Most of us are familiar with environmental organisations such as WWF-Malaysia, set up in 1972; the Malaysian Nature Society, whose origin dates back to 1940; and Greenpeace Malaysia, established in 2017.
For a long time, environment-related activism was largely carried out by such organisations. However, in recent times, we have seen an increasing number of individuals and pockets of society doing their bit for mother Earth.
In the news recently was 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who sailed across the Atlantic on a zero-carbon yacht, arriving in New York after 15 days to attend the United Nations climate summit. She refused to fly due to the high carbon footprint incurred.
Additionally, the zero-waste movement was also started by an individual. French native Bea Johnson is widely known as the founder of the zero-waste lifestyle, influencing international communities to go waste-free by following the 5Rs – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (compost).
On the local front, here are some Malaysians who are affecting change in their own ways.
Living by example
Elena Almeida, a 30-year-old economics and low carbon energy project manager, is a passionate advocate of the zero-waste movement. Almeida started practising zero or low waste last March after reading a book on decluttering.
“I was left with so many plastic bags of things I did not need and felt guilty about throwing so many things away. I then started researching about how to live a life with less waste,” shares Almeida, who credits Lauren Singer, a popular zero-waste influencer, and Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home, as key to helping her understand the benefits of living a low-waste lifestyle.
She also learnt that practising zero waste should go beyond reducing physical trash. “Zero waste should consider invisible waste too, including our personal carbon emissions. Both are important for environmental protection,” she emphasises.
When Almeida first started her minimal-waste lifestyle, she found it difficult to find alternatives to certain items like shampoo, dishwashing liquid and snacks. To tackle that, she turned to DIY activities, which she shares on Instagram (@zerowastemy).
Almeida has garnered over 3,000 followers to date. Some of the things she makes include “unpaper roll” (the cloth alternative to disposable kitchen rolls) and rewashable facial cotton pads. How does she see the zero-waste lifestyle evolving over the next five years?
“I don’t know. I constantly worry that environmental activism is a trending issue and will go out of style. I can only hope that the awareness grows, and together with it, citizen climate action. I’m hopeful about the younger generation who are more aware and more importantly, willing to make behavioural changes.”
Since she started her new lifestyle, Almeida has been invited to give community talks on zero- waste living and is also working on a children’s book on pollution.
“My mum and I have been working on writing (my mum) and illustrating (me) a children’s book that aims to raise awareness on plastic pollution, while incorporating local story-telling methodology,” she says.
As a whole, Almeida hopes to encourage people to have a wider view when it comes to going zero or minimal waste.
“My hope for those who are practising a low-waste lifestyle, or starting to do so, is that we don’t focus too narrowly on physical trash. We must also understand that other lifestyle choices have similar or worse negative impacts on the environment, like frequent flying, overconsumption of meat and addiction to fast fashion,” she shares.
“My final message is, don’t be intimidated with the achievements of other ‘zero wasters’ and the trash jars. I personally don’t believe in trash jars as a measure of success, but I know that for some, it helps in monitoring progress. First, do what you can. Then do better,” she advises.
Building a community
Equally passionate about protecting the earth is former environmental journalist Aurora Tin. Tin founded Zero Waste Malaysia (ZWM) as a Facebook group on Jan 1, 2016. In 2018, ZWM was registered as a national non-profit organisation.
The group has over 28,000 members, with its FB and Instagram accounts having 10,000 and 6,000 followers respectively. Tin says that around 1,000 new members join the group each month.
“People are aware of the degradation to our ecosystem but the question is, what can we do as an individual? A zero-waste lifestyle is an accessible, affordable and simple practice that anyone can adopt, that’s why we could grow rapidly in the past few years,” explains Tin, 31.
Currently ZWM is working on three projects: The Zero Waste Handbook, Zero Waste Speaker Team and Zero Waste Certification programme.
The handbook – which can be downloaded for free in four different languages (zerowastemalaysia.org/resources/) – provides simple, step-by-step guides to practising zero waste.
The Zero Waste Speaker Team consists of trained speakers who go to schools, companies and public events to spread zero-waste awareness. Meanwhile, the Zero Waste Certification programme is where ZWM audits and awards companies and organisations that put efforts into waste reduction.
“While promoting the zero- waste lifestyle at individual levels in the past few years, we totally understand that practising this lifestyle is actually challenging in the current circular economy.
“This world is not designed for zero-waste living. Our vision is that everyone should be able to live a low-waste lifestyle effortlessly. To make this happen, our job as an NGO is to push for a system change by helping corporates in their transition to low-waste operations. That’s why we came up with the idea of the zero-waste certification system,” she shares.
Tin says that when companies go low or zero waste, they can significantly reduce their environmental impact, cut down cost and build better relationships with society.
“Corporates are so powerful that when they start ingraining the zero-waste mindset into their operations, thousands to millions of their customers could benefit from it, thus leading to a low- waste society,” she stresses.
Since ZWM announced the programme, several companies have shown interest in getting certified.
“We understand that it takes time to develop a credible certification programme, thus we will start small and slow but our vision is big. We hope that one day, the programme will be credible enough to be recognised as a ‘must-have’ in the corporate world and the government sector,” says Tin.
She also hopes that the government will push for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and give incentives to corporates that try to reduce waste. EPR is a policy approach whereby producers are given the responsibility for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products.
“The global zero-waste movement might have started from the grassroots but it’s originally an industrial term that’s widely used in the supply chain.
“We believe that everyone’s effort is important but it’s so much more important to make producers accountable for what they produce rather than put the blame on individual consumers,” she says.
The video of a sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose a few years back made a huge impact on Cheryl Low, a former advertising and media executive. “That really affected me because I am a scuba diver. To see that video was really heart-breaking,” remembers Low, 40.
Since then, her interest in the environment grew and she started researching and talking to friends. “I found that it’s not just straws; it’s stuff made of plastic and how we consume and throw stuff, and how we need to start producing less waste,” she adds.
As time went by, she felt that there was a gap between the need to educate people and giving them easy access to practising zero waste.
“What was happening was we were going to different places to buy stuff. So we thought it was really good to have a one-stop shop with affordable prices,” says Low, who then pitched the idea to her friend and ex-colleague Wilson Chin, 34.
“Practising zero waste shouldn’t burn a hole in your pocket. We want everybody to practise it so when we source for products, we ensure that they are of good quality and affordable,” she adds.
Low and Chin set up a bulk store in Petaling Jaya called Nude The Zero Waste Store on Aug 31 last year. As much as possible, they source for local products and also ensure a wide variety of items are available.
Looking around the spacious store, one will see Indian spices, red dates, soy sauce and fermented soy bean paste, coffee powder, dried herbs, flour, rice and noodles. The store also sells pet food, household detergents and natural insect repellents, in addition to beauty and makeup products, and other lifestyle items.
Since they opened for business, their clientele has grown, even seeing customers from Melaka, Penang and Johor. “It’s so encouraging because it shows that people realise that their consumption habits are wasteful and they want to do something about it,” Low says.
For Malaysia Day, she hopes Malaysians will be more conscious about their consumption and what they buy. “A lot of resources, energy and effort goes into creating something as simple as a glass jar, for example. Be more mindful of the packaging, and energy and water we use. Just use what is needed, and don’t waste,” she says.