What does a zero-plastic, zero-waste lifestyle look like?

As a child, I spent my holidays in a village in the western part of India, where my grandfather lived. I have a graphic recall of how things moved in agrarian economy in that context. The large house had at least 10 inmates including my cousins, in the summer. But we produced zero waste and everything that came in, went to the Earth back in the rightful manner or got reused. This was the time when I did not know the vocabulary of ‘sustainability’ (do I or anyone else really know now?).

How did they do it. Here is graphic to explain it-

Zero Plastic, Zero Waste Lifestyle

First we grew what we ate.

So grains (primarily wheat, barley etc.) and veggies came home every season in large quantities. We didn’t consume everything. A portion of it went to the ‘agriculture-partner’ who put in the labour, while the land belonged to us.

Then, we bartered.

Even after that portion gone, the left out was used as a ‘barter’ currency i.e. the potter would give us two earthen pots and take some grains in exchange. So would the barber, who would come home to cut hair for the male members on demand (sort of modern ‘retainership agreement’) and would be compensated annually with clothes and grains. I hear that, in small ways, this barter is coming back in small communities/cults in the cities as well.

Symbiosis, not exploitation.

Post-harvest leftover of the grain-crop, was used as a fodder for the cows and other animals (I never saw, hay-stock burning as we are seeing now in India). Cows at home had several things to contribute. Apart from milk and milk based products like ‘Ghee’ and buttermilk, cows also provided valuable material — cow dung. Cow dung was used for two purposes- a) to mix with the clay and used as a flooring material b) after drying it was used as a fuel for cooking along with the wood. Not to forget the bond that my grand-mother had with the cow — every evening I saw her talking to the cow, as if with a living person.

Nothing left unused!Not even ashes!

The ashes left from burning the cow-dung/wood for cooking, was used again for two purposes — a ) for washing/sterilising utensils (ash is chemically a Base and hence kills the bacteria born out of food remanent that is acidic in nature b) ash was also used at times as a dental-powder (yes!!). There was some amount of coal created in the process which my grandfather would use for the daily prayer rituals (‘aarti and dhoop’ of Hindu traditions).


We would bring daily groceries or veggies from the market in our own cloth bags. Any inner packaging would be of paper at the max. So all we are left with is paper in the end. Food waste and the waster paper, all would go to a large size ‘compost-pit’ called ‘rodie’ in the local language. This compost pit would be emptied once or twice a year and the contents would be used as a fertilizer for our farms.

Water, was scarce in that part of India. Tap water was available only one or two hours a day. So people were generally super-aware of wastage. We knew the art of washing ourselves with a bucket or less. We were instructed as a child, to take only as much water in our glass, as we can drink.

Did I learn anything from this for the current lifestyle? Yes, here are a few things I observe in my daily city-life now, which is not completely plastic-free and waste-free, but yes, optimized -

  1. HANDY BAG: I do keep a cloth bag/plastic bag handy in my car and do not take the plastic bags from the grocery shop or the super market
  2. WATER: I dislike leaving drinking water in the glass. I am the first one run to close a tap or a pump if the tank is filled and water is overflowing. Sound of running water, alarms me :).
  3. COMPOST: We do have a compost bin at home now in a large earthen pot. We did have initial fears that there would be stink etc. but it worked beautifully.
  4. SOAP: I avoid using soap everyday for the shower (there are now contrasting theories on this as well). Everyday shower is a must but not soap.Water consumption does go down.
  5. RINSE: We try to rinse the plates and utensils as soon as we are done. If you leave them dry to be washed later, it consumes more water.
  6. FOOD : Take as much as I can eat. I dislike wasting food. Leave the plate clean.
  7. CLOTHES: We buy new clothes when we discard equal number of old ones. Never over stock.
  8. VEG/VEGAN: I know this is a contentious topic. I stay vegetarian and moving towards veganism, just to empathise with animals who are injected with stuff and endure all sorts of torture to stay “productive”. At least, I have reduced milk consumption as of now. Also professionally, I preach and practice Design Thinking,where a big part is ‘EMPATHY’. And the unsaid bit there is ‘empathy’ with the living beings, not just the ‘USER’.

Sustainability is big convoluted topic in the modern world. One does not know where to start and where to end. For example if you say fossil fuels are bad and depleting the Earth, then do we really know if the electric vehicle are ‘Green’ enough and the electricity used for them is generated in ‘green’ way? Entire ozone depletion and climate change has multiple theories. There is a lot of obfuscation. But till the clarity dawns, I practise these some pragmatic tips to optimize the waste generation in my daily life, where CONSCIOUS CONSUMPTION is our deliverance. What do you say?

Design Thinking | Innovation Strategy | Design | Futures Studies | Turian Labs. Author-Skyway Interpreter & Madhurimayan