Zero Waste in India

In response to the ever-present challenge of achieving sustainability and dealing with climate change, a movement called, zero-waste, has become very trendy. Zero-waste is the process of eliminating all trash, especially single use plastic, from everyday life. Often, we think of zero-waste as a trendy movement for hipsters and one that requires all the right things to be purchased. This is not the case, the first principle of zero-waste is to reduce purchasing: You use less when you buy less. I decided for my New Year’s resolution to explore being zero-waste in India.

In India you still find remnants of the way the world functioned before plastic – metal tiffin boxes are used to hold food and snacks; tea is served in glass cups on the street, fruits and vegetables are bought at markets and put into cloth bags, water is held in ceramic jugs to be drank out from a shared cup; rice, biscuits, and dried fruit are sold in bulk on the street. There are many reminders that the world once functioned without the ever present plastic bag or bottle.

Example of different methods of zero-waste India. Purchasing dates, nuts and fruits in reusable containers.

While these methods of reducing plastic are still present.  The use of plastic is still extremely pervasive and a major problem faced by the nation. According to a study from 2012, India produces 26,000 tons of plastic waste every day and 9,490,000 tons a year; making it the 15th biggest plastic polluter globally (1). 10,000 tons of plastic waste a day  is not collected (2). You often will see discarded plastic waste littering country roads, rivers and forming impromptu garbage dumps across the country. While much of this plastic waste (94%) could be recycled, a waste management system is not in place to handle it (2).

Plastic-waste is a huge issue for the environment. No matter if plastic is thrown away, recycled, burned or just thrown on the ground, it causes long lasting damage. Plastic bags and bottles take between 10 to 1000 years to break down and in that time causing terrible impact on the planet (3). We have all seen plastic strewn across the land and in the water as well as the images of animals with plastic restricting their growth. Plastic not only releases toxins as it breaks down but the burning of plastic releases huge amounts of toxins into the air and plastic sitting in landfills seeps toxins into the groundwater (3).  The plastic we cannot see is almost worse. Micro-plastic, tiny particles of plastic, can poison animals throughout the food chain. Building up in the smallest plankton and ending up in the animals and humans eating fish. These problems grow as our human population increases, but there are solutions in how to handle them.

Drawing from a student at Kattaikkuttu Sangam after a class on pollution and plastic waste.

Stepping back to the old mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle – we must first reduce our consumption. Zero-waste is important because the individual choices can reduce consumption of plastic waste. We see the transition from using disposable  plastic water bottles to using reusable bottles that can be refilled many times. Around the world, many women have turned to reusable sanitary napkins instead of disposable ones (4). Bee wax covered clothes are being used instead of plastic wraps and people are buying in bulk to reduce waste. The way we consume and purchase products has a big impact on the amount of waste we produce. 

People can make individual changes, but the government also has taken steps to ban single use plastic from being used. In June 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would eliminate single-use plastics by 2022 (5).  This measure should have a huge impact on the reduction of plastic use in India. Notices of plastic free zones and media on the reduction of plastic use are very prevalent. In Tamil Nadu, I have already seen the effects of this ban. You will only ever find paper or metal straws in juices and lassies, more often than not you are handed a cloth bag when shopping, and people respond with smiles when you ask for no plastic with any purchase.


  1. Niharika Sharma. “India’s plastic waster crisis is too big, even for Modi”. Quartz India. August 28, 2019.
  2. Indulekha Aravind. Just how bad is India’s plastic problem?”. The Economic Times. Jun 09, 2019.
  3. Sonia Madaan. “What is Plastic Pollution?”. Earth Eclipse. 2019.
  4. Julie Hennegan, Catherine Dolan, Laurel Steinfield, & Paul Montgomery. “A qualitative understanding of the effects of reusable sanitary pads and puberty education: implications for future research and practice”.  Reproductive Health. 14:78. June, 27th 2017
  5. Urmi Goswami & ET Bueau. “Is India serious about phasing out single-use plastic by 2020?”. The Economic Times. Oct 02, 2019.

Loren is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. For her Fellowship project, she is training youth on the use of vegetable gardens to learn about organic food production, healthy nutrition, and environmental sustainability. Loren graduated in 2019 with a dual degree in agriculture and natural resources, and peace and social justice studies. Loren discovered her passion for sustainable agriculture and food equity during her gap year between her secondary and undergraduate studies. During that year, she traveled to Japan and Hawaii. While in Hawaii, she volunteered at Mala’ai garden, a culinary and school garden associated with Waimea Middle School. She found that she loved working outside with the students and growing and cooking food in community with others. When she began her undergraduate career, she knew her focus would be on food, agriculture, and food systems. She found Berea College to be unique with a no-tuition-guarantee and work-study program that provides low-income students with a wonderful education as well as work, internships, and research opportunities. Loren’s work experience at the college included time on the college farms as well as cooking, baking, and processing foods from the farm to sell to the community at the Berea College Farm Store, where she was head student baker and student supervisor. She won a summer research scholarship to the University of Minnesota to work on studying the impact of cover crops on the soil in organic agriculture and spent time working at Berea Urban Farm creating production space and a food forest plan. Loren is pursuing her passion for sustainable agriculture through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, where she looks forward to working with students in the organic gardens and demonstrating cooking those products in the community kitchen. Although she has never traveled to India, she has great respect for the county and its people and is very excited for this adventure.

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