Not Wasting the Waste: Creating Environmental Sustainability

S. Ushakumari is a horticulturist who has been working with a public interest research organization, Thanal, for the past 22 years. Part of her life’s work is a movement which is sweeping the globe: zero waste. Instead of seeking to “manage” waste, this philosophy and campaign aim to eliminate it. Zero waste considers the entire life cycle of material objects – natural resource extraction, processing, production, transportation, consumption, and disposal – which is exhausting the planet’s resources and creating increased pollution. Zero waste re-examines consumption with an ethical, economic, and environmental eye. It starts with the humble elements of waste reduction: re-using, recycling and composting. But it goes further, requiring companies to change the way they design and manufacture goods so that they are free of toxins, and getting government to change policies and laws. Ultimately, zero waste aims to create a society that lives sustainably on a finite resource base. In the process, it strengthens local economies with jobs, reduces energy demands and thus climate change, and saves local governments money that is spent cleaning up industries’ messes.

S. Ushakumari |Kerala, India:

Zero waste came to us as an alternative to the current waste management paradigm of burning or burying, which is actually wasting the waste itself.

Tourists like to come and visit [the town of] Kovalam but, in the past ten to fifteen years since globalization hit, the state of Kerala has been having a problem of excessive waste. The figures showed that the tourist flow was actually going down in Kovalam because of waste. The tourism department became very concerned. They had what they thought was a good idea: burn the waste and make it disappear. Like a miracle.

When we [at Thanal] came to know about the incineration and problems associated with it, we held a press conference as a first step to starting a campaign, which the media took up in a very positive manner.

We also communicated with leaders in the community who really felt attacked by the idea of incineration, because it’s a thickly populated area.

Then the tourism director at that time, who was a medical professional, had a discussion with us. He asked, “Why you are you opposing this?” We gave him all of the written documents against incineration. Then he said, “Okay. Because of the information you gave me, I stopped the project. But, now, I need to solve the problem. Can you help me out?” He said, “Come up with some ideas and we’ll support you.”

Discussions with the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance [GAIA] gave us the idea of zero waste. We started by identifying the kind of waste that was in Kovalam. We found out that almost 70 to 80 percent of the waste could be recycled or reused.

Women in the town got inspired by the whole idea of an alternate approach to waste management, and that’s how we began. With the support of the tourism department, we started a zero waste center, which was a resource education center to do training with women, students, farmers, and policy-makers. Almost immediately, we were training up to 400 women – not very many men actually came forward – and also some local organizations who were working with street children.

Some of the women were interested in developing an enterprise. In 2004, they started the Pioneer Paper Bag Unit. They talked to hoteliers in and around Kovalam and got the hotel industry to start realizing the problems with the materials they were wasting, including newspaper. They were just dumping it in the city garbage which was, in turn, getting dumped into some corner of the city premises. Some of the hoteliers started freely giving their waste paper to the Pioneer Paper Bag Unit. The unit made paper bags to give back to the hotel, so it was like completing the cycle. They also got one-sided papers [sheets in which one side is blank] from some of the computer centers and they made notebooks. I can happily say that the unit works in an economically sustainable manner.

Another material we started using was coconut shells, because Kerala is known for coconut. We found a good craft person, and we got him to train a few women. Most of these women had no idea of art, and now they make beautiful things out of the shells.

We’ve started recycling another resource, waste cloth. There are almost 140 tailor shops in Kovalam where foreigners come to get Indian clothes because they’re very cheap here. The tailors cut the clothes and they just dump the waste somewhere or burn it. Luckily, we got an artist who was working on waste clothes, who held trainings for women. They started producing lot of beautiful products, like banners and wall hangings, backpacks, and bags. I like to call it “patch-working women’s lives.”

So, we had three products: coconut shells, waste clothes, and the Pioneer Paper Bag products. Once they mastered production, the next issue was marketing. So we started an enterprise development program, which was run initially by three women.

More important than the numbers has been the capacity that’s been built among women who are closely associated with the zero waste centers. You should come and see it; only then would you believe what change can happen to these local, illiterate women. One woman in the Pioneer Paper Bag Unit, Seema, she was just sitting at home when she heard about our training program. She came forward, but she was very shy. She couldn’t even talk in public. In the last five years, she’s actually become a leader in the Unit, and she’s also a part-time enterprise development program person. Now you should see her, the way she talks to any kind of person: government official, minister, delegate coming from outside the county, anybody. There are a lot of similar women. Actually, we were never thinking about empowering women at that point of time, but through zero waste, it happened.

Also, in ten schools in the area, we’ve started a program called bio-diversity and food security. We’re promoting worm compositing, which means all the organic waste that is generated from the children’s lunchboxes or public lunch program goes to the worm compost, and then into the gardens in the schools. The children and teachers are getting hands-on training in bio-diversity and food security to make the cycle complete. The vegetable gardens are producing almost 20 to 30 percent of the vegetables for the noon meal programs. And now the children are collecting seeds and starting the same program in their homes. They come from the urban poor, and they’ve understood the mportance of bio-diversity. I am sure this connection between food, waste, and the toxics will reach other schools in Kerala.

