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Is zero waste a privilege? Here 5 upcycling ideas

5 things we can learn from developing countries

The zero-waste lifestyle is more than buying reusables; instead, there is a lot of upcycling that can be done. Here some ideas to do zero-waste. Effortlessly.

When we think of developing countries like India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam in terms of their environmental efforts… sadly many of us think of dirt, piles of trash and plastic, masses of polluting factories and dye centers pumping toxins into rivers. 

Is this a problem? 100%

Is this a problem in many developing countries? 100% 

Is this a problem for all of us worldwide? 100%

Yet, something that perhaps, isn’t so well known about these countries is that while the rest of the world works on minimizing their plastic usage through sparkling zero plastic pop-ups and flashy soda streams, the need to be resourceful throughout these countries’ generations has woven its way into everyday life. 

Being environmentally conscious, zero-waste, and zero-plastic is sometimes seen as a privilege because often times we are being sold more expensive ‘eco’ options. But being eco isn’t about flaunting that new bamboo spork or shimmying around in Tencel yoga pants – not that there is anything wrong with it, but there are far simpler economic ways to be zero-waste and eco-friendly. 

Many traditional ways of re-using resources have been continually passed down through generations in developing countries and this is something that, perhaps, we in the West can learn from.

1. The magical tiffin box 

My first example of this is lunchtime in a local Indian school. Now, picture your own lunchbox or your child’s lunchbox. Clingfilmed sandwiches, babybell’s, chocolates or crisps, and a fruit shoot bottle is what springs to my mind, having grown up in the 2000s. Regardless of the era, plastic on plastic was and is still commonplace for takeaway eats. However, in India – none of the sort. 

I experienced first-hand the children’s lunches as they proudly fed me ‘my mum’s bhindi masala’ or ‘my grandma’s aloo jeera’ and asked me my thoughts on the mind-blowingly spicy assortments being pushed into my mouth by their fingers. All the children had been: their 4 levels stacked high metal tiffin boxes filled to the brim with fresh curries or rice inside. They all shared a metal cup for water and used their fingers instead of plastic cutlery. Zero plastic effortlessly. 

Is zero waste a privilege? Here 5 Upcycling ideas
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2. Retro upcycled parcels 

Spending time in the UK over Christmas, I felt permanently frazzled by the amount of packaging being chucked aside as friends and family rushed off their feet with work as well as festive prep meant that they were ordering vast amounts from Amazon Prime.

Now, of course, all countries have this global giant looming over their past traditions as well as Deliveroo, Zomato, Grab, Uber Eats, and all the other door-to-door services. Yet like most of Asia, the tradition continues to be a large part of the culture so throughout small villages, suburban towns, and even large cities it is impossible to ignore the groovy looking packages being packed in high towers on pushcarts to be loaded on trains. 

Why groovy you may ask? Instead of using cardboard or plastic or bubble wrap, the locals use old fabrics, saris, and waste materials that are made into makeshift bags and tied up to hold the content securely. Zero plastic effortlessly.

Is zero waste a privilege? Here 5 Upcycling ideas
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3. Make, Do & Mend spirit 

Home as the world’s factory, Asia as a continent produces approximately 1/3 of all clothing in the world. Therefore, it is no surprise that there is a surplus of tailors on street corners tapping away on their vintage 50s singer sewing machines or cobblers wondering the streets with every type of retro-looking tool in their beaten-up briefcase – ready for any shoe emergency. 

Instead of going out to buy new clothes or shoes every week, in Vietnam and Cambodia, it is common for locals to get their clothes, buttons, zips, and shoes all fixed. Taking us back to the very same era as their sewing machines, the make do and mend spirit that we thank our grandparents for is ever prevalent in these cultures. 

When getting your shoes fixed, polished, and cleaned or your jeans zipper replaced is more convenient than going to buy new pieces, who in their right mind would even bother to traipse through Primark? Zero waste effortlessly.

Is zero waste a privilege? Here 5 Upcycling ideas
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4. Reusable glass bottles

Wherever you travel in the world it is pretty much universally acknowledged that you can find a branded carbonated drink somewhere close by. In England, we have off-licenses, American convenience stores, bodegas in central America, corner shops in India, market stalls in SE Asia and so on. 

While they all sell similar brands, junk food, and snacks; one major difference is the way they are packaged and sold. In many ways, Asia’s resourcefulness and money-saving efforts work out to be more sustainable. 

Often times glass bottles are filled with fresh soda then sold to the consumer, yet instead of chucking this bottle away, the customer is asked to drink on the spot and return the bottle, which will then be cleaned and refilled for the next person. If you are absolutely incessant about taking away, you can pay extra for the glass bottle itself. Zero waste effortlessly.

Is zero waste a privilege? Here 5 Upcycling ideas
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5. Thrift stores and second-hand markets

Okay, yes we have amazing vintage markets and car boot sales in the UK and the West. But one rainy day I found myself killing time before my diving excursion in Cebu city, the large city on the stunning archipelago of Cebu Island. As I walked around scouting for culture or tasty veggie food which was seemingly difficult to find, I stumbled across a street bursting at the seams with clothing waste.

Sadly, it is common for developed countries in Europe and America to ship off their clothing waste for less rich countries to sort through and this is exactly what I had found. Thrift store after thrift store selling everything from 15 PHP to 70 PHP clothes (approximately 24p – 1.15) was a ‘last chance before landfill’ sale and there were some real hidden gems from Levi’s dungarees to silk blouses.

While this isn’t zero waste per se, Western countries could gather these clothes and make them into a fashionable kilo sale to minimize their waste and landfill debris. Zero waste potential.

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Alana Redick

Alana Redick is a sustainable and socially conscious entrepreneur that has spent over 3 years travelling around Asia learning about eco and ethical fashion. She now owns an ethical brand named TryKind Clothing that empowers women, sustains natural resources and is 100% vegan. For the last year she has been living in the foothills of the Himalayas surrounded by permaculture farms, yoga and a town that has banned meat. From the age of 4 she decided to be vegetarian and never looked back, somehow that decision has been the driving force for her entire lifestyle!

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