Guide to Sustainable Living and a Zero Waste Lifestyle: Part 5 – Eco Friendly School/College Etiquettes

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सतयं बृहदुतमुग्रं दीकृषा तपो ब्रहम यजूजः पृथविीं धारयन्‌र्ता]
सा नो भूतसय भवृयस्‌य पत॒न॒युएुं लोक पृथवी नःः कृणोतु ॥१॥

Satyam Brihdutmoongrah deekrisha tapo brahma yajunah pruthivim dharinyarta
Sa no bhootasya bhavrisay patahnahueyum lok prithvi nuh krunotu

Meaning: 1.1: (Salutations to Mother Earth) The Truth (Satyam), the Cosmic Divine Law (Ritam), the Spiritual Passion manifested in Mighty Initiations, Penances and self dedications to the search of Brahman (by the sages); these have sustained the Mother Earth for ages (Who in turn have supported these in Her Bosom), 1.2: She, Who is to us the Consort of the Past and the Future (being its witness), May She expand our inner life in this World towards the Cosmic Life (through Her Purity and Vastness).

This is an excerpt from an ancient Indian scripture of wisdom and knowledge called Bhoomi Sukta from the Atharva veda. Bhoomi means Earth and Sukta means Hymn. The Vedas were scriptures written by Hindu sages, that contained detailed information on Mathematics, Science, Astronomy, Health and Life Sciences. In 1500 BCE, Hindu Sages predicted the degradation of the Environment and instilled a value for Planet Earth in people, by reciting hymns and shlokas on it. They predicted climate change, as they realised how every utility of (wo)mankind is based on the five elements of Nature – water, fire, wind, space (sky) and earth (soil) and how humans would have to continually exert pressure on Nature to sustain. These Shlokas were written in the scientific language of Sanskrit that were unfortunately lost to countless invasions on the Indian subcontinent in it’s history, and were only partially preserved through chanting and memory. Today, life seems to have come to a full circle as we go back in time to revisit the intellect bestowed upon us by learned (wo)men of the past – only to be blown away by the infinite solutions our ancestors have to offer for all our modern-day conundrums. Hindu Sages captured the essence of environment preservation thousands of years ago whilst speaking about how Mother Earth provides human beings with food to eat, medicines to preserve and solutions for protection. No wonder, most of the rituals in Hinduism even today have a deeper meaning rooted in the idea of worshipping nature, expressing our gratitude to the planet that bore us and paying our respects to it for all that we have extracted.

Moving to the West of this planet, scientists in the past considered viewing the Earth as one single living entity in the 1700s. Geologist James Hutton while speaking at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said that he thought of Earth as a “superorganism” that functioned like a single organism. He corroborated this by comparing it to the human body and asserting on similarities between the various systems that work interdependently in both. He used Harvey’s theories of circulation of blood in a human body to compared it to Earth’s nutrient, water and existential cycles.

As science branched into varying streams (pun intended), the concept of seeing the Earth as one organism did not fit the ideologies of that time – especially because there were just too many elements to consider as one.

Once again and much later in the 1970s, a British scientist named James Lovelock hypothesised that the Earth is a single organism and the living organisms on the planet interact with their physical/chemical surroundings to operate as a self-regulating intricate system that gives rise to synergy and co-evolution of life on Earth. He named it the Gaia Hypothesis – Gaia being the Goddess of Mother Earth in Greek stories of the past. This gave rise to the term ‘geophysiology’ and it’s study. Lovelock believed that evolution and organisms on Earth were part of a close-knit process in Nature and were not exclusive or parallel to one another. He went a step further and believed that the Earth’s habitable nature, the global aspect to it’s temperature, the abundance of life-giving Oxygen, the salty nature of oceans and the pattern in which climate functions are steadily maintained internally, physically, and chemically (homeostasis) along with abiotic processes under natural laws of life that were governed by the organisms which were evolving everyday and by Gaia herself as a superorganism. The hypothesis was initially ridiculed due to lack of scientific evidence but today, it has been formally recognised as “Gaia Theory” considering that it can now be backed by several experiments.

It is believed that Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis may have had it’s roots in the Vedas of ancient India. The Atharva Veda (XXX.1.63) in 10th century BCE, when human beings had begun to use a cow’s milk for sustenance, speaks of the Earth as “Go” (meaning cow in Sanskrit), who provides milk to her calves (children) to survive. This led to the culture of spiritually accepting the Earth as a Mother of all living organisms which is similar to fondly addressing nature as “Mother Nature” today.

Cross cultural and inter disciplinary dialogue has brought solidified meaning to several geological, physical and chemical aspects of the planet we reside on, with even more research left to be done and more answers left to be sought.

The similarities between the functioning of a Human Body and the Earth show that they are both living systems in their own ways with homeostatic processes happening simultaneously to sustain.

  • They are both made of a large composition of water
  • The human body consists of millions of cells and other organisms, just like the billions of diverse organisms that walk the Earth.
  • Temperature holds critical importance in both the systems as a rise in that of both requires attentive aid – be it during a human’s fever or the planet’s impending global warming crisis.
  • The forests on Earth breathe the same way we do using the same gases Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide – taking in and releasing both to synthesise food and sustain life accordingly.
  • When images of the network of rivers all around the world are viewed from an aerial position through satellite imagery, their resemblance to the network of veins and arteries in a human body is uncanny
  • The accumulation of toxins in a human body due to synthetic food and inorganic lifestyle is similar to the accumulation of toxins in the Earth’s oceans and air due to industrial waste.

