Sri Lankans are well-versed in the business of recycling things but not always in ways you’d expect. And this holds true even in the face of growing concern about the pollution that is prevalent across the country. Happily, there are plenty of green initiatives coming up to make waste materials reusable and to rid the land of pollution. However, that is not the kind of recycling that Sri Lanka is notorious for. What we are really talking about here are some age-old, die hard recycling mechanisms, passed down from grandmothers across generations.
Ice cream tubs. There’s at least one (or six) in every fridge. While the typical half-life for ice cream in a Sri Lankan household is incredibly short, the duration period of the tub it came in is a different matter entirely. Nevermind that it advertises ice cream on top, and nevermind that an unsuspecting member of the household might see it in the fridge and think “Ice cream!” only to have their innocent hopes shattered almost instantly. A Sri Lankan will fill an ice cream tub with whatever food they can squeeze in it. But more often than not, the post-ice cream contents of an ice cream tub tend to be the leftovers of some delicious sweets or meat and/or vegetable curry that was just too good to be thrown away.
Lunchboxes? We rarely do that here. For one thing, you can’t read any interesting newsworthy articles on a lunchbox. Also, once you are done eating, you have to wash that thing before it starts to smell. Here in Sri Lanka, we have an alternative: Newspapers. It’s a simple, dual layered process. First, you prepare your food and wrap it up in a sheet of thin plastic. Then you place it either dead centre or to one side of the newspaper (preferably one that you have already read), then wrap it up again and you’re good to go. Just know that the packaging is incredibly delicate and should not be subjected to mild weight, moisture, tropical sunshine, or strong gravitational forces (daredevil drivers, you know who you are) at any point prior to or during consumption. (Also, toss it in the recycling bin once you’re done with it!)
There’s no way around it. Sri Lankans were reusing plastic way before reusing plastic was culturally relevant; and there is no greater evidence for this than our reuse of silli-silli shopping bags. Every home has their own epic collection of these and they do come in handy very often. For example, if you want to keep your shoes packed separately next to your clothes, you use a silli-silli bag. If you want to store your pol sambol in the fridge for later but can’t find an ice cream tub to spare, you use a silli-silli bag. God forbid, if your collection of silli-silli bags is getting out of hand and you need to organise them into one compact space, you use a—you guessed it— silli-silli bag.
Proper water bottles are yet another addition to the list of things Sri Lankans typically walk past when they are at the supermarket. The usual reason for this is that by the time we make it to the shelf that has proper water bottles, we take a second to glance down at the numerous soft drink or alcohol bottles that are already in our shopping cart and think yep, they could very well double as water bottles if they needed to. After all, they are not too bulky to carry around, you can buy them pre-filled with a tasty beverage, and they can hold a desirable amount of water. Hence, they render so-called “proper” water bottles a complete waste of money.
These started out in the market as jam jars. Inevitably, however, the jam would run out and the future purpose of the jar it came in would depend squarely on the creativity of the jam buyer. Fortunately, Sri Lankan jam buyers lack no creativity when it comes to storage methods. So, the empty jam jars are swiftly put to good use, storing everything from condiments to soups, and spices (And even buttons!). No true Sri Lankan pantry cupboard would be complete without them.
The last item on our list of alternative uses that Sri Lankans give to everyday objects is also one that the international community can actually relate to. This is evidenced by how many times it has been circulated around meme pages. It is also perhaps the first moment in every child’s life when they discover that life isn’t always what you’d expect it to be. You may open that biscuit tin having every reason to believe there’s a crunchy snack in there, but instead, you find a bewildering collection of fabric, thread, scissors, and needles. Hurts, doesn’t it?