Lockdown Lessons: Is Our Wasteful Generation of Plenty Finally Learning to Ration?


Lockdown Lessons: Is Our Wasteful Generation of Plenty Finally Learning to Ration?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A miraculous thing happened on an evening last week in our household – our fridge was empty! Yes, I know, that’s an odd thing to celebrate, especially in the time of a lockdown when panic-buying and hoarding have become second nature. But there was a reason my wife and I high-fived seeing empty shelves. For the first time in a long, long time, we’d used up all our veggies and groceries. Everything. Nothing was left to go limp or cross its expiry date and then thrown away.

Ever since the lockdown, we’ve gotten a lot more conscious of quantity and wastage. I don’t mean to say I was profligate before – but I would easily over-order both food and groceries, and some would inevitably go to waste despite best efforts to preserve them. It turns out even the “it might work in a smoothie” excuse has its limits.

But now, possibly out of guilt – the stories of millions starving because of the lockdown are unmissable. Scarcity or survival, we’ve learned to ration out everything, and have actually ended up using a lot less. We use just the right number of ingredients, don’t overdo it with the eggs, and learn to finish leftovers instead of giving in to the temptation of ordering. I’m proud and ashamed at the same time to admit that after a long time, I haven’t seen that all-too-familiar green fuzz of fungus grow on a half-eaten watermelon, or random bowls with last Tuesday’s chicken gravy, or shrivelled cucumbers (isn’t it amazing how you feel this BigBasket order is the one where you’re going to eat healthy – every single time?).

And it’s not just food, but everything else around the house as well. Two capfuls of detergent means two capfuls. Coffee powder is reused to extract maximum juice and then used as face wash (try it!). Broth is used to make other dishes. One wet wipe to clean up the computer will do, not three. Old clothes have replaced kitchen wipes. Over a fortnight of experimenting and much angry miaowing, we’ve figured out exactly how much to feed our cats, resulting in (almost) no waste. I’ve even cut down on some subscriptions I don’t use. Heck, even the paper on which I write drafts of my articles are being optimised, utilising every square cm. As I indulge in such over-optimising, I realise our parents were aces at such things: Why buy a new dabba when the biscuit box could be used? Why throw the malai when it can be used to make ghee?


Told ya. This is a meta image.

Anecdotal evidence from friends suggest this is not just me who has felt this sudden urge for resource parsimony. One who is quite skilled in the culinary arts gave several tips on how to get “more out of less” ingredients, a series that was much appreciated by noob chefs. For example, increasing shelf life of vegetables by pureeing and freezing. Turning shriveled veggies into curries, and over-ripe fruits into smoothies. Someone else has managed to use food waste to make compost. Those mugs from NH7 Weekender are now someone’s planters.

Indeed, over 80 per cent of respondents of a poll I ran on Twitter said they had become more mindful of their usage and wastage (one poor fellow had his fridge conk off, and now purchases two days’ veggies in one go, once being forced to have idlis for eight days straight to finish off his batter). And lastly – you knew this was coming – someone asked how to maximise his, er, stash.

Over and above food, the most obvious thing we are attempting to ration is money – with all the uncertainty of an economic slowdown and job culls doing the rounds, everyone is trying to cut back on unnecessary expenses (of course, it also helps that there are no restaurants and concerts to go to).

I’m a big fan of our generation, but I have to admit we’re a wasteful one. This is probably because we’ve grown up in an era of plenty, abetted by apps where we can get anything delivered at the touch of a button, often unaware of how much quantity it physically is (woe betide the person unaware of how much 500g of dhaniya is). What’s more, our new economy is built on disposability: appliances like phones are replaced every few years, sometimes even engineered for maximum churn, adding to a massive e-waste problem. Even our clothing has gone this way – Hasan Minhaj’s recent The Patriot Act episode on the environmental damage brought about by fast fashion highlights this.

All this is summed up nicely in a book titled Waste of a Nation. “Never in history have so many people had so much to throw away and so little space to throw it as the people of India in the second decade of the twenty-first century,” the authors, Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey write. But the coronavirus threatens to change everything – be it businesses, healthcare systems, education, live entertainment, and hopefully, our wasteful habits. All articles on saving money will inevitably have a shockingly simple point – buy and consume less. (Indians waste $14b worth of food every year!) Now, by necessity, we’ll need to consume less, and hopefully make that a habit. This might be forced by anti-hoarding restrictions placed by e-commerce platforms, social pressure, and possibly even paycuts and job losses.

Scarcity or survival, we’ve learned to ration out everything, and have actually ended up using a lot less.

Frankly, another reason we’ll learn to waste less is just the fact that we’re spending a lot more time at home! Which means that we discover just how much stuff we have, and can be more careful while ordering stuff. This helps particularly to cut down on food (which is perishable) waste.

This extends to other aspects of life. We will, hopefully, learn to use things more meaningfully and carefully. This might be by necessity – if you screw up your phone, you won’t have a service centre to take it to and despite my espousal of DIY earlier, there are some things you’d rather a professional have a look at. At a country level, I hope that our famously inefficient public distribution system (which wastes 40% of food produced) will tighten up – again, driven by necessity than an actual push for reform.

These are some good habits the pandemic will force us to adopt (along with improved personal hygiene, empathy for delivery personnel, respect for life, etc). Hopefully, some of these habits persist post this ruddy pandemic. For the first time, it looks like a generation that’s had an embarrassment of riches is reckoning with rationing, and we’ll all be better off for it. “Buy less, consume less, waste less” is pretty much the only way individuals can make any meaningful individual contribution to fighting climate change – so the planet stands to benefit as well.

In the meantime, if anyone knows how to get the maximum out of “stash”, I have a friend who could desperately use a tip or two.