Modern day Science proved to us that the Earth can orbit around the Sun only under specific carefully balanced conditions which upon not being met, can cause the planet to fall away from the orbit. Ancient Hindu texts called the Puranas spoke of this concept, rather this incident, of the Earth falling into a cosmic sea/ocean called Garbhodaka in Sanskrit, which apparently makes up half of this infinite and seemingly immeasurable Universe. Legend says, that a greedy evil being named Hiranyaksha wreaked havoc on planet Earth in his search for Gold. This destruction created an imbalance in the Earth’s orbital conditions which prevented the Earth from stably floating around the Sun and then led to getting pulled into the cosmic ocean. It could seem like a far-fetched analogy but the way industrialisation today has called for drilling of oil from beneath the grounds of Earth, it is scary to estimate that Oil Drilling may have a far greater impact on the Earth’s survival other than the mere atmospheric pollution we know of today. After all, a strong foundation has always led to a longer durability of existence – if the Earth’s ground is not it’s foundation, then what is?

Another similarity between ancient Hindu scriptures and modern day Science pertaining to the Earth is found in Lord Vishnu’s avatars (dimensional personality version) and the famous Theory of Evolution. The first avatarMatsya was believed to be from the aquatic world – a Fish. The time period for this legend is dated back to the days when it was assumed that the landmass on Earth today was under water back then. For a reference point to this assumption which was made during the initial days of the planet evolving, you can think of the stories you have heard about Dwaraka the submerged city if you are from the East and Atlantis the lost submerged city if you are from the West. Lord Vishnu’s second avatar was touted to be Kurma, a tortoise – a creature known as an amphibian today that can survive on land as well as water. In Hindu scripts, this assumption was made during a time period when little landmass of the Earth was said to be above the water. It is said, that Lord Vishnu later appeared in the Varaha avatar as a mighty Boar which was pictorially represented as carrying a spherical Earth on it’s nose, centuries before modern day Science even proved that the Earth is round (geoid). Some even believed that the best creature to work in slushy, rough terrain on the planet was a boar, especially at a time when the physical boundaries between the landmass and water bodies had just begun to blur in history.

Oh well, the assumptions and hypotheses are endless and I’d love to go back to them another time. For now, bringing back the focus to Sustainability and things we can all do today to make sure Terra survives till the end of time – greedy evil beings looking for gold or no.

For those of you dear readers who do not know, I started an Eco Project through which I aim to try my hand at sustainable living, promoting a lifestyle which generates negligible waste, and recycling harmful items that would harm the Earth. I decided to undertake the project for a few months, chronicle my entire journey through articles here and eventually transition into a zero-waste life for all the years to come. At the end of it all, you would have access to my ultimate guide to Sustainable Living, broken down in the simplest parts, keeping in mind the busy lives we all lead.

You will find the beginning of my Eco Project chronicles of the first few weeks, including the changes I made, with some inspiration from the historic Vedas in:

A few weeks have passed since I began my Eco Project and as promised, I’m back with the 5th part of my diary which will include a helpful Guide on Eco-Friendly School/College Ethics.

Eco Friendly School/College Etiquettes

Children provide all the light that our communities need in more ways than one. Poems often call them the future of the World, but I think to myself sometimes, that they seem to be more of the Present. The glorious yet tumultuous past of our ancestors has passed, and either a secure future of our aged selves or a doomsday is perhaps yet to come – but the present is where (wo)mankind’s presence truly has the potential to shine. This potential perhaps lies in the balance between self control and being a control freak. As a parent, having your own self control over your reactions balances out the innate parental quality of being a control freak when you spot your kids eating too much candy. From my limited experience with children, I believe this balance is what drives them to be the happiest and most successful versions of their genes.

Children/youth are the present, and in my opinion this truly puts them at the top of demographical charts that would hypothetically underly every age group’s significance. A child’s personality development begins at school, and so does the train of awareness. With the impending climate crisis at hand, schools today have an immense responsibility to make the child aware of things happening all around the world and hopefully inculcate the maturity to act on it.

Classes on Sustainability

The easiest way to teach children about Sustainability and the Environment is by incorporating a class on it in the regular weekly schedule. It doesn’t have to be taken everyday and one class a week is sufficient to make children aware of the unfortunate yet probable lifeless future that awaits them. As a parent if you feel this kind of a course is missing from your child’s annual study plan, you can always drop a suggestion to the school to start these lessons. As an aware student, if you already know about climate change but feel that there isn’t enough emphasis on preserving the Environment in your classes, you can always ask your teacher to take one day of the week/month to educate the classroom on zero waste practices.

