Cover Story

Why Green Parenting is not optional

On the eve of Earth Day (April 22), ParentsWorld interviewed environment experts and parents who have taken the lead in teaching children to Go Green from infancy - K.P. Malini

When Rajesh Shah returned from the US to India in 2007 with his family comprising wife Vallari, a mediator, gardener and dancer, and two children Parthiv and Tarang to live in Bangalore, a nature-friendly lifestyle was top of his agenda. An electronics engineer and water conservationist, Shah and his wife constructed Laughing Waters Eco Home, an environment-friendly home in Whitefield, Bangalore. 

“We were early adopters of sustainable living in our new city. Our home is 99 percent solar-powered with 90 percent of our vegetables needs sourced from our own garden nurtured with home-made compost. We are a 99 percent chemicals-free family with even our household cleaning materials being free of chemicals. And contrary to popular belief, leading a sustainable lifestyle is an inexpensive proposition,” says Vallari.

A compelling reason for the couple to Go Green was the desire to raise their children in an eco-friendly environment. “We wanted our children to reconnect with nature and help us in reducing our carbon footprint. Therefore, we all resolved to follow an alternative sustainable lifestyle. For instance, my children cycle or take the bus to school and carry water in non-plastic bottles,” says Shah.

Gradually, there is dawning awareness around the world that Planet Earth is staring at an unprecedented environmental crisis. Global warming, climate change, destruction of natural habitats of wildlife and plants, air and water pollution, rising sea water levels due to meltdown of polar ice caps, are chipping away at our environment and threatening mankind, and children in particular. Around the world there’s rising awareness among governments, education institutions and households that the impending environmental disaster needs immediate attention and lifestyles changes.

The US-based Earth Day Network (EDN, estb. 1995), which coordinates annual Earth Day (April 22) celebrations worldwide, has announced that its focus this year will be on “ending plastics pollution”, which is choking rivers, lakes and oceans and degrading soils around the world. Therefore, EDN has initiated a global movement to regulate the disposal of single-use plastics, promote alternatives to fossil fuel-based packaging materials and 100 percent recycling of plastics, through “corporate and government accountability and changing human behaviour”.

Obviously, this initiative can’t be a one-off event; it has to be sustained for several generations. That’s why EDN leaders accord great importance to environment education and adoption of sustainable lifestyles from children’s earliest years. Leaders of the global Go Green movement which is swelling into a tidal wave, firmly believe that if Planet Earth is to be saved from the reckless despoliation and depredations of mankind, environment awareness and education of the next generation must begin at home from early age.

Dr. Shyna Prasanth, a veterinary surgeon with the Kerala Government Health Services, tends a vegetable garden at her home in Nadapuram, North Kerala, which she maintains together with her two children. “I enrich the vegetable garden with slurry from my biogas plant and use cow dung powder and neem oil cakes as manure. All household waste is transformed into energy in the biogas plant, which also provides me fuel for cooking,” she says.

According to Prasanth, tending the family’s kitchen garden also provides opportunities to chat with her children, and to give them hands-on biology and environment sciences education. “Children love digging up soil, planting seeds, watering plants and watching them sprout, grow and flower. Establishing a kitchen garden and installing an eco-friendly waste disposal system at home are simple, first steps every household should take towards saving our endangered planet,” advises Prasanth.

Chennai-based environment activist Alladi Mahadevan, founder of The Organic Farm, is fully in sync with EDN’s initiative to eliminate single-use plastics from our daily lives. For this initiative to become sustainable, involvement of children from youngest age is of critical importance. Research by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a UK-based NGO, indicates that in 2016 over 320 million tons of plastic waste was generated globally. Of this India generates 62 million tonnes which translates into 15,000 tonnes per day. 

“Proliferating plastic waste which is choking our rivers and oceans and degrading the soil is the biggest environmental challenge confronting the world. It’s not so well known that a plastic bottle has a lifespan of 450 years in a marine environment and our landfills and water bodies are full of them. Parents, teachers, adults and children need to unite to make the world free of plastic waste. They can start by steadfastly refusing to buy fruits and vegetables packed in plastic packaging,” says Mahadevan.

