Waste Busters

Priti Rao is a Bangalore based eco enzyme expert. She visited Pune to spend two days with the team at Peepal Tree School. Here are some notes on the interaction that the Peepal Tree team and a few selected guests had with her.

We started with a discussion on the purpose of education. To make a living. We live for earning a salary that can be spent on our supermarket binges. And what happens to that shopping a few weeks later – most of it lands up in our city landfill. In fact, the prosperity of a city can be judged by the size of its landfills. Priti spoke about Maranhalli, the village that houses Bangalore’s landfill. The dump sewage has leached so much into the ground water, that villagers are now forced to buy bottled water! But RO does not work for soil. So contaminants get  back into the food chain – through the vegetables grown in Maranhalli. Nature having its revenge on Bangaloreans!

We tend to be more worried about the visible waste we generate, but what about the one that goes into our flush? Toilet cleaners, with a significant heavy metal ingredients, is one of the biggest killers of our soil fauna. If you look into your home’s bathroom today, you can see a veritable chemical warehouse of toothpastes, soaps, detergents and toilet cleaners. Interestingly, more than 50% of the contents of a toothpaste are the same as your detergent. In Colgate’s own US website, the company recommends that its toothpaste is not safe for toddlers. Here is an excerpt from the site itself:

When should I Start Using Fluoride Toothpaste for My Child?
When your child is able to spit. Fluoride is safe and necessary to keep teeth strong, but only at appropriate levels. Younger toddlers tend to swallow toothpaste in excessive amounts, and this may lead to fluorosis, which causes discoloration of the teeth.

Source: https://www.colgate.com/en-us/oral-health/life-stages/childrens-oral-care/common-questions

 So is anything that we cannot eat, good for our skin or body? Don’t the chemicals that we brush our teeth with or apply on our skin, end up leaching into our blood system? Do we need to kill ourselves in the process of killing all the germs that seem to be surrounding us. And that too in a body that is more germ than body – with germs in our body outnumbering our own body cells 10 to 1. Moral of the story: If you can’t eat it, don’t apply it.

So how we can reduce our chemical footprint on the soil? Here is Priti’s story. She started with her waste bin. She looked at what can be done so that ‘No waste goes out of my house to the landfill.’ The obvious answer for that is composting. Most of our waste is wet kitchen waste. Municipal corporations have now made composting mandatory for new housing societies. They even incentive housing societies by waiving 5% of property tax if your society has a compost bin. So far so good, but when you visit these societies, you will come across sparkling pits – that have never seen any kind of kitchen waste for a long time. What typically happens is that the house closest to the compost pit is the recipient of the odour that concentrated waste is bound to generate. This dysfunctionality is because it violates a fundamental tenet: a family’s waste is a family’s responsibility. What works is when each family has its own compost pit or what this Bangalore based company calls its earthen compost pits – the Daily Dump.

Composting is a simple art. What you need to do is to balance the wet with the dry. And ensure that for every layer of wet waste there is a layer of dry waste. Probably calls for a further segregation of wet waste into a wet wet – and a wet dry one. If you are not generating too much of dry waste in the kitchen, then you can add in some dry garden waste as the dry layer. Another option for de-odorizing is to add a bit of curd or enzyme to the compost area. 1 month is enough for the waste to become amazing fertilizer. Stuff that is teeming with life – and by now without any remnant odours.

As Priti’s experience with composting grew, she found that acidic fruits did not make for good compost. Living in South India, lemons were very much part of her daily diet. Researching into the use of lemon peels, she chanced upon the use of these peels to make enzymes. Enzymes are useful for every living organism, helping us digest nutrients. Fruit and vegetable peels when kept for 3 months in a culture of water and jaggery, evolve into a concoction rich in the basic 3 enzymes: amylase, lactase and carbolase. For those who are interested in a DIY enzyme, here is the simple process. Take a 2 liter Coke /pepsi plastic bottle. Fill it with 1 liter of water. Keep adding peels till it touches the 1.3 litre mark. Then add 100 g of jaggery. The enzyme conversion process starts immediately upon the addition of jaggery. Now all you need to do is to open the lid once every day to let the oxygen out. Keep the bottle in a cold and dry place.