Vocal Awareness

Word of mouth, as they call it, is perhaps the most powerful “marketing” tool in accelerating the growth of a new business. Sustainable Living is also a kind of business, where your diligent efforts in implementing zero waste practices is the investment, zero waste practices is the product and the profit is much more than green coloured money – it’s a Green Earth for our descendants to lead a healthy life in. Essentially, as a child, you’re trying to sell zero waste practices to a target audience of other children around you by showing them the practices you’ve adopted yourself in order to attain a profitable commodity for everyone to enjoy – a habitable Mother Earth. And what better way to market this “business” than word of mouth? At school, talk to your classmates about the climate crisis, especially to those who aren’t aware of the implications of their actions in the world. If you see your friends bringing plastic straws to school, littering on the school grounds or doing anything else that might impact the Ecology adversely, talk to them about global warming politely and encourage them to adopt zero waste practices.

Artistic Awareness

In my private school in India, we had tons of Art contests where we had to make posters, huge charts or paintings at school and the most artistic one would win a prize. Often, these contests revolved around social issues like water shortage, poverty, food shortage in rural areas, India’s struggle for independence in the 1900s or current affairs. When I was in the third grade, I participated in an Art contest at school and the year was 2004, the year of the devastating Tsunami which caused civilisation along the shores of the Indian Ocean to collapse. India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka were all subjected to the damages of an earthquake measuring 9.1 in magnitude. As an 8 year old, it took me a while to understand what a Tsunami was and the image that best explained it to me was from the front page of the newspaper which I saw just before going to school on the day of the contest. It was a photo of a young boy who looked like he had just entered his teens, sitting on top of a tree clinging on to it’s branches for dear life as the rough cyan waves washed over the bark below him. It was heartbreaking yet an eyeopener at the same time – it was the first time I came to know that nature isn’t limited to the green parks I played in, and also taught me that basic common sense can save your life even when you’re surrounded by raging seas. At the contest, we were asked to draw anything of our choice and preferably something related to current affairs. Like you’ve probably guessed, I drew the scene I had seen in the newspaper just before reaching school. I’ve always been creative as a person but terrible at drawing and conventional art. I managed to draw a scrawny boy holding on to a tree with water flowing beneath, and it was evident that the painting was symbolic of the Tsunami – I ended up winning the third prize for it and it’s my only winning certificate in anything related to Art till date. Perhaps nature on canvas just has a beautiful way of tugging at a person’s heartstrings, and a canvas that depicts a threat to the green beauty probably leaves an even more lasting impression on the viewer’s mind. At school, if you as a student are already aware of global warming, drought, famine, wastage of resources, pollution and more, try showing it’s devastating effects on paper through colours that catch your classmates eyes and spark a curiosity in them to learn more about effective strategies against climate change.

Stationary

The world has been using disposable and single-use plastic pens for over 50 years now. Single-use plastics and micro-plastics are the most harmful kind as they cannot be recycled, reused or disposed off in a harmless way. They either end up in landfills under the ground or garbage cans on the road which in turn can choke animals that might consume the plastic accidentally as well as the Earth’s soil. Think about the stationary you use at school – plastic pencils, pens, tape, glue-sticks, staplers, sharpies, markers among many more. Where does it all go? Into the soil, suffocating the Earth which is detrimental to flora and fauna all around.

Worse yet, children’s school supplies have been found to contain toxic chemicals like phthalates, lead and BPA. These components have been linked to cancer, birth defects and negative effects on a developing brain as per research. I don’t mean to instill fear but if there are alternatives, one must definitely opt for cleaner options available and steer clear from such chemicals.

The alternative is really simple: switch to eco-friendly seed/wooden pencils that don’t come in any plastic packaging. They are easily available in the market today. Regular pencils are made of wood and the lead is made of Graphite, both are fully compostable. Pencil shavings too, when you sharpen one, are compostable and good for the soil in your school or home. Collect sharpening waste wherever you can and just throw it into the soil of a plant nearby – it’s basically food for flora. This can be easily done in your school or when you’re doing homework at home. You can also purchase eco-pens that you can directly plant into the soil after it’s use, and then watch it grow into a proper plant. These pens/pencils have a seed at the end instead of the eraser usually fitted there. Moreover, these pens are made out of cardboard/paper which make them biodegradable to a large extent. It’s time to switch to such products that we didn’t know of but are fully available in the market. As a student, the role you play is crucial towards creating a demand for eco-friendly alternatives at school and thus in the market, thereby shifting the industry as a whole towards greener alternatives.

Eco friendly seed pens and pencils made out of waste, can be planted into the soil after use. Packaged in biodegradable cloth bags. Personal Copyright Image of Arushi Sana

Most erasers today days are manufactured using synthetic rubber or vinyl which comes from petroleum, and the process of refining petroleum negatively impacts the environment. Using unscented recycled rubber erasers will help keep a little rubber out of landfills, if you can’t find a 100% biodegradable and organic one. But chances are, that you’ll find erasers made out of all-natural rubber latex and natural silica sand which even come in compostable pulp sleeve packaging.

Coming to the next obvious item in your school bag, sharpeners are mostly made out of plastic or synthetic metal. Look for places that sell sustainably sourced bamboo sharpeners which even contain blades made from recycled stainless steel. Once you finish using it, the body of the sharpener can be composted since it’s made out of bamboo and the blades can be removed separately for recycling. Even if the packaging is an issue (from my personal experience), at least the sharpener is not plastic and it’s the closest zero-waste alternative. Battery operated sharpeners are a strict no, do we really need more Lithium-battery electronic waste?

