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Blue skies, snow-capped mountains, and paragliders shouting with glee as they approach the landing site, in the backdrop of the setting sun.
This was my view as I sat with my legs stretched across the terrace railing, with a cup of the local Himalayan herbal tea.
I had been in Bir, a tiny mountain town in northern India, for three days now, enjoying nature, forest hikes, and gorgeous views. But what stood out for me was that this small, but popular town had no waste management system in place. There was no garbage collection, no recycling, no landfills, no municipal department.
How can a place with a reasonable population of itself and a steady flow of visitors (it’s the number one paragliding destination in India) have no trash management? What happens to the wrapper of the cookies I had with my tea? Where does all the garbage go?
The hostel where I stayed had a strict policy that guests take back every piece of trash they generate—wrappers, soda cans, plastic water bottles, even the small bits of medicine covering. That’s when they told me that most mountain towns in India have no organized trash collection. Most of the trash is burnt in small batches in a mini-bonfire by local neighbourhoods, and the things that cannot be burnt, such as plastic, metal wrappers, and glass bottles, are just dumped in a ditch behind a hill or river.
This broke my heart.
On the one hand, we have nature’s most magnificent creation—the majestic Himalayas. On the other, we are not just destroying their beauty, but permanently poisoning the elements—the toxic smoke from the burning of trash, and the chemicals leaching into the soil from the dumped trash, as well as into the river. And worse, the wild animals get hurt too when they end up eating the trash or getting stuck in it.
That is why the hostel had a strict “leave no trace” policy. Leave nothing that you got with you or acquired during your stay; better still, take some extra trash with you back to the city when you leave.
Of course, none of this was convenient. My friends and I had gone for a holiday, and now we had to carry around our trash?
That’s when I noticed a colourful mural on the wall of the open dining area in the hostel. It was a painting of planet earth, one part of which was overrun by cities, industries, cars, and things, and the other had trees, clean rivers and oceans, and animals and humans coexisting joyfully. The first part was the path of “convenience” while the other was the path of “compassion.”
The big, bold lettering said: “Compassion over convenience.”
It has been over two years since my visit to Bir, and not a single day passes when I don’t think of that phrase. Everything I do, every action, every thought—I run it through the filter of “compassion over convenience.”
I ask myself the questions:
Is this necessary?
Do I need this?
What are the alternatives?
A lot of times the alternatives are not easy, rather, they are quite inconvenient. They may require more effort, more time, and more planning. I am often tempted to go back to my old habits, but I cannot get the mural out of my mind, nor the ongoing destruction of our beautiful nature that I had seen.
Here are five things that I have changed in the past year to help reduce my impact on the destruction of the ecological systems:
1. Use public transport.
It is not fun at all to take the busy public transport in the city, but I remind myself, “compassion over convenience.”
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2. No carry bags.
This is non-negotiable. It has become so much of a part of my life that if I forget my cloth bags, I don’t buy my groceries. Yes, I really want to buy those juicy mangoes, but “compassion over convenience.”
3. No single-use items.
Not even the ones made with bio-degradable materials. Even if they are bio-degradable, they still create pollution when they are manufactured, transported, and packaged. Also, most of these are not naturally bio-degradable but “compostable” in special facilities. Most places don’t have these facilities yet.
So, no paper straws, no paper cups, no paper napkins either. I carry my own cloth napkin, straw, utensils, and coffee mug. It requires a bit of planning, effort, and a lot of discipline. But, “compassion over convenience.”
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4. Eliminating most packaged products.
If it comes in any sort of packaging, it’s a no-no for me. Sometimes, we don’t have many options—many daily grocery items are packaged. When I started to minutely observe each and everything that I was buying, I realized so much of it was unnecessary. I’ll make an exception now and then, give myself a little treat sometimes—a bag of potato chips, or some vegan ice cream. Else, most of the yummy snacks are out of my life.
Why so rigid, my friends ask—because, “compassion over convenience.”
5. Take my own containers for left-over food, in restaurants.
Embarrassing? Initially, it was. Anytime I start to feel conscious of people around me giving me strange looks, I say to myself, “compassion over convenience.”
BONUS TIP: One I believe is the most impactful—live a plant-based life. Animal agriculture is one of the most eco-damaging activities on the planet, more than driving, more than flying, more than fossil fuel burning. After 11 years of being vegan, trust me, it is not even that inconvenient. Unless you are taking a quick KFC or McD’s takeout, of course. Nothing beats that level of convenience.
These are some of the things that I already do, and every day, I strive to add more changes to make my daily life more eco-friendly.
Do share in the comments your ideas of what more could be done, and what you are already doing or plan to do.