A handful of discards, loosely packed in a 500ml glass jar. That’s all the trash generated in five months by Tin Fong Yun and her husband Lau Tzeh Wei. Many have pooh-poohed the idea of a zero-waste lifestyle but here is one couple who shows that it is possible to live a life with practically no rubbish.
In January, they embarked on a mission to be waste-free this year. By sticking to certain rules and careful planning, they have almost eliminated trash from their lives. What’s in that jar is stuff which they cannot recycle or compost, and has to go to the rubbish dump – things like used plasters, pill blister packs, dental floss, plastic bits like part of a SIM card, sticky price labels, and airline luggage tags.
The idea behind the zero waste movement is to produce as little trash as possible as the world around us is turning into one big rubbish dump.
Tin, an environmental journalist in a local Chinese newspaper, was driven to be a part of it also because she felt that her writings alone would not stop the environmental degradation. There was an urge to do more.
“If I do it, I can influence more people. Many of my friends are green-minded and know the need to protect the environment but they don’t know what to do. For them, the environment is too big but I can show them that they can start small initially. Each Malaysian produces over 1kg of waste every day. If everyone does this, we can make a change.
“When people see my jar, they’re stunned that it is possible to reduce trash to that amount. It makes them think. Personally, it shows me what I have produced, and so what I should avoid in future.”
Going zero waste also appeases the 28-year-old’s personal guilt. “When I’m writing, I like to snack on chocolates. I felt like a hypocrite, telling people to stop polluting the sea when I myself am throwing away chocolate wrappers. By going zero waste, I can eliminate that guilt.”
Like many zero waste devotees, Tin was inspired by the books No Impact Man by Colin Beavan and Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, which detailed how two American families abandoned their high-consumption lifestyle for a sustainable one that leaves little waste.
“I’ve always separated my waste for recycling and shop with a reusable bag. I thought that was good enough but now, I know that I didn’t do my best. When you start examining your lifestyle, you’ll learn that there are more things you can do. Going for a zero-waste lifestyle makes me study my habits and make changes.”
(She shares her experience at www.facebook.com/happyzerotrash.)
To be waste-free, she follows the 5R mantra adopted by zero wasters worldwide:
Refuse what you do not need.
Reduce what you do need.
Reuse what you have.
Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse.
Rot the rest (by composting).
Theoretically, it is possible to not throw away anything, by recycling and composting everything. But then, modern society has devised many things which are not recycled, either because they are made of mixed materials, the recycling cost is too high, or the collection system is poor. “Absolute zero waste is not possible, so it is a process to reduce as much waste as possible,” says Tin.
Some think it is all right to generate waste so long as it is sent for recycling, but not Tin. “If you think you can recycle, you’ll consume more. Only a small part of our trash gets recycled, and the recycling process uses lots of energy and chemicals, and produces other types of waste.”
As most packaging and plastic bags end up as trash, that was the first thing Tin was mindful of. So, no more shopping in supermarkets, with all the pre-packed goods. Instead, she gets her groceries from wet markets, pasar malam (night markets) and bulk food stores where she buys by weight, like local sundry shops back in the day. She also found a place which offers refills for detergent, soap and cleaning liquids (BYOB in Damansara Kim in Petaling Jaya, and Kajang in Selangor).
She brings her own containers for her purchases: glass jars and bottles for liquids like oils or detergent; cloth bags for dry food like beans, dry noodles, bread, pasta and rice; rattan basket for vegetables; and stainless steel containers for wet and oily food.
The thought of not generating any trash at all may sound daunting but Tin says the difficulties were only in the first month. “It was stressful initially as I kept thinking about what I can eat and buy that will be waste-free. After that, it is easy as I already have all the reusable containers and know where to shop. People think it’s difficult but that’s because we’re used to our lifestyle of convenience. When it comes to shopping, we only think of hypermarts, but there are other choices, other places to shop without packaging. Just look for traditional grocers which still sell loose items by weight.”
Now, carting her water bottle, glass jar, stainless steel tin and spoon is a daily habit. It ensures a waste-free day at the mall. “The glass jar is very useful. I use it for food, drinks, ice-cream and even food scraps.”
She also declines goodie bags and door gifts when covering media events and requests for soft copies of press releases. Relying on handkerchiefs, menstrual cups, reusable cloth sanitary pads, unwrapped soap bars and compostable toothbrushes also drastically cut back waste in her personal care regime. She also gets pre-loved clothes at charity stores.
At the start, she was apprehensive about how people would respond to her endeavour. It turns out that all the worrying was for nothing. “The first time I wanted to buy bubble tea (from Chatime) in my own glass jar, I felt embarrassed. I wasn’t sure if I will get rejected or scolded. But the worker didn’t say anything and just accepted my jar as if it were the most normal thing. Then I went to McDonalds. The staff also filled my container with french fries with no questions asked.”
