From ditching disposables to composting, the women going the extra mile to reduce waste

They’ve had to endure snide remarks and scepticism, but continue to do their part for the environment.


Shihui Khee (left) and Cassandra Ng are on a mission to reduce waste. (Photos: Shihui Khee, Cassandra Ng)

SINGAPORE: During the hectic lunch hour, social sector facilitator Shihui Khee’s instructions on how her food should be served can ruffle a few feathers.


“Some people behind me in the queue will say quite passive-aggressive things,” the 36-year-old told Channel NewsAsia. “Like ‘oh you’re so slow’ or ‘it’s not like I have all the time in the world’.”

It’s not that Ms Khee is a picky eater. Rather, she refuses to use disposables like plastic and styrofoam containers or paper cups when eating out or ordering takeaways. Food goes strictly into her 1l collapsible lunchbox; cold drinks into her 750ml cup.


This means taking a longer time to process her order, especially with stallholders who pre-pack their Styrofoam boxes with rice. 


Still, Ms Khee is serious about reducing her waste. The “kick up my backside” was a newspaper article she read last May about how the Great Barrier Reef had been damaged beyond repair.


The Telegraph reported then that about 95 per cent of the reef suffers from bleaching, which is believed to be caused by global warming. The life cycle of disposables contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases.


According to National Environment Agency figures, Singapore generated almost 2 million tonnes of plastic and paper or cardboard waste last year, a roughly 5,000-tonne drop from 2016. However, the recycling rate of such waste also dropped by 1 per cent.


“It was just very shocking because it’s the largest reef formation in the world,” Ms Khee said of the article. “How is it possible that human actions have destroyed it within a very quick couple of decades?


“It made me realise I can think about being environmentally friendly and feel sad for the environment, but what are my concrete actions? What am I actually going to do about the situation?”


Since then, Ms Khee has steered clear of disposables. She practises this everywhere, even in fast food joints like McDonald’s and MOS Burger. The smallest details, like the wooden toothpick in a cocktail, are not spared.


Most of Ms Khee's utensils are from home; others can be bought from household discount stores.

It started with just one set of cutlery and a water bottle. Soon Ms Khee's inventory grew to include a lunchbox, metal straw and a cup each for hot and cold drinks. She carries these items, plus different carriers for groceries and produce, in a large bag every day.


“I’ve given up on cute girly bags that are tiny,” she said. She even brings along extra sets of cutlery when eating in a group.


As the interview progresses, it becomes clear that Ms Khee’s mission extends far beyond herself. “I would be naive to believe that me saving 170 plastic items a month is going to change the world,” she said.


“But if you think about 170 plastic items multiplied by 6 million in Singapore, then it’s decent. At least get them to be more mindful about the choices they’re making in their everyday life, and the impacts of those choices on the environment.”


That’s when she started an Instagram page documenting her meals and the amount of related waste she’s saved. @tabaogirl, which currently has close to 800 followers, has been growing “organically”.


“I feel that a lot of it is about helping people realise that global warming is real; climate change is real. And yet it has to be explained in a way that is accessible and understandable by people that may not necessarily be interested in the issue at all,”

she said.


“Food is something that is very literal and key to the Singaporean psyche. So, I thought that by signposting my actions every single day, I’m this nagging presence that is not going away.”

She’s seen some success. Friends would update her whenever they tried to reduce waste, like asking colleagues not to use plastic straws. “It’s nice to see my friends change the way they behave,” she added.


 

ROADBLOCKS


However, not everyone is convinced. Some have approached Ms Khee to question her actions. “You think you’re very environmentally friendly?” they would ask. “Do you know that your box also needs soap and water to clean?”


Ms Khee said she would respond politely, telling them that takeaway boxes also require resources to make and leave a carbon footprint during transportation. “I just try to have a reasonable conversation with people and incite more critical thinking,” she said.

“But it’s very interesting because people judge very quickly. If I’m doing this thing, I must come from a very well-to-do family,” she added, declaring that she’s not rich “by any standards”. “My point is that if an average Jane can do this, anyone can.”

Some eateries also refuse to fill Ms Khee's containers because of hygiene issues, or the fact that they are too big for some portions.


But Ms Khee counters by saying she’s never gotten sick doing this. As for the portions, she said doesn’t need her lunchboxes filled to the brim.


Still, some eateries are insistent, she said. This includes halal food stallholders who prefer that their serving ladles not touch her lunchbox. In this case, she apologises and backs away.


“Some sellers will say my char kway teow is so hot that it will melt the plastic in your box,” she added. “If it cannot be done, then I’d rather not eat it.”

This means that Ms Khee has had to give up some of her favourite drinks and dishes.

“I guess being different in Singapore is sometimes very challenging,” she said of her habit. “It is almost as if people don’t like being reminded that they could do more in their everyday life.”
 

PERSISTENCE


Nevertheless, Ms Khee is determined to stick to her cause. Last month alone, she refused about 175 pieces of disposables, comprising wooden, plastic and paper utensils.