A stapler is reusable of course, it’s tiny staple pins are not. They are too small to be recycled and are not disposed off in an eco-friendly manner. Japan found a solution to this in staple-less staplers. These staplers collate all your pages for you without using any metal pins that could poke your fingers or the loam on Terra. Try searching for one online and buy it, better yet, tell your school about it and you never know how your one small request to the principal can change the entire ecosystem of your school! Rest assured, your teacher will probably be proud of you for thinking of ways to make the school a greener place and be impressed by your knowledge.

Throw away your plastic rulers into the recycling bin once they outlive their shelf life and the next time, buy a wooden ruler which is not just biodegradable but also compostable. I did use wooden rulers at school occasionally (apart from the plastic ones) but found them a little too thick for my convenience, so I used stainless steel ones because they were sharp, thin and easy to use. Along with wood, stainless steel is also a great alternative to plastic rulers because it is 100% recyclable and is always picked up as scrap by steel companies looking to manufacture more steel out of it.

Have you ever noticed the amount of plastic that goes into the coating of the cello tape that you so dearly use for your school projects? It’s always a better idea to switch to eco friendly brown paper tape that come with an adhesive instead of plastic ones. If your school doesn’t know about them, you can again pitch the idea to your administrators and tell them how it would be great for students and teachers alike.

Colouring used to be one of my favourite hobbies as a child, especially if there’s already a drawing printed on the paper. As an adult, I’ve come to realise that it’s being prescribed to people seeking counselling under therapists, as a solution for stress and overthinking. I suppose the concentration with which one carefully fills in the colour, paying attention to boundary details truly helps in channelising the brain’s overthinking towards a different direction. Or maybe, seeing different colours on paper come to life brightens up the grey cells we possess. Either way, it’s essential to choose colouring equipment that doesn’t land up in landfills due to it’s non-recyclable nature. You see, all the sketch pens and crayons we use contain harmful chemicals, plastic containers and even more harmful packaging – all of this makes it impossible to recycle. Most crayons are made of paraffin wax, which is made from a sludge that remains after petroleum is refined. Now, in order to make sure we don’t suffocate the Earth, several companies have come up with eco friendly colouring equipment that’s 100% biodegradable and even the packaging is compostable (paper/cardboard). Crayons made from natural beeswax is the best way to go, in terms of health and environmental consciousness. When buying sharpies/markers, avoid the ones marked as “permanent” or “waterproof,” because their long shelf-life is proof of the fact that they contain toxic solvents. Scented markers also contain toxic fragrance which are chemicals that a child shouldn’t ideally be around. Water-based markers are a better alternative instead. Dear children/adults, why not buy these inexpensive crayons/markers and try them the next time you sit down to give meaning to your colourful creativity?

Organic crayons in compostable cardboard packaging. Personal Copyright Image of Arushi Sana

The same goes for glue sticks – the amount of plastic that goes into making a single glue stick is unbelievable, and the chemical glue that tiny children use on a regular basis is alarming too. In today’s manufacturing, adhesives based on petrochemicals, cyanoacrylate polymers, polyurethane and epoxy are used which are extremely harmful to the environment. Plant-based liquid glues made from starches of corn, wheat and potato are the options we must look for while buying our next glue stick. Other biodegradable adhesives can also include gelatin netting. Pay attention to how the stick is packaged – is it biodegradable or at least recycled plastic or the worst, fresh plastic? You’ll find the answers to these the moment you hunt for brands that do sell these underrated glue sticks but be aware of deception at the same time. Today, deception by brands is on the rise as they have slowly begun to understand a conscious consumer’s mindset. Marketing gimmicks are easy to fall for and I’ve been a victim of greenwashing myself, when I purchased “organic, eco friendly, vegan, cruelty free, green, plastic free” products only to realise later that they adorned none of the aforementioned properties. Greenwashing is a widely-used process where brands falsely market their products as “sustainable” or “eco friendly” to appeal to consumers and deceive them.

If you’re a high school student, you’re probably going to need a geometry box – one that comes with different measuring tools like scales and a compass. When I was in school, all of these came from plastic or synthetic metal inside a non biodegradable tin case. Fortunately, we have geometry kits available today which compromise of bamboo and wooden tools packed in bamboo or cloth cases. Even the metallic part is manufactured from stainless steel. Isn’t it really simple to go online and buy these inexpensive kits compared to the ones we usually buy from the “Kirana Store” next door? (Target Store for dear Americans)

When your next school term begins, where are you going to put all your new and cool sustainable stationary? A cloth pencil case! I used to use plastic shiny pouches and boxes to store all my stationary and it was such a delight to shop for one in the beginning of a school year – so many colours, so much sparkle and oh the delightful designs! Clearly, I was unaware of the meaning of plastic and I just wanted the coolest pencil box at the store. When I got older, I began to use pouches owing to their portable convenience but they were laced with plastic, glitter and synthetic materials too. It’s only now that I see the kind of environmentally clean options available in the market – beautiful pouches and pencil cases made out of 100% cotton or biodegradable cloth. These are the earthy materials kids should be in close proximity to, not harmful toxins. It’s strange how people in history used to carry cloth pouches all the time and due to marketing gimmicks of plastic packaging companies, these cotton pouches were labelled as “poor”, “cheap”, “inexpensive” and “not classy enough”. Soon, big plastic corporations took over the market and changed the game in India, especially for cloth pouch weavers who had to bear the brunt.