So far, she has received only words of encouragement when she whips out her containers. At the market in SS2, Petaling Jaya, the jackfruit seller commended her and even gave her an extra piece. In her hometown of Muar, a shopkeeper gave her a discount when she declined the plastic bag. “After that my mother said she’ll use the basket in future as she can get the discount.”
Friends are helpful, too. One buys her soya sauce from Kepong, where a van still goes around neighbourhoods selling refills of the sauce, like in the old days.
She does go to some extent in her bid to curtail waste, like waking up early to reach the bakery before her favourite loaf is packed in plastic. On the whole, however, going zero waste has not demanded major sacrifices from her. “You just have to find alternatives. I thought I could never eat chocolates again as they have a lot of packaging. Then I found Famous Amos, where I can buy chocolates by weight and in my container.”
For a while, however, her husband had to forgo his favourite pastry, egg tarts, because of the aluminium or paper casings. But after they realised that the paper cups can be composted, he was no longer deprived of this indulgence.
She has yet to find make-up without plastic packaging, so she goes without. But that is not a problem as she uses little to start with. Some zero wasters are known to make their eye liner, lip balm. Tin does make her own toothpaste, using coconut oil, soda bicarbonate and peppermint essential oil; but her husband dislikes the salty and oily taste.
Getting rid of food scraps, however, is a poser as she cannot do composting in her rented room in an apartment in Petaling Jaya and there is no public composting facility in her neighbourhood. Luckily, an environment group which does its own composting agreed to accept her food waste as a favour. Tin keeps her food scraps in a pot in the fridge until she gathers enough to send it to them. Sometimes, she even packs the scraps home when dining out – but only with people she’s familiar with, she assures.
Interestingly, she finds it easier to reject packaging for food purchases here than overseas, where strict food rules exist. During a flight to Australia, a flight attendant refused to refill her glass bottle, stating that he might be sued should it break. The same thing happened at a supermarket in Cairns. “The seller refused to put the hot dog in my container. He said I might sue him if I fall sick after eating it. It seems this is a problem faced by zero wasters in the US, too.”
Though she rigorously avoids waste, there is the occasional slip-up, like the time when she found toilet paper made from recycled paper and without plastic wrapper. “I was so happy as I won’t get any plastic with it. But when I told the cashier I don’t need a bag, she put a plastic ‘paid’ sticker on it.”
Many of us would be unperturbed by this bit of plastic but it is a big deal for Tin – the glue prevents recycling, so it has to go into her trash jar. She observes the same thing happening when one brings a shopping bag at supermarkets; the cashier will put a plastic sticker on each item. “Why do they need to do that when there’s a receipt for the items?” This is why she advocates shopping in wet markets and pasar malam – there are no price labels on the goods.
A simpler life
The good part of it all is that she has learnt to live with less. “I’m eating more fruits and vegetables, which have no waste and are healthier. I’m also more selective about purchases. Now that I don’t simply buy things, I have more money for better quality things, such as good chocolates.”
Her green habits are slowly rubbing onto those around her. “I saw a colleague holding a piece of you tiao (Chinese cruller) with her fingers. She must have looked odd to many people, walking around like that. But she told me she didn’t want paper or plastic bag for it. Some friends said that when they throw their waste, they see my face in their mind and feel guilty. Some shared photos to show me that they now use only half of the tissue paper they used to.”
Nevertheless, the road ahead is still rubbish-strewn. “When I have dinner with friends and I see so much waste on their plates, I feel helpless. I know that I cannot change everyone.”
But she certainly has transformed an important person in her life. “My husband did not know about zero waste at the beginning and just followed what I did. But after seeing how much waste we’ve reduced, he tells me that we’ve done something great.”
Now, almost halfway through her year of zero waste, she has decided that she will not stop once the year is up. It’ll be a lifelong practice. “I see no reason to stop as I’ve already gotten used to it.”
And at the rate she is going, her jar of trash is unlikely to be full even when the year is up.
Here’s how you can live a trashless life
> Question the need and life cycle of your purchases.
> Decline disposable plastic cutleries and drinking straws.
> Declutter your home. Living simply is at the core of the zero-waste lifestyle. What you do not have does not need to be organised, cleaned, maintained and eventually recycled or thrown away.
> Reduce your shopping trips and keep a shopping list. The less you bring home, the less waste you’ll have to deal with.
> Avoid grocery waste. Bring reusable totes, cloth bags (for bulk aisles) and jars (for wet items like cheese and deli foods) to the store and market.
> Swap disposables for reusables (start using handkerchiefs, refillable bottles, cloth napkins, rags).
> Think of recycling as a last resort. Have you refused, reduced or reused first? Zero waste means preventing waste first. It does not mean recycling more, it means recycling less thanks to waste prevention.
> Find a compost system that works for your home (surf the Internet for bokashi, Takakura, vermiculture composting).