Disheartened by the inaction of civil authorities, a growing group of environmentalists — self-styled ‘Do-No-Trashers’ — have taken matters into their own hands towards a zero-trash and plastic-free hill city. Writer Aashima Dogra shares their story.
Change is constant, they say. But in any average city in India, piles of trash never really go away. Despite several directives banning single-use plastics, they keep piling up. Cows chomping dirty plastic bags is a common sight. Stalemate of city-wide greening initiatives, due to corruption involving the garbage mafia in Mumbai and Bangalore among others, only adds insult to injury.
In Dehradun, the capital of the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, the sights in many street corners are no less offending. Moreover, the plastic problem looks starker against the backdrop of mighty serene mountains. But one volunteer-led, hyper-local initiative named Do-No-Trash is slowly but surely bringing lasting citizen-led transformation in the Himalayan city.
Do-No-Trash is a physical and digital space that has become an important resource on the road to making Dehradun truly a plastic-free, clean city. Do-No-Trash volunteers are always eager to get involved at various local events, be it small birthday parties, large professional conferences, weekly farmer’s markers, and even at schools to distribute plastic free alternatives to cups, banners, and packaging.
The group share evidence-based research on plastic toxicity to health and environmental health, engaging with visitors to the city by facilitating waste free nature walks in the surrounding Doon Valley with tourism initiatives like Been There Doon That. The aim for Do-No-Trash volunteers is to make way, by any means, for local individual changes, without the usual chiding tone of a green-sermon. Their banks of plates, cutlery, and cool and engaging posters are a call for action that can be collected at any time from the Do-No-Trash premises, which also offers space for community meetings, workshops, art exhibitions, and recently, a zero-waste shop.
What started off in 2017 as a Facebook page took shape as a series of informal sessions on home composting and segregating garbage within the neighbourhood, has now transformed into a toolbox for a less toxic life in Dehradun.
Do-No-Trash is a loosely held group that can be seen as the collective action of hundreds of people asking for systemic change, while demonstrating what a zero-trash life could look like. The idea is that change begins with individual resolve, and is sustained by transforming behaviours of populations. This is the formula that Do-No-Trash has tried, tested and according to founder Soumya Prasad, even perfected.
“We managed to bring about transformation within this city. We could now take this model to other cities, where it can be adapted to suit local realities,” she says. Efforts towards twinning the Dehradun model with a city in Germany are currently underway, with funding from the DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service.
Soumya is a firm believer in the pragmatic idea that true systemic change is made possible by individuals asking for state-level changes they have already made in their own lives in some way. “I find, if you want to actually… practically address the plastic problem, the only way to get it done is to go down to the smallest local scale and work with individuals,” she says.
An ecologist by profession, Soumya studies seed dispersal in Indian forests. Her experience tells her the one thing needed for people to make greener choices is a motivational spark, or as she calls it in Hindi, “dimaag ki batti”.
“There are different triggers for different people that push them towards changing their own behaviour. The same story doesn’t work for everybody. Our research has shown that women respond more to health risks, and everyone responds to low carbon alternatives that can save them money,” Soumya says.
Do-No-Trash’s approach stands on it being hyper-local. And it can only truly work if their solutions are scaled. The tasks ahead of these citizen-volunteers are vast: sustainability education, applied ecology, and behavioral change. But Soumya is herself not motivated by such a macro-characterisation of their work. “I did modelling for ecological changes for many years as an academic, I know how to do it on the back of my hand.” But where is the impact of all this academic work?
Soumya is especially disheartened by her “deeply dissatisfying”’ experiences with civic authorities. “There are severe issues at that level of policy and its implementation in Indian cities… and corruption is at the core of it,” she says.
Events and school workshops were no longer possible during the coronavirus lockdown. Yet, the Do-No-Trash shop has flourished. They stock local foods, gifts, and body care products sourced from small scale makers in the surrounding rural areas. These are often women working from their homes, Soumya points out. None of these products have a large carbon trail behind them.
The shop activities of Do-No-Trash are important for two reasons, Soumya tells us. One is that these locally made products come with very low margins of profit that prevent many shops from stocking them. Secondly, it offers up several tangible ‘green’ ideas that start and sustain conversations about plastic toxicity and climate change. Each product has the distinct feel and flavour of the mountains, like the beloved chilli pickle or the daatun (toothbrush twigs) made with bark of the Arjun tree. Online orders are fulfilled by volunteers safely via a simple app. “We are strictly local not just in the sourcing but also in the selling. We will not be making deliveries to far flung cities,” Soumya says.
Do-No-Trash’s bespoke, local initiative and creative ideas are an antidote to one-size-fits-all solution. You can join their efforts in other cities, engage with their many online resources, and generally support their ongoing activities as they look to grow as a model initiative for action, in their birth country and beyond.