Books – Reuse, Donate, Borrow, Go Digital

I’ve always loved books as a child – be it textbooks or the new Harry Potter from the bookstore near by. I loved the smell of freshly printed paper, I loved poring into them and getting lost in the world of Hogsmeade or Newton’s Laws of Motion. I loved notebooks too, especially writing on it with pen and using colours to highlight specific aspects of my content. Thankfully, most Indian homes have a paper-recycling plan in place which allows a paper-wallah (paper boy) to collect all the books/notebooks/paper waste from our doorsteps and recycle it to make more paper or notebooks. But, do double check and ensure that this practice is being followed at your home too. For school textbooks that are still in great condition, donate them to your school library, your juniors and shelter homes, and keep the age-old Indian tradition of revering knowledge alive. Keep your novels close to heart and safe from the insects that can eat them up in your cupboard, I’ve lost quite a couple of Enid Blytons to pesky moths in mine as a child. For books that you’re curious about and don’t necessarily want to own, borrow. Borrow textbooks and novels from your friends, keep the circle of paper exchange going. Books that you own can last upto hundreds of years, look at the ones kept in museums for example – the parchment is still intact with fascinating stories in plant-based ink that has barely faded. Today, kindle and other digital platforms where content is so easily available at one click on the computer, books have become quite passé – students and adults alike prefer inexpensive digital copies to expensive paper ones. This is extremely sustainable and truly reduces the costs/resources involved in recycling paper waste or manufacturing books. But the downside is, it may lead to you buying a new pair of spectacles for those sore eyes pretty soon. I got my first pair of glasses (plastic again) at 24 after beginning a corporate job that involved hours of screen time, and it’s definitely not my favourite accessory. Also, I’m quite the old fashioned reader, I love my parchment and ink where I feel more connected to the story – whether it’s Ginny Weasley’s innocence in the Chamber of Secrets or Nancy Drew’s sleuthing.

School notebooks too tend to get thrown into the bin even if they’re not fully utilised till the last page. All this does is, combine the paper with other harmful waste in your bin, causing it to get contaminated and thereby non-recyclable at a recycling plant. Never ever do this, especially because most people have a misconception that any paper is biodegradable. It’s not! Paper today is manufactured using synthetic materials and then bleached with chlorine or other harmful substances to give it that extra white sheen, and if this goes into our landfills as part of other waste from your bin, it’s just going to release toxins into the soil that leave no chance for further utility or benefit. The solution to this is quite simple, buy notebooks made out of recycled paper which can seem murky at first due to it’s brownish colour and use them till the end of their lifecycle. Use your notebooks till the very last page and put them in the pile of newspapers that you usually send to a paper-plant for recycling.

When I was in school in the early 2000s, the only aspect to environmental consciousness that I knew of was paper wastage. All I knew was that billions of trees are cut down to make sure children get to attend school effectively and I was quite conscious about the amount of paper I was using for writing. My mother has always been very inspired by nature, whether it was through growing her own food or admiring wooden artefacts or saving paper. She told me how when she was my age (12 at the time), people around her would get loose sheets hand-stitched into notebooks for use. Not only did this save money, it also saved paper from getting wasted and new trees from being cut down. Considering the modern society of the early 2000s that we had started living in, the concept of hand-stitched notebooks would become a hindrance to upholding the “status symbol” that one was so careful of, in India. But I wanted to try using these hand-stitched books nonetheless and ripped out all the unused sheets from my school notebooks, got them stitched from a local vendor and used them at home for all my exam-prep. Strangely enough, today these same hand-stitched books are “back in fashion” and sold as luxury in the market to appeal to customers, making them feel like they’re buying something pretty and of antique value. Meanwhile, a local poor vendor somewhere is probably struggling to make ends meet because for years his business was dismissed as an issue of “class”. It’s unfortunate that as a society we gave in to social constructs and the concept of “class” at the cost of local, sustainable and green practices only to find our way back to it after decades, in the name of luxury. I often wonder in amazement how the poor of India are leading far more eco-friendly lives than the middle class or the privileged. The misfortune of it all is that the green life comes from a lack of resources and a huge income gap between the rich and the poor. As I type this article from a comfortable room on my expensive laptop, I can only be grateful for my privilege and strive to learn from the real India – rural India.

Hand stitched notebooks with recycled paper. Personal Copyright Image of Arushi Sana

Donate the extra notebooks you bought that you don’t need anymore and send your existing notebooks for recycling – this is the simplest way to ensure our beautiful canopies aren’t harmed too much.

Balance is definitely the key, and as long as you’re doing a bit of everything – borrowing, recycling, lending and going digital – all is well.

