In 2016, freelance illustrator Shubhashree Sangameshwaran stumbled upon a blog by environmental activist Lauren Singer that introduced her to a way of waste management that she had never heard of. The concept did not just intrigue her, it “blew her mind”.

“In one of her posts the [United States-based] activist mentions that she could fit in the waste generated by her in four years in a small jar,” said Sangameshwaran, a resident of Hyderabad. It struck Sangameshwaran that the zero-waste lifestyle, as espoused by Singer, could be the “ideal means to end the humongous volume of trash we generate each year”.

Ecologically conscious herself, this realisation inspired Sangameshwaran to write Let’s Talk Trash, a book that explores the relatively frugal and environmentally-friendly lifestyles of earlier generations. In the author’s note, Sangameshwaran writes: “If you’re getting a bit disgruntled at the state of our planet and wondering where to start, this book is for you. If you’re already ‘woke’ and you carry your own cutlery and #RefuseTheStraw, but some people STILL don’t seem to get it – this book is a perfect gift for them.”

The zero-waste philosophy encourages reuse and recycling. The goal is to reduce and finally eliminate waste materials being sent to landfills. A research article published in the Science Advances, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, says: “As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” The zero-waste lifestyle has gained popularity abroad, especially in the US, with millennials driving the change, but is yet to find similar traction in India.

How it started

Let’s Talk Trash took shape earlier this year when Sangameshwaran, 37, participated in The Sketchbook Project, a crowd-sourced library that features 41,047 artists’ books from over 135 countries. It involves creating a sketchbook based on a theme, which then has to be sent to New York, where it is displayed at the Brooklyn Art Library. For her entry, Sangameshwaran focused on sustainability and recycling. “I found out about the project through an artist I was following on Instagram,” she said. “I was intrigued as it provided a great platform for informal ideas to take wings.”

After sending her sketchbook to New York, she posted pictures of some of its pages on her Instagram account. “...people liked it and enquired if they could buy it. It was then, I decided to publish [it] and my first book was sold at Bhoomi Habba, a sustainability festival in Bengaluru [in June].”

In Let’s Talk Trash, Sangameshwaran uses examples from her childhood to talk about a holistic lifestyle. “I grew up in the ’80s and due to limited incomes in middle-class homes, I witnessed low consumption everywhere,” she said. “My parents still use the glass Horlicks bottles that were bought nearly 40 years ago to store pulses. Steel canisters were used to store oil and milk, and fountain pens were used instead of ballpoint pens. Indian households were pioneers in recycling even before the term became famous as we found constant use for everything from clothes, linen or utensils or even school uniforms.”

She starts the book by listing three ideas that can be used as initial steps towards adopting a zero-waste lifestyle. They include avoiding bottled water (carry a bottle of water from home instead), refusing plastic straws and using cloth bags instead of plastic ones while shopping.

Sangameshwaran, a self-taught artist, brings out the theme through pictures and supplements them with minimal text. Miniature sketches are used to illustrate ideas and tips (under different categories such as kitchen, shopping and party) on how to reuse, recycle and waste less. The book has 36 pages and took her about three months from the initial conception and design to publishing.

Sangameshwaran’s focus was to ensure that young readers responded to the content, which is why she decided to go illustration-heavy. The various tips – like the importance of using cloth and not paper towels that’s part of the ‘In the Kitchen’ chapter – are all explained with the help of simple sketches. “I didn’t want to bring out a text-heavy manual, and illustrations have a way of connecting with people,” she said. Black and white are the only colours used to ensure the images are not overwhelming.

The response to the book, Sangameshwaran says, has been encouraging. “That my book has reached out to kids is gratifying. My friend told me that his 10-year-old daughter refused to use a plastic straw while drinking coconut water after reading the book, much to the amusement of the vendor.” She is currently working on translating the book into other languages.

Shubhashree Sangameshwaran.
Shubhashree Sangameshwaran.

Before Let’s Talk Trash, Sangameshwaran had illustrated a couple of children’s books and worked as a food illustrator for a friend’s baking studio. A software engineer, she worked with various multinational corporations in the early 2000s. A brief stint in an advertising agency reignited her childhood passion of design, starting her off on her journey as a freelance illustrator around four years ago.

How close is she to achieving a zero-waste lifestyle herself? “I’m getting there. I carry my own water bottle, cutlery and bamboo straws while stepping out.” Her advice to others wishing to adopt this practice is to keep it simple. “Things like composting kitchen waste or going to open neighbourhood markets with cloth bags for vegetables always help. Avoid processed food, which comes in plastic [junk food like biscuits and chips] as it is both unhealthy [for you] and unfriendly to the environment.”