their own reusable bags.
To me this sounded like a great idea. Many people here lost their minds over it. There were angry letters to the editor, people being interviewed on TV said how they were going to take their groceries to the check out counter and then when they were asked to pay for their bags they would just walk out of the store and let the employees put the groceries back in protest. Even otherwise progressive people had problems with this. An acquaintance angrily commented that they hated this proposal. What if they wanted to stop for something unexpectedly on the way to work. How could they bring their own bags in their tiny purse? How dare them charge money for bags! In 2012, thanks to all of this outrage, the law was reversed though many stores still charge for bags, some of them giving the proceeds to environmental organizations.
On this trip to India I noticed something was missing from previous trips. There were no more plastic bags. When I bought things without a bag, I was given a soft, woven paper bag. When I took my laundry to be washed, I was sold a canvas bag from a sari shop to carry my clean clothes back in. When I got to Bangalore, I ordered a cold coffee and was given one with a straw. When I put my lips to the straw I noticed it was made of paper. Other drinks I ordered there had the same paper straws. Sure there were plastic bottles for drinks but the amount of plastic was so little that I even felt self-conscious of the plastic bags I used for my laundry that I had brought from home. Curious, I did a search. Had India banned plastic bags while I was gone?
I didn’t find any details of country-wide bans but there were many stories of individual areas that have made strides. For example here are some details of Mumbai’s new ban from the Hindustani Times:
The Maharashtra government had on March 23 issued a notification imposing a ban on manufacture, use, sale, distribution and storage of all plastic materials, including one-time use bags, spoons, plates, PET and PETE bottles and thermocol items.
And they are serious about this. There is no five cent “tax” on bags. Instead there are fines. Your third offense can net you a Rs.25,000 fine ($464 CDN) and three months in prison.
There are still exceptions including things like milk bags, medicine packaging (blister packs for tablets for example), and compostable plastics among others, but there’s no doubt, times have changed and are continuing to change.
In the end, what I take away from this is that most places are recognizing the problem, and are in one form or another trying to do something. On the other hand, what makes or breaks an effort such as this are the average people. Are they going to protest when cars with odd numbers on their license plates are excluded form the city or are they going to take the bus? Are people going to fight bike lanes or embrace them? Are they going to ask their employers to provide recycle bins at work or better yet are they going to bring reusable materials to work.
And are people like me going to be more conscious about how much water we use – especially when it is so heavily processed before it even comes gushing out of our showerheads? And really, this is the most relevant question of all since it is the only one we can truly control. What are we going to do?