Book Covers

In India, there is a custom in schools to cover all your books in brown paper. I’m not sure if the practice still exists, but in the early 2000s, a child definitely got into trouble at school if his/her book wasn’t covered. Perhaps it was done to make a student’s work look more official and formal or as an attempt to standardise things. Either way, it wasn’t exactly eco-friendly. Imagine using more paper to cover the paper notebook you’ve already used with the help of plastic tape. Sure, most of these covers were made out of recycled paper and were brown in colour but the ones privileged school kids always had their eye on would be the saffron glossy ones, coated with not just plastic but also synthetic colour. This would make the cover non-recyclable. Even the recyclable paper covers are useless in my opinion, the practice (if still in existence) is just using up more recycled paper that could’ve been used otherwise for writing. Well, the solution is to opt for 100% recycled and recyclable brown paper that doesn’t come in fancy colours or coatings and just does the job well enough to abide by the school rules. True, the covers might not be pretty but they’re definitely ensuring a prettier forest for tomorrow.

Binders

I studied in the USA for an year in 8th grade and had a lovely year. It was also the first time I came across Binders, I had neither used them before that nor had I heard of them. It was fun shopping for a new binder, binder stickers, understand how the whole paper-stacking and organising (I love organising) works. What wasn’t so much fun was realising they’re all made out of not-so-recyclable plastic which often doesn’t get disposed off ethically. The vinyl binders containing PVC makes it difficult to recycle them and they usually end up in landfills degrading really slowly, producing harmful gases in the process. Fortunately, small sustainable businesses are making binders out of recycled materials that can be fully recycled at a plant once you’re done using them till the end of their shelf-life. These binders are durable and come with removable rings which you can recycle/upcycle separately when needed in the future. Avoid buying new binders just because you’re bored of your current one – because a product being made out of eco-friendly materials does not give us the license to generate more waste at the expense of more resources.

Cardboard and fabric-covered binders are a great alternative to the usual PVC ones, along with those made from recycled chipboard. They even happen to be more durable. Once you’re done using them, simply remove the rings and screws for recycling and throw the rest of the binder into your compost pit. How cool is it to use a binder that goes into the mud in your backyard for some lovely garden roses later?

I always loved binder stickers, it was so much fun picking up the shiniest ones that would dazzle on my binder and make it unique. Unfortunately, these stickers are also non-recyclable and pollute our soil at the end of the day. Isn’t it annoying how short-lived they are? The best solution is to draw on your recyclable binder to make it stand out from the rest and feed the creative soul in you. But if you’re not a great artist like me, you can always swap your plastic stickers for earthy, organic binder decor like fallen leaves, flower petals and twigs – all of them in different colours. Imagine how artsy your binder is going to look with all of nature’s long-lasting bounty on it!

Loose Papers

Paper is one of the top items on shopping lists before a new school term starts. On the bright side, the felling of trees is avoidable. A giant Sequoia or a big Banyan doesn’t have to loose it’s life so that one can write in school, if we all make the right choices. The best alternative to white bleached paper is paper made from 100% recycled materials which can again be used as compost or one that easily degrades into the soil or one that can be further used to make more paper. This paper isn’t even processed with bleach or other harmful chemicals that make it toxic and new trees aren’t cut down to make it. Using them makes it much more easier for recycling plants to ensure our paper is going to the right place and coming from the right one too.

Storing loose papers can be tricky and we have all used thin folders for it. These folders were of course made out of coloured plastic and may or may not be recyclable. The greenest way to store loose sheets of paper is in unbleached folders that are manufactured from chipboard, a material which is 100% recycled once a consumer disposes it. Chipboard is thick, durable, doesn’t come with any toxic coatings and is perfect for your new assignment sheets.

Art

Kids who are painters and have the artist streak in them have always amazed me with their talent, it’s always fulfilling to see new art every now and then especially from children belonging to even remote corners of the Earth who probably don’t even have access to sophisticated equipment.

I never fail to emphasise on the importance that India has given to Nature in history, and revisiting stories of the country’s old glorious days only gave me more and more sustainable practices to be enthralled by as I turned the pages. Art has always been synonymous with Europe, for most of us who have had the chance to learn world history – and rightly so. However, Indian Art has been an underrated component of the tales that the canvas of History portrays. Keeping aside their sheer beauty and depth, I was mesmerised to know how sustainable and eco friendly ancient Indian art practices used to be. Indian artists indulged in full-time Sustainable Art way before it became cool. Not only did the concept of Sustainable Art involve using eco-friendly items to paint, it also involved the practice of Indian artists painting about the environment, seeking inspiration from Nature and worshipping her. Today, this body of work encompasses a range of landscape/environmental conditions as well, from rural to urban areas covering aspects of industrialisation and the countryside too. Indian artists believed, that developing a connection with the surrounding environment and weather while painting brought them closer to creating observational magic on their canvas. They believed that the surrounding atmosphere brought light and breathed air into their canvases which only cemented their belief in nature even more. Sustainable Art began with cave paintings all over the world – their walls being carved on with stone or painted on by using plant-based dyes, stand as a testament to their natural endurance for curious tourists today. These cave paintings often connoted the regular everyday life of a caveman/cavewoman in addition to bizarre drawings of alien-like creatures walking the face of the Earth. In India, with the burgeoning of civilisation, cave art transitioned into sculptures and then to painting art on cloth. Natural dyes from plants were used to intricately paint or sow into cloths which eliminated the need for paper, disposal or plastic brushes. Another mind-blowing sustainable step in ancient Indian art was using dried banana, palm and peepal leaves as the canvas, in addition to the regular cloths. The Masai tribe of Kenya, Africa too carved beautiful patterns on dried bark of the banana stem as Art. These had the ability to last for centuries, and I’m not surprised – Mother Nature always has the most long-lasting way of functioning, which is just another definition of the word Sustainable. Indian artists also used soil, mud, leaves and charcoal in addition to natural dyes for their art. Some commonly known intricate sustainable art forms included Madhubani, Phad, Warli, Gond, Kalamkari, Tanjore, Cheriyal Scrolls, Kalighat, Patachitra – all of which portrayed stories of the current ruler, epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, nature, environment preservation, everyday lives of the people and more.

