Over the last couple of years, the world has seen a significant shift towards a plastic-free and zero-waste lifestyle and for good reason. According to a report by the Press Information Bureau in 2016, India generates a whopping 62 million tonnes of waste each year with an average annual growth rate of 4 per cent. A 2019 India Today report claims that our country produces more than 1.50 lakh metric tonne of solid waste on a day-to-day basis. This is extremely eye-opening as it shines a light on how massive a crisis India is fighting in terms of waste production.
Fortunately, there exist changemakers like Bare Necessities founder and CEO Sahar Mansoor who is campaigning for an eco-friendly way of life, trying to share real, actionable ways you can reduce waste. Mansoor inadvertently created waves when she managed to collect all of the waste she produced in a 500-gram jar, a feat she achieved in the two and a half years she’s been living zero waste and continues to do so. We speak with her to learn more about her journey towards a zero-waste lifestyle and how she thinks we can achieve a trash-free future.
How did you start your zero waste journey? What or who inspired you?
I think I have subconsciously been an environmentalist since I was a little girl, my love for nature was fostered spending weekends in Cubbon Park with my dad and two big sisters, climbing trees and mostly falling off of them. Having lost my dad when I was very little, being in nature continued to be one way of remembering him.
In my 3rd year of college in 2012, I watched a video by Bea Johnson in Professor Chris Chapple’s World Religions and Ecology class. I remember being blown away by Bea and her family’s zero-waste lifestyle but I also remember conclusively dismissing it. Nevertheless, this course was a turning point in my environmental journey. It left me wanting to learn more!
I remember walking into Dean Zaleeza’s office and telling him, “You don’t have the major I want,” and he smiled and said, “Okay grab a chair, let’s create one!” I added ‘environmental planning’ as my second major and took some amazing classes in environmental engineering, environmental ethics, and policy!
So far, waste for me was of course an environmental issue and a health issue – looking at it through my Cambridge and WHO (World Health Organization) lenses. But moving back home forced me to think of our waste problem as a social justice issue.
As part of my job at SELCO Foundation, I shadowed a community of waste pickers. Every day I would watch as they would segregate broken glass, sanitary napkins and needles, all with their bare hands. I wanted to stop being part of the issue. I needed to address my trash problem first. My solution? Live a lifestyle that best reflects the values I cared about. I had called myself an environmentalist for about six years at the time. I studied environmental planning, environmental policy and environmental economics in college and graduate school, but I thought I needed to live a life more congruent to my environmental and social justice values. I needed to walk the talk.
How has living a zero-waste lifestyle changed your life? What were the biggest changes you noticed?
The biggest change came in the form of a shift in perspective. I began thinking about the myriad of ways the trash we produce impacts the world. Amy Korst rightly said, “Trash is intimately connected to every environmental problem we face today, from climate change and habitat destruction to water pollution and chemical exposure. It’s also intensely personal and impacts every decision in our daily lives, including everything from how much money we spend to how much weight we gain.”
Living a zero-waste lifestyle has made me more mindful of so many aspects of my life. From the clothes I wear to the food I eat and the mode of transportation I choose, I am now able to view these decisions through a new lens.
What compelled you to start Bare Necessities?
In my zero-waste journey, I realized we lived in a world with landfill-destined products. Toothbrushes for instance; 4.7 billion of them end in landfills every year and take 200-700 years to start decomposing. So, every toothbrush you and I have ever produced is sitting on our planet somewhere. I realized that it was so difficult to find personal care and home care products that didn’t contain harmful chemicals and weren’t packaged in plastic.
In response to this problem, I wanted to create a company that mirrored the values of zero waste, ethical consumption and sustainability. I wanted to make it easy and accessible for other people looking to consume more mindfully and to encourage others to produce less waste. Thus, Bare Necessities was born.
What are some of the challenges of living a zero-waste lifestyle? Do you experience being left out in social situations?
I am still not completely zero waste and I doubt I ever will be. I think it’s all about shooting for the stars and landing on the moon. It is good to know your boundaries. For instance, I am a long-distance runner and biker, I sometimes carry granola bars for the long runs and rides in my back pocket, but that’s my non-negotiable.
I also love going to music concerts and they often don’t let you enter the venue without the plastic wristbands. Also, medicine packaging is the other type of waste that’s in my little 500 g waste jar. But just because it’s a little harder or requires a little planning doesn’t mean we don’t try. We are in the largest global garbage crisis of our lifetime. Every toothbrush, shampoo bottle you’ve used in your lifetime currently exists on the planet somewhere and will probably outlive your grand, grandchild!
Since zero waste is still a growing concept, one has to be extremely conscious of their decisions and some things do require planning like remembering to carry your own straw or tumbler. However, now that I have been practicing this lifestyle for so many years, it comes quite naturally to me. I haven’t yet experienced being left out in social situations and actually, zero waste choices can be a good starting point for some meaningful conversations.
Are you finding that more people are getting drawn to a sustainable lifestyle as awareness about the climate crisis rises?