We hold a summer camp and organize explorations for the children, and we sometimes take the parents also, so it becomes a regular outreach program for the community with film showings and everything. We also thought, let’s have the children learn the skills for making toys with non-toxic materials. We’ve reached a point where now, the children have started understanding climate change and how it’s linked to the waste issue, how it’s linked to the food production system, how it’s linked to industrialization processes.

The zero waste team is working with the government for a program in schools in Kerala. They’ve come out with a handbook for the schools, and they conducted workshops for the teachers with this manual. We have 14 districts, and in every district, a few schools will be piloting this idea to create zero waste schools. Once the children understand the problem of waste, they’ll be able to carry the message back home. Some schools are also doing water and energy conservation.

We’re also working at a state-wide policy level. One of our main zero waste campaigners was invited to be part of a governmental team to frame the state of Kerala’s waste policy. And this team’s final zero waste document was released in 2008 by the honorable president of India.

One of the important programs that we started is poison-free farming. Once we understood what kind of pesticides the farmers use, we started discussing with the local government, with the women’s groups, with the local farmers, who are mostly men. All the women understood that the pesticides were creating problems for themselves and the children. And they said, “We want to be trained in organic farming.” We trained them how to ban toxic pesticides, how to make local, organic manure, and things like that. We started with three women and within one year’s time, it grew to three groups of women.

One of the beautiful parts of the whole project was, once we started farming, the children started eating vegetables. That was a real eye-opener for the mothers.

The chief, or president, of the local government really got interested in the program because he was also basically a farmer. He said, “The local government can put some money to take this program forward. In five years time, we have to completely change this village into organic.”

When we started organic farming, as I said, all the women came forward, but we understood that involving women still wouldn’t solve the issue of pesticides. We had to change the farmers, the men, also. Initially, we were not into marketing the organics. Our idea had been that the poor people should eat the food, so we encouraged that, and they were doing it. But then we thought, “Let’s start organic marketing, so we can motivate more male farmers to change their agricultural practices. At least it can be chemical-free, it can be pesticide-free, and it can be fertilizer-free later on.” And that really worked. It’s just very small-scale farming, but one can see the improvements in the productivity and in the diversity of the crops we cultivate. And because of our work, the Minister of Agriculture has framed an organic farming policy for the state of Kerala.

The idea from Kovalam has gone all over the world now, which I think is the most beautiful part of the project. At least six or seven states are now modeling their zero waste programs after the one in Kovalam. Other countries — like the tourism department in the Philippines — are keen on implementing a zero waste program.

I think zero waste is what Gandhiji taught us. He didn’t coin the words ‘zero waste’, but what he told us about self-reliance, about non-violence, it’s all the principle of zero waste. The basic philosophy, the basic efforts, the basic understanding, is the same.

To learn more about S. Ushakumari’s organization, Thanal, please see

Thanks to Suchi Daga for help in editing this interview.
Photos by THANAL.

Inspired? Here are a few suggestions for getting involved!

  • Re-assess what you need and learn about the repercussions of what you buy. Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff (Free Press, 2010) provides detailed information about the global materials economy and suggests policies and actions that could make it more fair and sustainable. Visit The Story of Stuff Project’s website to see a fact filled 20-minute animation about the root causes and effects of consumption.
  • Changing our individual consumption habits is important, but ultimately corporations produce the majority of the world’s waste, fueling climate change. National government and international governing bodies are the only ones who can regulate this waste, yet feeble efforts at regulation often result in benefiting the big polluters. Check out Basel Action Network for more on international regulation of toxic waste (
  • Lobby elected officials for stronger industry regulations and on other environmental issues. Get started with Pesticide Action Network’s action guide (
  • Learn more about real solutions to climate change and see how you can get involved at The Story of Stuff Project’s Cap and Trade Take Action webpage (
  • Most of the food sold in the US travels 1000 – 1500 miles. Work to eliminate enormous levels of waste in the form of fuel by strengthening your own local economy. Lobby to make local and national laws friendlier to businesses that buy and sell local products and to family farms that bring their harvest to neighborhood markets. Check out Georgia Organics’ Action and Advocacy webpage to see one example of effective advocacy for a stronger local economy (
  • So much of what we buy new and packaged in plastic can be bought or found used. Salvage construction materials, visit your dump’s ‘swap shop,’ dress up your wardrobe at used clothing stores, and use your local junk yard for car parts.
  • Everyday opportunities to create less wasteful habits include:
  • Hanging your clothes out to dry instead of using the dryer;
  • Lowering the temperature of your hot water heater;
  • Asking your local grocery store, farmers’ market, or CSA to phase out plastic bags. Many cities have banned plastic bags from their store checkout lines. Lobby your city to do the same; and
  • Avoiding bottled water. Visit Corporate Accountability International’s water webpage to tell your governor to think outside bottled water.

And check out the following resources and organizations: