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Zero Waste for Quality Living

Who knew that a zero-waste lifestyle would save money and provide a simpler, healthier way of living?


It has been 10 months and counting since Tin Fong Yun and her husband Lau Tzeh Wei, both 28, began their Zero Waste journey. Throughout 2016, they aim to throw away as little rubbish as possible by reducing what they use, and recycling or composting as much as possible.

So far, what has been the outcome? A very small jar of rubbish, for the entire three quarters of a year!

Tin was deeply surprised at the outcome. This year-long experiment was her way of putting into practice what she had been preaching as an environmental journalist with a Chinese newspaper. At present, Malaysians throw away an average of a shocking 1kg per person every day. That is no mean sum. So how do you get down to zero?

It’s hard to know where to start but Tin found a wealth of information online where she learnt the cardinal principles of Refusing (what is unneeded), Reducing (what is needed), Reusing, Recycling and Rotting

The first thing she did was to ask friends for used glass jars, airtight tin containers and cloth bags as replacements for plastic packaging for food, and plastic carry bags. She admitted to being tempted to shop for pretty bottles and bags but remembered that the first rule is to Refuse. “So, I spent many nights washing old bottles to be reused!” she says.

By January, she was ready. Each time she went out, she tucked a few containers into her cloth bags to be used to buy food, from raw produce to take-outs. Initially, she feared people might find this odd but no one batted an eyelid. Sometimes they even offer a discount when she doesn’t take a plastic bag!

Where does she shop?

Fresh food is easy as markets sell fresh vegetables and meat without packaging. For grains, Tin said old-school sundry shops are the best options as they sell rice, lentils, nuts and beans – all out of giant sacks – at reasonable prices. For biscuits, night market stalls sell these loose in big tins, while some bakeries sell bread without the plastic packet, if you ask them not to use it.

Some items proved more challenging, though, such as cooking oil. But she discovered an organic shop that fills her bottles with coconut oil, as well as an oldschool soya sauce maker who does the same.

Tin Fong Yun checks out an outfit from a second-hand clothing shop.

Trash jar.

Clothing has been easy as there are many good quality second-hand shops. So are cleaning detergents as there is the BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) outlet that sells detergents, filling the customer’s own bottles.

What is the hardest to find? Toiletries. Many people make their own, and Tin did make her own “toothpaste” with baking soda and coconut oil but her husband did not like it at all. Eventually, he returned to regular toothpaste after they found out which tubes can be recycled.

“For me, shampoo was the biggest problem,” she says. She was thus overjoyed to discover an imported shampoo bar that worked well, but given its high cost, she uses it sparingly.

If she really can’t find a particular item that she doesn’t really need, such as makeup or oyster sauce, they do without. But if it’s a must-use item like dental floss for her, she experiments with substitutes like thread, although so far none have proven satisfactory.

I didn’t expect that a zero-waste lifestyle will also help us save money, eat healthier and have a much simpler life.

“I try very hard not to buy anything new,” she says. But sometimes, she is forced to. For instance, she recently bought a food sieve for her sink because she couldn’t find a used or spare one for such specialised use.

“It was very tough at first because we kept on having to look for solutions to issues that kept cropping up. We started it over a night, virtually, because I wanted to show a dramatic change,” she says. “For the first two weeks, I ate only biscuits for breakfast because I didn’t know where else to find other types of unpackaged breakfast food!” But soon, she found her way, and it’s not difficult now, she says.

Of course, there are still the odd blips. Just recently, they had to get rechargeable batteries after their clock battery ran out. They also discovered that luggage tags for checked-in baggage are not recyclable, and now limit themselves to carry-ons. She also stopped eating chocolates since her supplier now prepackages them.

But she says it’s worth it. Their greener lifestyle is much cheaper and has enabled her to leave full-time work for voluntary activities in environmental awareness. “Life is so much simpler now. People say life is to be enjoyed, and I agree. I am enjoying life but not things. I didn’t expect that a zerowaste lifestyle will also help us save money, eat healthier and have a much simpler life,” she says.

Tin is happy to find so many people now interested in this lifestyle. Laid back and easy-going as she is, though, she rarely offers advice unless asked and seldom brings up the topic. She is aware that it takes effort to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle in a country that isn’t set up for it. For instance, there aren’t many bulk produce stores: you have either old-school sundry shops or high-end gourmet stores, but nothing in the middle.

After nine months, what’s in her waste jar? Tin sounds rueful when she recounts how they had to throw away packaging for medicine although that’s not something that they can forgo. In her jar, there are now
blister packs for pills, luggage tags, a road tax disc and bits and pieces of other items.

That’s all – from a whole ten months! Try beating that.

Carolyn Hong lives in Ba Kelalan sometimes, in KL sometimes. A former journalist who once chased the big stories for a regional newspaper, she now hunts for the small stories in Malaysia’s smallest places.
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