Yes absolutely. The climate crisis is one of the biggest issues of our times and I think people are starting to realize that this is related to our lifestyle choices, and the kinds of products that are being mass-produced.
With a brand that’s growing substantially, what is your tactic for influencing people on why they should consider going zero waste?
Our community of conscious consumers is expanding but many who are looking to join the movement may feel overwhelmed or may not know where to start.
We address this problem through our education initiative, Bare Learning. We are extremely grateful to report that this initiative has directly impacted over 265,000 people and has been recognized by UNESCO as one of its Green Citizen’s projects. Bare Learning comprises talks & workshops, sustainability consulting and online courses that break down the concepts around sustainability into easily digestible pieces.
How do you find enough resources to live a zero-waste lifestyle when it can get so overwhelming, especially in a country where landfill spaces are rising alarmingly?
When I began my zero-waste journey, my obvious resources when I started were Bea and Lauren’s blogs but importantly, also conversations with my grandma, asking her what she did before shampoo was sold in a plastic bottle?
A lot of our Indian traditions are actually rooted in ecological practices or what we now can call ‘zero-waste practices’. Our stainless-steel Indian ‘tiffin’ is an example of an Indian tradition that is celebrated by the zero-waste movement. This to me is an exemplary example of zero waste creating 5,000+ jobs, and supporting community health by delivering home-cooked meals to over 2 lakh people, all without producing any trash! None of the food delivery apps of this start-up India era can even compare!
There are several other ways how living in India has benefited my lifestyle. For example, the access to package-free fruits and vegetables, fresh fruit juices and coconut water and the abundance of small local businesses like bakeries and tailors. Of course, there are still many systemic changes that need to occur in India, and Bare Necessities seeks to be a part of the movement that will allow for these changes to occur.
But the real game-changer in waste management is NIMBY or not-in-my-backyard phenomena, something I learned about in my urban planning class as a 19-year-old. Rural communities are beginning to object to the waste being dumped in their backyard. They, like us, do not want to live near a landfill or a waste incinerator that pollutes the environment. Now that their backyard is not available, in whose front yard will waste be disposed of? If it is ours, then we will need to keep it clean, won’t we?
A zero-waste lifestyle is extremely intimidating to start. How did you cope? Do you believe one person can make a significant difference?
I started taking my first few steps in April 2015. The transition to zero waste living is incremental. For instance, when I ran out of soap, instead of buying store-bought ones, I would experiment and eventually learned how to make my own.
I also think it is important for people to understand their trash first; how much and what kind of are we producing? Where is most of it coming from? It then becomes easier to set realistic goals to reduce and minimize it.
We are in the largest global garbage crisis of our lifetime and everyone on this planet needs to become involved. Every little effort helps in moving humanity toward a circular economy methodology that lives more sustainably with nature.
What are some easy swaps a beginner can make to cut down on waste and plastic use?
I think that one’s personal care routine is a good starting place since this is something that every individual has a lot of control over. Some easy swaps:
-Plastic-free products like paper packaged soap and shampoo bars
-DIY your toothpaste with equal parts baking soda and coconut oil. You can also add a few drops of peppermint oil or any other flavouring you like
-Wood/ metal safety razor
How would you encourage others to start a zero-waste lifestyle? Do you think it’s possible for everyone?
I think zero-waste living is possible for everyone but many changes need to happen in the bigger systems around us. This is what Bare Necessities is striving to do, to change these systems and make zero-waste living the norm and not the exception. I would encourage others to look at the different areas of their life and start small, making incremental lifestyle changes that will eventually have a big positive impact on the world around them.
Being an entrepreneur can be a high-pressure job. What are 5 mindfulness tips that you consciously practice daily?
- I believe in the power of routines and love my mornings.
- I think unplugging helps create headspace for new ideas and helps you process and grow
- Gratitude journal, every night I write down 3 things I am grateful for
- Fuel my mind with good books and podcast
- Exercise. Honestly, this just centers me and makes me show up better for my team, my family and myself. Like Elle Woods says; exercising releases endorphins and endorphins make you happy!
My mornings are sacred. I try not to use my cell phone from 6 am to 10 am. I wake up at 6 am, I work out, I follow along with yoga, strength training and football drills online with my community of badass women called Sisters in Sweat. I make myself a smoothie bowl or a moong dal dosa while listening to my favourite podcast “How I Build This”, an unpacking of stories behind some of the world’s best-known companies; weaving a personal narrative journey about innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists and the movements they built then I shower, meditate and then start my workday!
What are your future plans and goals in yours and your brand’s commitment towards zero waste and sustainability?
In the future, BN seeks to become an interdisciplinary hub, a home for product designers to design products with a cradle-to-cradle philosophy, a place for policy analysts to work with local government on policy recommendations to manage our waste better, to reduce our waste. A place for behavioural economics, ecologists, researchers, and consumers alike to build the ecosystem towards a circular economy.