My upcycled life

Nina Subramani

Today it is almost mandatory for the words ‘development’, ‘lifestyle’ and even ‘technology’ to be prefixed with the word ‘sustainable’. When we read that something was built keeping sustainability in mind, we feel more comfortable about that product. We may build sustainable homes (often confused with exposed brick facades of buildings) and join the rest of the planet in turning off our lights for an hour in the evening once a year – but really, how sustainable are our lives – and is it possible to live an entirely sustainable lifestyle?

I may choose to ride a cycle to work – thus saving on fuel, which is precious. Once I reach my workplace, I may munch on an apple or pear, and drink some juice that I’ve carried in my backpack – but what if those fruits and juice are imported products – that have reached my Bangalore supermarket all the way from the USA or New Zealand – how much fuel have I really saved? Leading a sustainable life, therefore, in my opinion, is a snowballing effect, or as they say in the Lays Chips ad, you can’t stop with just one (way of being sustainable!).

Some of my friends have inspired me to change my lifestyle. One of them is a CEO of a company – he either cycles or takes the bus to work – about 8 kilometers one-way. No chemical cleaning ingredients can be found in his home. Indeed his home, which was built recently, is a lesson in sustainability. The roof is made of bamboo. There are no tiles on the floor or in the washrooms. The glass for his windows is all sheets from demolished buildings. The wood for the staircase, window frames and cupboards is all wood recycled from packing crates. His kitchen and washroom sinks, taps and even the WC are second hand – from demolished buildings. The water from his washing machine and kitchen sinks ‘grey water’ leads into the garden. His large screen television, state of the art refrigerator and a few other appliances are second hand too. He says there is no need to keep buying new things and junking perfectly good products that may be a little out of style.

Needless to say his home is beautiful. He has also saved up to 40% of his building costs on plaster, cement and interior products.

Nothing looks second hand. Why am I saying this? In our society, there is a stigma against second hand products, against ‘saving’ money if you can afford not to. Plus if you’re the CEO of a ‘BIG’ company, it is almost mandatory to have all the fittings of a ‘hi-carbon’ lifestyle as opposed to a sustainable one. In fact, I sometimes think the biggest hurdle to living sustainably is the inherent snob factor.

Another friend lives almost 35 kilometers from her work place. She started a car pool – the rule was simple. If there weren’t at least 4 people in the car, the car would not be used. Along with her colleagues, a schedule of timings and leave days was made and adhered to. The movement within her office grew and soon car poolers got preferred parking. When she built her home, she invested in solar energy. The result, between 6 pm and 9 am her home is run solely on solar power. She started segregating waste and composting at home. This naturally led to gardening, which soon spun into her farming an empty plot adjacent to her house – growing corn, tomatoes, spinach, and other vegetables. All without chemical pesticides. This wasn’t enough for her – when she realized her ‘grey water’ had detergents and chemicals from shampoos and clothes whiteners, etc., she started using soap nuts even in her washing machine. She even learnt to drink tender coconut straight from the coconut rather than use the plastic straw.

So how did these two people and countless others that I read about inspire me? Of course like many people, my first step towards sustainable living was using a cloth bag rather than plastic. I then started segregating my garbage. Now all the vegetable and kitchen waste, biodegradable, go straight into my compost bin and then later to my plants. The milk packets, plastic containers, glass bottles all get recycled. My aim is a no garbage home – one that I haven’t achieved yet.

I stopped buying drinking water – if I forget to carry a water bottle I stay thirsty. I stopped using auto rickshaws for my errands – I either walk or use my bicycle. I hardly ever use my printer. I don’t buy any imported food. I make it a point to look for local foods, I even learnt to make my own ricotta and mascarpone cheese – now I don’t have to buy the one with frequent flier miles! I remembered that my mom cleaned glass with a wet newspaper and I stopped buying the fancy chemical filled glass cleaner.

In fact, when I really stop to think about it, I grew up in a very sustainable home – of course we didn’t know it then. My brothers and I used the same school and lunch bags for years on end, we cycled to school, we removed the unused sheets of paper from our notebooks and had new ones bound at the end of every school year. Textbooks were passed on from seniors to juniors. Between cousins and friends, clothes and shoes were handed down – it was never a matter of affordability – everyone did it and there was never any shame in it.

I try to do the same thing with my daughter now – with my other ‘mom’ friends, we have a chain of supply of clothes, toys and books that go all the way from Delhi to Coimbatore. Nothing gets thrown away and we reuse till it can’t be used any longer. She sometimes brings me a box, or a carton and says ‘what can we do with this now?’ Of course the flip side of all this recycling is that now you get really beautiful products that have been recycled or ‘upcycled’ and in the guise of being ‘eco friendly’ you’ll end up buying all sorts of things that you don’t need and then you’ll need to throw it all away a few years later when you’re ‘clearing up’.

The fun part about living this way is if you really stop to think about all your actions, you can find ways to make everything sustainable. I work from home – so if I bathe in the afternoon – I don’t need to switch on my geyser. The water is heated up in the tank anyway and I get piping hot water. Free of electricity! Yeah and that’s another victory for the planet and me!

Think about it – and let me know what else I can do.

The author is a documentary filmmaker whose films focus on environment and human right issues. She is based in Bangalore. She can be reached at

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