Amylase, lactase and carbolase are used to digest proteins, fats and carbohydrates – the basic ingredient of our food – and also sewage. Bacterial fermentation creates these enzymes – and a very interesting byproduct – free radical oxygen. You need to do this process in a plastic container – because the oxygen can cause the bottle to burst if oxygen is not let out from time to time. Btw, as soon as you let it out, this radical oxygen combines with a molecule of normal oxygen to form ozone. Good for our depleted ozone layer!

The bio-enzyme is a kind of panacea for cleaning. Well, believe it or not, it can clean dishes, toilets, rust, vegetables, jewellery, aquarium algae, floors, clothes – and even human bodies. For the last two though there is another natural option – the soap nut – or Reetha. You need to soak this nut in water for 2-3 days, and then take out the seed and squeeze the pulp to make it into a soap solution. I remember my mother cleaning our woolens using this. 250 g of soap nut (costing about Rs. 50) is enough to meet the cleaning needs of a household for a month. It works well for clothes and also is an amazing shampoo.

For utensils, the recommended method for cleaning is the 3 bucket method. The first bucket is to rinse away the food particles from the plates (preferable to do this immediately after eating). The second bucket contains the soap nut enzyme mix. The third bucket contains clean water. After the utensil cleaning process is done, all this water can go directly into the garden.

Coming to the last item in our waste bin – the plastic packaging. Priti told us of an interesting story about consumer behavior. She is a regular user of Anuspa – a soap manufactured by a Mumbai based firm. Like all soaps, this one also comes in plastic packing. She wrote to the company requesting for a bulk pack – but without plastic wrappers. To her surprise they accepted her strange request – and couriered her her supply. The next time around they refused to accede to her request – because by then based on customer feedback, they had switched over to paper wrappers!

If we were to now take away the soaps and toiletries for which we have just discussed a solution, what remains is our purchase of packed and processed food. Well think about what our parents did when they went to the grocery store. They took their own cloth bags and steel vessels. What prevents us from doing this today? Fortunately the Flipkarts, Walmarts, Birlas and Ambanis have still not managed to wipe out the neighbourhood kirana shop.

Another worry area for Priti is processed food. One thing that is common to all processed food is the preservative. Sometimes the preservatives are the relatively harmless sugar and salt. We asked Medha Patwardhan, a nutritionist who had come to attend the talk, about how much sugar does an average adult need. The interesting answer – Zero, Zilch, Nada. Salt though is required – but only 5 g per day. We are getting much more through processed foods – no wonder with diabetes and blood pressure being our new found friends. When Medha started her practice as a dietician, most of her patients were 50-60. Now with young couples eating out 5 times a week, her average patient is 30-40. The only people making serious money are doctors and hospitals.

Puneet Hegde, my energy audit friend, had an interesting question for Medha. In the age of the working woman, who has the time to make food at home. Medha had an interesting answer: a one dish meal. You take sprouts, bajra, rice and vegetables and put it into a cooker. When eaten with curd – this is a complete and balanced meal. This can easily be supplemented with fresh fruits and salads. And she added another recommendation – given a choice go for unrefined stuff. Unrefined oil is better than refined. Unrefined salt is better than refined. Unrefined sugar (jiggery) is better than white sugar.

An interesting anecdote came from my surgeon friend, Subodh Pandit: Subodh used to run his own hospital in the cantonment town of Deolali. The vegetable market was quite close to his hospital (in fact given the size of the town everything was close 🙂 ). Once the tempos for Bombay had left, the market used to be full of left over cabbage peels and sundry vegetable waste. The road cattle would not touch it! He tells me that the Deolali farmer would have a separate plot of land in his farm – where he would grow his own vegetables. Unlike the great looking insecticide laced vegetables that are part of the Bombay supply, his self-consumption vegetable plot had worm infested product, which he and his cattle eat happily. He ended with an interesting thumb rule! If it is advertised on TV, it must be bad.

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Priti and Archana enjoying cycling in Pune.

To know more about Priti’s work, visit http://www.soilandsoul.in/