According to Mahadevan, a household produces about 1 kg of kitchen waste daily. “There are over 2.5 million households in Chennai; therefore the total waste accumulated is mind-boggling. We need to co-opt the next generation and introduce them to sustainable waste disposal practices. If not the consequences will be terrible,” he warns. 

Although most middle class parents are aware that Planet Earth is confronted with an unprecedented meltdown crisis which requires urgent switchover to sustainable living and lifestyles, they tend to regard the open, continuous and uninterrupted despoliation of the environment as a creeping international disaster over which they have no control. To such parents (and children) Sultan Ismail, a Chennai-based soil biologist and director of the Ecoscience Research Foundation, suggests a simple, micro-level solution to recycle daily wet or kitchen  waste to transform it into nutrient-rich soil and compost for restoring trees and gardens in every neighbourhood. “Take seven boxes and label them Monday to Sunday. Each day, pack wet kitchen waste in the day’s box, and spread a handful of soil in each box every day. At the end of the week, the mix in the boxes can be used as compost for plant life. That’s a good way to start,” says Ismail.

Schools are also taking the lead in educating and involving children in environment conservation programmes. For instance last November, schools in Kannur, Kerala, launched Collectors@School, a programme which encourages students to collect old plastic items for recycling. In Mumbai, the Smt. Sulochanadevi Singhania School, Thane, has nurtured a botanical spice and butterfly garden with water pond, vermicompost arena and mini-aquarium which serve as informal learning spaces where children learn about medicinal plants, waste recycling and management, and environment conservation. 

“Children are naturally predisposed towards loving and nurturing flora and fauna. Therefore examination boards such as CBSE, CISCE and especially state exam boards, should accord much greater importance to environment education than they are doing currently. This also means that environment science textbooks should be written carefully by lovers of nature and the environment to engage students and children. Right now none of the above is happening. Mere lip service is paid to ecology and environment preservation in school curriculums,” says the former headmaster of a top-ranked boarding school in Nilgiris where the forest cover is depleting rapidly and plastic waste is ubiquitous. 

The silver lining to dark toxic clouds of chemicals and pollutants-intensive smog and haze looming over urban India is that a rising number of entrepreneurs are stepping up to offer green products and solutions to parents and children. Bangalore-based Jiten and Divya Grover have developed natural-dyed clothing, re-usable cotton diapers, chemicals-free soaps, bath powders, oils and organic foods for infants and new mothers. “Educated young parents are becoming environmentally conscious and want clean and healthy environments for their children. They understand that making eco-friendly decisions such as using cloth instead of disposable diapers, natural soaps, oils, and organic infant food are nature friendly and don’t degrade the environment. This is traditional knowledge in rural India and has been practiced for centuries. School syllabuses and curriculums should acknowledge this and encourage — rather than disparage — the ecology-friendly practices of rural India which need to be revived and glorified,” says Jiten Grover, who together with his wife Divya market eco-friendly consumer products on an online site named EarthBaby.

Similarly Kochi-based Lakshmi Menon, eco-evangelist, designer and founder of PURE (Products Up-cycled, Recycled and Economised) Living, a firm which promotes sustainable livelihood solutions, has produced a range of eco-friendly school stationery. “We have invented a Rolapen — a pen encased in paper instead of plastic, a Rolapencil inside newspaper waste instead of wood, and EnTree pen made from waste paper which also has a seed inside which can be planted,” says Menon.

While all these pioneer initiatives — proof that there’s a rising awareness of an unprecedented ecology and environment despoliation threat which disregards all national boundaries and could destroy mankind — are welcome, they need to be propagated and scaled up. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution of the mid-18th century, all countries and nations have adopted — or aspired to adopt — economic development models which have recklessly plundered Planet Earth’s natural resources, degraded its soil with chemical fertilisers and pesticides and despoiled its once pristine rivers, lakes and water bodies. 

