Funeral waste

The past month or so I’ve been away from school as I had to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral. In a Hindu family, or more specifically in an Iyer family, there are a number of rituals and a great deal of waste that one has to contend with. Unfortunately, I wasn’t 100% on the ball and planning ahead during the process. It was the furthest thought in my mind. IMG_20160209_084432

Of course, the items we use for the puja are almost entirely biodegradable or edible and so they get used and composted as needed. But on the 13th day (photo above) the rituals involve various gifts and such, some of which come in plastic. When flowers and fruits and such were purchased by me, I would make sure that I had my cloth bag handy so I didn’t have to get any plastic bags. But when the shastris brought the items they often came in plastic bags. But the idea of this practise–its root–comes out of a normative idea about recycling, of giving back to the earth, to the animals. And I love this about these rituals. At the crematorium, after you finish with the edible items in the puja, there are goats nearby who come to eat the food you leave behind.

During one of the larger lunches where we serve close friends and family members, I hadn’t planned what to do with the wasted food (yes, unfortunately, some people didn’t finish all that was on their banana leaf). I quickly found an empty bucket, asked everyone to place their leaves there and took it down the street to where a cow was walking by at that moment! It was so serendipitous! I called the cow over to me and she took the first leaf right out of my hand. Then I laid the others next to her on the street and she and her two friends who weren’t far behind finished them off (see below the cows on a different day, when I found them feasting on plastic :-/ ).

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The final day of the puja, the 13th day, featured an elaborate luncheon for many more guests–friends and family. This one was catered and there were so many more people at our house that I wasn’t thinking about the problem of what to do with the waste. I also didn’t think ahead of time to do anything about alternatives to plastic (they used plastic cups for water and for payasam). By the time I realised all of this it was too late. Also, this time there was a paper sheet on the table and the banana leaves were laid out on top of it. It was much more difficult to find a way to separate the food, especially since by the time I went to the terrace to eat, most of the guests had already eaten and their places had been cleared.

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The final issue related to waste for us was the leftover food. On all three days where we had to serve others lunch, we had a tremendous amount of food left over. And it’s a problem because during the puja you are not allowed to eat leftovers. We were lucky because a friend of my mother-in-law happened to be walking by at the moment when we were trying to figure out who to give all the food there. This woman came inside, reorganised the food into different dabbas, called a rickshaw driver, and took us to a nearby orphanage where very grateful children ate quite a grand meal. For others looking for a place to donate leftover food from a large party or gathering, there is a recent article in The Better India that gives several names of organisations that are doing this work. I’m especially intrigued by an organisation called The Robin Hood Army, which collects and donates food around the cities in which it operates (that includes Bengaluru).

The other issue I recently read about in  The Better India is the problem of flowers used for puja. There is a new group making use of these excess flowers and making incense and fertilisers out of the waste. The group is called Help Us Green.  I already ordered some incense from them and I’m quite impressed with their product.

While I was home I also found an alternative sanitary napkin to those American brands foisted on Indians. Of course, cloth pads are always better if you want to reduce waste. This one still has plastic, but it is “made by special-skilled hands of empowered village women” in Kolar, which is quite close to where I live and work. It also claims to be oxobiodegradable. The organisation is called Sukhitha (and they don’t have a website, but they are affiliated with an NGO called Rores, and their contact information is the same as Sukhitha’s). Fortunately, most of the organic markets in Bangalore are selling Sukhitha pads (though it would be great if they could also offer EcoFemme as an alternative).

While I love supporting a local livelihood building project, I’m not entirely comfortable with the notion of oxobiodegradable. So with the help of a couple of students we did some reading about it. An article in The Guardian seems to be one of the better ones. First, they define what this means:

Technically what we are talking about here is “oxo-degradable” plastics. These are plastics made to degrade in the presence of oxygen and sunlight, thanks to the addition of tiny amounts of metals like cobalt, iron or manganese.

What concerns me about sanitary napkins in the first place is the plastic because the options here are either to burn them or bury them. Either way, putting toxic material into the soil or the air is not something I’m comfortable with. And the article suggests this could be a problem even with this new product:

And, while most manufacturers say that to put only tiny amounts of metals into the plastic, the US study found that one brand contained “very high levels of lead and cobalt”, raising questions about the toxicity of the leftovers. Neither of these studies relates specifically to Symphony’s products. But they raise questions.

Those questions are enough to make me reluctant to suggest the product. However, it seems preferable to the American products like Whispers and Stay Free. And, even better: Sukhitha is half the price! 1 packet of 7 Ultra-Dry XL with wings Stay Free pads cost ₹83 and the comparable product from Sukhitha is a mere ₹40! So if you’re not yet ready to go the way of cloth, check your local organic market for Sukhitha or ask them to carry it!

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One thought on “Funeral waste

  1. I have to agree with you on Sukhitha. I saw the product a Vriksh Organics (Bangalore) recently. The cover does not list the ingredients; it says it contains an “eco gel” (whatever that means); it uses adhesive strips that are of plastic, and it asks you to dispose of the pads in the trash bin. Well, if I cannot compost it in the soil or in my pot, in what way is this product even eco-friendly? The lady at Vriksh was clueless when I asked her all this — it beats me why they even stock the product! Fortunately, the store stocks Eco Femme cloth pads as well.

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