Raising Gen Next Green Warriors, One Compost Box At A Time

Imagine 3 million trucks line up, piled up high with waste. That’s how much untreated waste India dumps into its landfills every day. And while we wait endlessly for governments to change policies to tackle our waste crisis, it’s high time we understood our own role in it. Our role in anything to do with the environment, actually.
While it is easy to preach change, very few people have the conviction to be that change. Fewer still are trying to inculcate that sense of responsibility in their children.
Mridula Swamy writes about a ‘green way of life’ and why bringing up her children to be green warriors was the best decision she ever made.

“Amma, don’t buy this soap because it has a strong perfume. It must have chemicals.”

“Where does this go in recycling? Paper or cardboard?”

“You need to empty the compost dabba. It’s almost full.”

“Wow, look at the number of ingredients in this… and sugar is the second one!”

“Ammmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa… he’s wasting water !%%@#$$!!”

Such observations and comments are often made by my 8 and 6 year old sons.

Bringing up my children in an environmentally responsible way has been one of the best decisions I took. No one holds you more accountable to your word than a child. Once you make the effort to explain why something is important, they listen, absorb, ponder, ask questions… and if they are satisfied, begin to follow the new practice as if it were always done that way. In fact, they make it look so easy that not only do you draw inspiration from them, you also have no option to ‘cheat’ because they are quick to catch on any inconsistency! “Why did you take a plastic bag from the shop? Bad girl!”

It’s NEVER too early to start. Part of the motivation came from not wanting to expose them to toxic chemicals (which seem to be present in everything these days). I also wanted to establish a new ‘normal’ at home and it is easier when you start them young.

Aadhav throws his wet waste

We got rid of conventional cleaning agents at home – I replaced soap, shampoo, toothpaste, dish wash, laundry and floor cleaner with natural alternatives. This requires quite a bit of ongoing research because many things sold under the tagline ‘natural’ are anything but! I also had to do some convincing because the kids were none too happy when their toothpaste tasted nothing like the sweet, foamy, colourful conventional ones and when they found that their soap and shampoos don’t lather and create fun bubbles!

We have shifted completely to organic produce and groceries and try to stay away from processed/ ready-to-eat items. Starting young means that children develop a taste for brown rice, red rice, lentils and different kinds of millets, and are willing to try whole wheat and sugar-free alternatives to packaged foods. An important learning was to ‘let go’ once in a way – let them enjoy their packet of chips, sickeningly sweet cream biscuits and artificially-coloured ice lollies so that they don’t feel deprived.

But these are choices I make for them. The fun comes in when they are made responsible for their decisions and here are some ways they follow a greener lifestyle:

  1. We carry steel water bottles wherever we go to avoid buying packaged water
  2. We have a stash of cloth bags at home/ in the car and whenever we get down to buy something, they fish out cloth bags for me to use.
  3. We have a container near the kitchen sink where they can throw wet waste (banana skins, bread crumbs, curry leaves (they refuse to buy into the calcium claim 😦 ), etc)

    Vihaan pleased to get rid of his banana peel
  4. We have boxes to segregate dry waste so they can easily identify where paper, cardboard, plastic, bottles, etc, go and dispose accordingly.
  5. We shop and read ingredients together so they understand what goes into their foods (“Amma, what is hydrogenated vegetable oil?”)
  6. We only have bucket baths and they fill what they think is the right amount of water for their bath
  7. We know that we have to flush only after the ‘big job’ and it’s okay not to flush every time they use the toilet.
  8. We have races to see who can turn off all the unnecessary fans and lights (this almost always leads to fights and tears because my younger one can’t reach some switches!)
  9. We thrive on hand-me-downs and happily benefit from clothes, shoes, books and toys outgrown by their older cousins and friends.
  10. We talk a lot about how our actions affect the ecosystem. What happens when we throw plastic? Where does the water go once we’ve finished washing our hands with conventional handwash? Why is palm oil bad news for orangutans? How does using cars, ACs and fridges affect melting ice caps and polar bear survival? The idea is to connect OUR actions and the global impact and also to get them to understand how privileged we are in being able to make choices about how we use our resources.

We still have a long way to go. We are guilty of using a car excessively to get to places. The thought of navigating roads without footpaths and constantly dragging my kids away from racing vehicles on one side and dog shit and human spit on the other puts me off. So we tend to walk only when we have a good amount of time and it isn’t peak summer heat.

We also use the air-conditioner when the heat gets unbearable. Blame it on my lack of foresight when finding a home to rent. Given the amount of time we spend at home, especially with younger kids, I should have paid more attention to the ventilation and chosen a cooler, brighter place. Sigh.

Well, this remains a work in progress. Learning and unlearning. Investing time. Resisting temptation. Being patient. But all I can say is, don’t use young children as an excuse because they are a HUGE motivation and conscience-check and have really helped me transition to a more sustainable lifestyle.

Mridula is a firm believer in women’s rights, social justice and sustainable development. When she’s not teaching economics to high school students in Chennai, she’s busy playing the role of mom-driver-cook-caregiver to her precious and precocious boys.


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