Now in the 21st century after the dawn of the new ICT (information communication technologies) and artificial intelligence revolution, the species homo sapiens has the opportunity to switch to a new and more sustainable economic development model which repairs the damage inflicted upon Mother Earth for over two centuries, and promote nature-respectful industries, businesses and lifestyles. And given the urgency of the situation environment education must be dispensed not only in education institutions but in every home to children from youngest age. Green parenting is not an option but the mandate of every responsible parent. 

Rainwater harvesting primer

Come summer, every Indian household experiences water shortage. Rainwater harvesting (RWH) — the science of collecting and storing rainwater or recharging groundwater resources — is a simple solution to ending water shortage in your home. Though most local governments in India have made it compulsory for residential apartments and commercial buildings as well as standalone homes to install RWH systems, this directive has remained in the rule books.

A civil engineering alumna of IIT-Bombay and currently senior water consultant, BIOME Environmental Solutions Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore, Shubha Ramachandran believes that if one-third of the rainfall every village, town and city receives, is stored for re-use and/or canalised into wells, the country’s chronic water shortage problem will be substantially resolved. “Rainwater can be conserved by way of rooftop storage or recharging ground water reserves. Rooftop RWH units can be installed on any building; and don’t require re-roofing. Moreover as most buildings are equipped with pipes to drain rainwater from terraces, they can be conjoined to canalise rainwater into collection tanks, which can be purchased and installed at a cost of Rs.8,000-10,000. In new buildings, an RWH system can be integrated into the design blueprint,” explains Ramachandran. 

“Similarly, ground water reserves can be recharged by canalising rainwater into existing wells, borewells and restored wells. This can also be done for as little as Rs.8,000 for old wells, though for new wells or borewells the cost can go upto Rs.50,000,” adds Ramachandran.

Installation of RWH systems apart, freshwater can also be recycled to conserve water resources and optimise usage. Of the freshwater normally used in households, 80 percent transforms into waste water which can either be grey or black water. 

Typically, greywater out of bathrooms, washing machines, and contains contaminants such as phosphates, foaming agents of soaps and detergents. On the other hand, blackwater flows out of toilets and kitchens and contains nitrates, pathogens and chemicals.

“Greywater contains fewer pathogens than blackwater and is easier to treat and reuse. Typically, a four-member household generates 360 litres of greywater and 120 litres of blackwater daily. Instead of wasting it, greywater can be mildly treated and reused for non-potable purposes such as toilet-flushing, car wash and gardening,” says Ramachandran. 

Start your own terrace garden

A carefully tended terrace/balcony garden can provide your family with a regular supply of safe vegetables while slashing the household budget.

Getting started

A 30 sq. ft terrace or balcony area is sufficient for leafy vegetables to top up your daily/weekly purchases. A larger terrace of 1,000 sq. ft could fulfill half the monthly greens requirements of a family of four.

• Get hold of a pot or container such as a crate or bucket. Mix soil, coir peat (sand) and vermicompost in equal quantities to make a compost.

• Cover the drainage exit (if any) at the bottom of the pot/container with a ceramic tile or flat stone. Fill the container with the compost mixture.

• Add water to the compost mix, checking that soil isn’t discharged through the drainage exit at the bottom.

• Plant seeds or sapling in the pot. Please note that vegetables require direct sunlight, but if the sunlight is harsh, use a green shade or canopy to provide cover. Also bear in mind that vegetable seeds need to be watered twice daily. During the rains, don’t water the plants because too much water washes away nutrients from the compost. 

• Water proofing of the roof/balcony is also essential, before you start your garden.  
Easy to grow veggies

When choosing vegetables to grow, select frequently required greens for everyday meals — curry leaves, coriander, fenugreek, gram, chilly. Balcony spaces can also be used to grow greens such as spinach, beans, basil, thyme, coriander, curry leaves and methi. 

Tomatoes and brinjal grow well in pots. Plants such as bitter gourd add beauty to small balconies because they are climbers. You could also grow aloe vera, tulsi and turmeric plants.