Kalamkari art on cloth using natural dyes from India. Personal Copyright Image of Arushi Sana

Coming to the modern day conundrum of synthetic canvases, plastic brushes, toxic paint and plastic palettes, it brings me relief to know that all of these items are easily replaceable thanks to the growing market for Sustainability today. A regular canvas can easily be replaced by an Eco Art pad which is made out of agricultural waste like discarded stalks from banana trees (pinzotes). Each sheet is solid enough for paint, markers or crayons. The next thing to do is opt for eco-friendly natural paints that are made from non-toxic ingredients that do not negatively impact the environment upon utility or disposal. Oil paints, mineral spirits, turpentine etc have chemicals that are toxic to the air, especially in large quantities. If you happen to use Acrylics, throw them only when they have solidified. This helps because the paint forms a “protective” layer of film that locks in the harmful pigment and prevents it from seeping into the soil. Ditch the plastic paintbrushes that come with animal hair, it only promotes non-recyclability and animal cruelty – use compostable wooden paintbrushes that come with recyclable synthetic hair. Also, wipe your paintbrush before you rinse them under the tap to prevent excess toxins from entering water bodies and from further contaminating your drainage system. It’s a small step but think of the impact if billions of painters do this everyday after every piece of art they create? When you wrap your artwork for galleries or as a gift for your friend, try avoiding plastic bubblewrap/polystyrene packaging and use pulp, biodegradable packing peanuts or recycled cardboard as green packaging. Last but not the least, upcycle your materials. Reuse your canvases by applying gesso, paint the plain boring items in your house and see if you can make them aesthetic before you decide to throw them away – could be plastic bottles, containers, wooden blocks, cardboard, metals etc.

I personally used to love glitter in school, I still do when I see blingy clothes at the mall. It’s unfortunate how they’re 100% synthetic and 0% biodegradable, I can’t use them anymore after starting my journey towards zero-waste. The size of glitter only adds to it’s recycling woes (too tiny to recycle) and all those sparkling posters I once made at school are probably lying under the soil somewhere, suffocating it and making it impossible to sow any plant seeds on the top. I remember glitter used to be very expensive for us back then, and i was permitted only a few tubes per school-term or year and I used them oh so judiciously. If only I’d used paper, water and other natural resources as judiciously as that, I would be less guilty of my carbon footprint today. Having said that, here’s my chance to tell you dear kids at school, that you don’t need that extra bout of sparkle to make your poster stand out at the art contest, the thoughts that you manifest through your creative actions are more than enough to add shimmer to your canvas.

All that glitters is not gold, and all that glitters should not be sold!

The Toilet

Tissues are one of the worst uses of paper. There are very few brands that manufacture them from recycling paper waste in an attempt to save time and money. When you look at a tissue from afar, it’s a little tough to identify if it has been made from recycled paper, if it is compostable or if it is biodegradable. Also, the disposal of these tissues is not in your control when you use them at school. The amount of tissues that people use (myself included in the past) is unbelievable – for every meal and washroom break, one child probably has the capacity to use an average of five tissues. I also noted while working in my old office, that these tissues were not disposed off separately and the waste management wasn’t efficient – every kind of waste, be it food or paper or tissues were thrown into the same bin. This prevents tissues from being recycled and it puts the onus on us to either not use tissues at all or ensure their ethical disposal. When I was a child, my late maternal grandmother gave me hand-stitched handkerchiefs, seven of them in different colours with the days of the week stitched onto it – one for every day of the week. My paternal grandmother too kept restocking my collection whenever I caught the flu and my handkerchiefs were in the laundry. I used them throughout my school days but once I went to college, I replaced them with tissues as I thought they were more convenient. They are actually – just picking up a tissue and tossing it in the bin when you’re done sneezing is quite handy. However, as I write this article surrounded by canopies of trees in different shades of green around me, I can only wistfully think of the forests that were cut down to make those tissues for me – all because I couldn’t carry a handkerchief to class in college. Thinking of the majestic creatures living in forests that lost their homes due to (wo)mankind’s need for saving time, I switched to a handkerchief and am back to basics again. I wish naniji was still around, she would’ve made the prettiest handkerchiefs for me with beautiful Indian patterns embroidered on them. Then again, that’s how life teaches us the value of things only after we have lost them.

