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Killing ‘Evil’ Trash During This Year’s Durga Puja Celebrations

man and woman washing dishes at a sink
Photo courtesy of Radhika Iyengar

Many Indian families look forward to October and November. It is a time to celebrate the goddess Durga, who depicts strength and courage to win over evil. This is followed by the Dussehra festival, when we burn the effigies of Ravan. Diwali is the Festival of Lights when we clean our houses so that Goddess Lakshmi can visit our houses.

This year in Millburn, New Jersey, 40 individuals including children came together to celebrate Durga Puja. All clad in our beautiful traditional attires, we rehearsed our performances and were ready to show off our ample talents.

Our group collectively decided that we would cut down on our trash this year. Zero waste as we know is an aspirational goal, but we were determined to achieve it. Planning started among the organizers on how we should cut down on waste. Many considerations followed. Paper or compostable plates? How do we cut down on food waste, including for three full meals plus snacks? How do we educate the food caterer on our mission? We started reviewing our town’s Recycle Coach app to see which items can be recycled. It became a project on its own. At one point in time we were overthinking and it was killing our celebration mood. The point was to enjoy together and appreciate everyone, not to have our brains overworked. So we decided to take baby steps, keeping in mind the bigger picture.

tips for a green celebration
Tips given to the organizing committee by the green committee

We didn’t use paper plates as people would have used multiple plates and the wastage would have doubled. Paper plates also would not hold our curries and white rice, so this idea was dismissed. Compostable plates were an option seriously considered. However, running on a shoestring budget, purchasing compostable dishes made little sense. Also our town is still piloting a composting project, so it was not viable to use that option. Most of the items sold as compostable require commercial composting, so finding a facility in NJ that could compost them would be difficult. We also discussed each family bringing their own utensils. However, that seemed bit overwhelming for families with small kids.

plates, cups and silverware
Bartan Bank came to our rescue by lending us dishes and utensils

Luckily, in Millburn, we have the Bartan Bank, which lends out plates, glasses and utensils and is run by Eco Ambassador Ishika Srivastav. We borrowed enough plates, cups and cutlery sets to cover us all. Plates had to be cleaned after every round. Many families decided to wash their plates individually. Volunteers also took turns washing the dishes, and this helped to distribute the work.

In addition to preventing waste from single-use items, there was less food wastage as compared to using paper plates. As per Indian tradition, food wastage is a strict no as we value each grain on our plate. So kids learned how to finish their meals. Small leftovers were finished by their parents and the same plate was reused by the parent very happily. To our surprise, for a very nominal donation of $5 to the Bartan Bank, it turned to be hugely successful experiment for the community.

Thanks to the Bartan Bank, we were able to reduce plastic use and were also able to complete a big event on a shoestring budget.

Approximate Savings

Plastic plates saved over three meals = 96 = $21

Plastic cups saved = 96 = $10

Plastic cutlery saved = 96 = $10

Number of plastic bottles saved = 32 bottles at $2 per bottle =$64

Total = $105 saved

 minus Bartan Bank fee ($5)

Total savings were $100, which totally worked for our budget.

women in a kitchen
Photo courtesy of Radhika Iyengar

If you plan to use the Bartan Bank:

  • Bring extra aprons for your party — they will save your expensive party attire.
  • Also bring scrubbers, dish cloths for wiping, and dish soap from your home.
  • You will not be lonely washing utensils; many ladies joined and in fact the party moved to the kitchen while chit chatting.
  • Use an assembly line, with one person washing the dishes, another wiping them, and a third stacking them back on the table.
  • Don’t worry too much if you happen to break a cup. The Bartan Bank is very forgiving.

Our major waste reduction was with the plastic water bottles. In our preparatory calls, we asked the families to bring their own re-fillable water bottles. If you can, get a filter.

We did not purchase small chips packets this time, so all plastic wrappers were saved. We had fruits for kids instead, so it was also healthier. In case you have to buy chips or other snacks, you could recycle the bags at Target. But that adds one trip extra, so it’s better to avoid it.

serving trays with marigold flowers in them
Serving trays can be reused to grow marigolds. Photo courtesy of Radhika Iyengar

Other considerations included giving back the cardboard trays to the vendor for re-use, which they happily took since they use them many times. This way we could role model best practices and kids learn sustainable habits the practical way. Remember to spilt into multiple families as these trays require a lot of space. Allot time for distribution at the end of the event. We recently found out that aluminum trays are not recyclable as per the Recycling Coach app. So as the food was finished, the trays were rinsed, wiped and stacked up to return to the vendors. As an even better alternative, we will be using the trays to plant marigold, since they were used for the deity puja. Just spread the flowers, as they have the seeds in them, and the next puja you will be ready with your own flowers.

There was leftover food in the serving trays. In our preparatory calls, we had asked the families to bring their takeaway containers, so all the leftover food was given back to the families. It’s always good to bring extra takeaway containers, just in case you like the mutton curry a lot!

Our celebration did generate some waste. We used paper wipes to clean spills on the table. You can also use cloth scraps. Yogurt containers (Plastic #5) are not the preferred recyclable plastic in our town (as compared to #1 and #2) and thus ended up in the trash cans. You could look for recyclable yogurt options. Aluminum tray covers which were soiled and difficult to clean also had to be thrown away, as did some leftover food and one whole white rice tray that couldn’t be used. All these items brought our trash generated to 7 gallons. Compare this to last year when we had 52 gallons of trash. Our 2021 Durga Puja saved 87% trash this year. Wow!

trash in a trashcan
Photo courtesy of Radhika Iyengar

If you are totally into trash, you could do a trash audit to plan for further reductions in the following year.

Final considerations: Java Compost does event-based food scrap collection, too, which we learned at the very last-minute. If you are planning a party, contact Java Compost ahead of time to take away your food scraps. In that case, label the trash cans “compostable waste” and “going to be burnt.” Some education will be required to avoid contamination. Home-based composting units will not work since the cooked food will have oils.

Did someone say that washing dishes is only for the ladies? Our party proved it wrong. Many husbands helped to wash the utensils. They waited patiently to get their turn. It was also heartwarming to see older kids also wash their plates, true role models for your younger siblings to follow.

In summary, plan your green agenda ahead of time. Remember to take baby steps and be proud of them. Maybe start with 1-2 doable items only. Everyone is eco-friendly, it just takes one or two people to bring it up on the agenda and plan the logistics. EVERYONE chips in, you are not alone!

Let’s make Goddess Durga happy and save her creation by killing trash together. Enjoy your festivities!

Radhika Iyengar is an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development. Apresh Deva, Kumkum Srivastav and Yogita Ahire are residents of Millburn, NJ. 

This story was originally published here.

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