In California, I remember that we were huge on recycling in Newport Beach as early as 1989 or 1990. Certain cities jumped on the recycle bandwagon sooner than others in the 90s and provided citizens with bins for plastic, aluminium and paper that was collected – back in the day – once every fortnight and I remember our apartment on 39th Street was in one of those neighbourhoods. In Spain, the governments weren’t quite as early to adopt recycling and the citizens there are still not as recycle-happy as Americans but most neighbourhoods do have large, specialty bins where glass, plastics, tetra bricks and paper can be easily and conveniently recycled. Spain was a step ahead on eco-packaging with Tetra bricks but I do hope that things have changed in the last 10 years since I last visited the U.S.
Yet in both Spain and in the states, aesthetics and customer-friendliness still plays an inappropriately larger role with take-away and store bought food packaging than it does here in India – and certainly more than it really should.
The first time I realized how fantastically different the packaging for food products is here was the first week I moved to India. I was living in a hotel off 100 Feet Road in Bangalore and was dining out for every meal. There was a tiny refrigerator in my hotel room and I decided to hit a grocery store and stock up on little things like juice, tea and biscuits. Much to my surprise, the already ridiculously cheap biscuits that I had chosen came with a free half litre of milk – woo hoo, SCORE! Well, the milk was packaged up in a sealed part paper/part plastic pouch – or to be really specific and give you an undeniable mental picture…it was sealed inside a pouch similar to how they package up saline or blood packs at a hospital.
I had never seen milk packaged that way before. It was in a carrier bag next to boxes of tea and biscuits with hard edges and corners on them, making me consciously walk slow and carefully with the bag. I was so afraid I was going to break it open if I jostled it too much while I was Frogger’ing it across the street or by being too rough setting the bag down. On top of that transport awkwardness, I also wasn’t sure how long the milk would stay good, how the heck I was supposed to maintain it without it spilling everywhere once I opened it and if it would really taste that great.
Well, turns out the milk did indeed taste very yummy. Although, looking back, I should have just chucked it out after that first milk and cookies snack because when I went back for more after a day or two it sadly was NOT milk anymore. Given the quick ‘turn’ of the milk, I suppose it’s smart that it’s packaged in half litre quantities rather than the European standard of 1 litre or the American “super-size it” gallons because my guess is that it needs to be consumed really quickly.
After that first eye-opening packaging experience I started to look out for and spotted so many more cool examples of India’s more eco-friendly and unique food and drinks packaging. The next one was my “parcel” lunch that I’d order in daily from the little spot around the corner from where I worked. My almost soupy “gravy” dishes (what we westerners refer to as “curries”) would come in a silver pouch with the liquids inside sealed in and protected by twisting the top of the bag, then folding the “stem” part of the twisty bit down, then securing the hell out of it with a rubber band.
That same system is used to deliver all types of sauces and every other liquid food item at most take-away restaurants. I still wonder how they manage to use this system and never puncture or pop or break a bag. I ordered in more than I cooked before my daughter came (sadly that might even actually be true now if I am really honest about it) and I never saw even a single leak out of the bags.
Now the weirdest item that I’ve personally carried using that bagged up system is from the local juice guy down the street. My daughter and I are huge fans of the fresh juice stand on the high street here in Frazer Town. This guy chops up a ton of fresh fruit, throws it into a blender with a little sugar and – pesto! – for 50 Rupees ($1) we have one litre of ‘in the moment’ freshly-made juice to take home and enjoy. And MAN does the quality and flavour beat the store bought juice any day! My favourite is watermelon and my daughter likes the pineapple best. Yet I am always freaking out that I’m going to end up with juice all over my frock or all over the car but so far I haven’t popped any of the bags while transporting them. And when we arrive home we carefully transfer the juice over to a plastic recipient with a lid where it stays fresh for about 24 hours in the refrigerator.
My inspiration for today’s article actually came from a drunk guy who was stood outside my little ‘hole in the wall’ wine shop on the high street. The counter is always full of gents nibbling on a little snack and throwing back a beer or – in the case of my guy tonight – a sippy juice box full of brandy. But he didn’t drink it straight, no no. He enjoyed his brandy with water. And as I walked up to buy some wine I think I startled him a bit (girls aren’t supposed to buy hooch) and he splashed me with a bit of the water on accident, which he had been pouring from a … yep, you guessed it … a tiny plastic pouch. These are the cutest little waters EVER! They sell for 2 Rupees ($0.04) each and they are certainly WAY more eco-friendly than the individual water bottles with lids that most bars have so, rock on India!!
Lastly, I often talk about Indian ingenuity and the high spirit of entrepreneurialism here under some of the most unique of circumstances (read more here). Well, within this falls one of my favourite recycling efforts that I’ve seen from some of the small, local shops like the pharmacy that I go to around the corner from our flat. In my mind, I imagine that the wife and other female family members do this work at home, sitting around a table laughing and gossiping and talking about Bollywood actors or their husbands and having fun but I could be completely wrong. The guys at the pharmacy have hand-made paper carrier bags for their smaller pharma products, which have been constructed from old magazines and newspapers that are glue stick’d together. What a great idea! I’ve seen this once before in Spain but the newspapers were in Chinese and not Spanish so I know that they were mass produced and purchased from Asia so it’s really not quite the same…although they still deserve a high-five for using recycled materials.
Lots of this is all new for me. Some of it was a bit strange to me at first but now I really appreciate it. For example, none of the spices I bought from the grocery store came in little plastic or glass bottles so I had to buy small glass spice bottles with tiny corks for each one – but now I’ll have these bottles for years so I am helping to save the planet (haha, yes one spice bottle at a time). And I still find it a complete adventure whenever I have to buy a ‘pouch’ of sunflower oil because the housekeeper had done it the first time and poured it into a cleaned water bottle. Now I simply refill it with a litre pouch full of oil that I pour slowly and carefully using a funnel from IKEA because I am sure I’m not skilled enough to pour it by just cutting a small corner off the pouch like she did.
Generally speaking, I am aware that India isn’t the best at recycling and trash removal but I do love the amazing steps forward that I’ve seen with packaging. Although I’m sure it’s going to bite me on my ass at some point in the near future. I mean, come on! It’s IMPOSSIBLE that I’m going to remain as lucky as I’ve been with the bags for much longer. At some point that watermelon juice is going to pop and I am going to be cursing the juice guy and his damn eco-friendly pouch!
© Angela Carson, Angela’s Adventures in Bangalore blog and photos, 2011