Handkerchief Personal Copyright Image of Arushi Sana

Carry a small handkerchief with you at all times and use it to dry your hands or a pre-installed air-dryer when you’re done using the school bathroom. It’s always good to be mindful of the waste you are generating. For the lovely girls, opt for bamboo-made sanitary napkins for that time of the month or a menstrual cup if you’re comfortable with one. It’s always more hygienic and green to dispose your napkins the right way in the allotted bin and not the regular bin/water closet. Thankfully, several sophisticated schools today have green drainage systems in place today that ensure effective disposal of wastewater.

Breakfast and Lunch

The first thing to keep in mind when you’re carrying a beverage is to note if it comes in a plastic packaged bottle or your reusable container from home. For example, freshly squeezed fruit juices commonly sold outside college campuses are either served in harmful plastic glasses or reusable glasses which are healthier and more eco friendly than tetra packs. Reusable options are great because it eliminates the need for waste disposal. Non-biodegradable containers comprise of Polypropylene plastic which is one of the most popular kind of plastic used for packaging across the globe, only 1% of it is recycled and 99% of it lands up in landfills in the soil. These take 20-30 years to decompose and eventually pollute the ground. Polypropylene plastic also contains toxic additives such as lead and cadmium. There are colleges and schools that serve milk/tea/coffee in disposable cups which just adds to the amount of waste being generated by the building. The ideal case is when your beverage is sold/consumed in reusable cups that do not heavily contribute to choking the Earth’s soil. Carrying your own copper/stainless steel bottle to your school/college is the easiest way to fix this. It might seem cumbersome initially, especially if you walk to school but you’ll get used to it and you really don’t have to do it everyday, even if you carry your own bottle for 3 of the 5 days of the week, it makes a huge impact once the year comes to an end. The same logic applies to your food – you can always avoid food packaged in disposable/single-use plastics. Children’s plastic lunch boxes contain PVC, BPA or lead-paint which shouldn’t be anywhere near a child. Carry your lunch in reusable and recyclable stainless steel boxes. Use reusable plates and cutlery or eco-friendly disposable bamboo ones at school. The moment you see plastic or non-biodegradable cutlery, steer clear from it. Plastic spoons and forks that usually come with packaged food are one of the biggest contributors to single-use and micro plastics that cannot be recycled and end up in landfills. In India, most schools serve freshly cooked lunch in reusable steel plates with reusable cutlery. My school was one of them too. Not only is this cheaper for the school it is also more environmentally friendly. It’s usually fast food outlets in college cafeterias that serve food in harmful packaging.

Use cloth lunch bags to carry your box, I remember using a simple yet sustainable Jute one for days when I had my breakfast on the go. You can even make your own reusable food bags by a simple stitch on leftover cloth at home.

Avoid using aluminium and plastic food wrap to cover your food, opt for earthier and cleaner alternatives like beeswax food wraps or simple cloth wraps. The food stays equally insulated, if not more.

Reusable Sustainable Cutlery with Sustainable Beeswax Food wrap. Personal Copyright Image of Arushi Sana

How Are You Carrying It All?

In India, “potlis” or small cloth bags have been a part of culture since time immemorial. People used them for travelling long and short distances alike and students used them at Gurukuls (schools) too. These bags were usually upcycled out of leftover cotton cloth at home or an old loincloth, sewed into the required shape and then used as per the requirement – be it for carrying clothes, study supplies, work supplies, prayer supplies and more. This system truly eliminated the need for manufacturing anything at all and was a great example of going “zerowaste”. In modern day India, people can find a fancy small “potli” on the wrists of elegantly dressed women at weddings, one that matches their outfit. It may not be made out of cotton or an eco-friendly fabric but the way a potli’s shape and transition of utility from necessity to fashion has evolved, is interesting. Another kind of potli seen today is a larger one, used by washermen to carry laundry clothes to and from Indian homes.

The best choice of an organic school backpack today to carry all your newly made sustainable switches is one that is made from natural fibres. If it’s unavailable, you can opt for a bit of Polyester/Nylon but try to steer clear from bags that have sparkly plastic designs on them that can contain PVC or Lead. You can explore bags and laptop bags made out of natural materials like organic waxed cotton canvas, vegetable dyed recycled polyester and a finishing that lasts long. A cork fabric is used in these bags to provide padding and a cotton lining to prevent scratches from appearing on the bag. Cork fabric is a highly sustainable material as it is harvested by shaving the bark of cork trees, instead of the usual harmful process of cutting down trees for use. What’s more interesting is that the process can be done every nine years till the bark fully regrows for upto three centuries! Obviously, this makes cork fabric compostable too.

Carpool

Carpool with your classmates from and upto whichever place possible, hop onto the metro and use public transport wherever feasible. When I was in school, I rode the school bus and was always excited to hop on and spend those extra thirty minutes of commute with my friends. As little girls, we played games, gossiped and fixed each other’s hair. Putting effort into carpooling prevents tons of vehicular emissions that contribute to respiratory diseases and an unclean environment.

I hope you find light in doing your bit to save our soil, and I hope you implement at least some of these suggestions with ease. Whenever I try to take steps on the ladder of social initiatives that benefit the entire community as a whole, I find this quote from the Atharva Veda written by Hindu Sages very encouraging:

When the Sun is over your head, there will be no shadow. Similarly, when faith is steady in your head, it should not cast any shadow of doubt.

Can the student become the teacher? Yes!

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