Talking about climate change can be abstract and hard to relate to. News about how we are deforesting at unsustainable rates, different plants and animal species becoming extinct or low-lying island countries disappearing under rising sea levels is shocking, depressing and perhaps not news we want to confront. However, climate scientists report that our world has only 12 years left to press for sweeping and revolutionary changes to global economies that will limit global warming and keep negative environmental impact at moderate levels.
How do we even begin to solve a global crisis so complex and overwhelming?
If more people understood the connection between climate change and our behaviour as consumers, they might discover why they love this one world that we have and how they could take responsibility to protect it. My theory of change is that when more eco-conscious consumers and citizens vote using dollars and actions, we are signalling to corporations and governments that change in business and legislative practices need to happen urgently.
Food is our national obsession in Singapore. As with all things important in Singapore, I decided to start with food.
By practising bring-your-own (BYO), I believed I might inspire people to be curious about what we could do for the environment. In the beginning, I did not have a plan or an Instagram account. I simply brought a metal straw and some utensils around. A few weeks later, I brought a lunchbox and take-away cup, and then a tote bag. These were things I actually needed. I refrained from buying new items and just used what was already available at home. I started posting photos on Facebook to document my baby steps, and to share my story with colleagues and friends who started noticing the changes.
One day, a friend suggested I try Instagram to share the eco-awareness and sustainable living messages with people outside of my immediate circle. Seven years after the launch of Instagram, I created an account named @tabaogirl1 and began to engage with people beyond my own social networks. Meals became exciting because of new conversations with friends, hawkers, or even strangers in the queue.
I learnt that hawkers find it hard to hire stall assistants to wash dishes, hence the use of disposables even for customers who eat in. Famous hawker centres like Old Airport Road market generate dirty dishes faster than they can be cleaned. Stall owners in the CBD shared about escalating rental costs and shrinking outlet sizes, so preparing food in their outlets is unfeasible. Instead, they rely on central kitchens to deliver food that is always wrapped in styrofoam or plastic. Wait staff related stories of how frazzled office workers would scold them for long waits, so meal portions are pre-packed in disposables to speed up transactions. Bubble tea outlet staff told how some customers got upset if they felt they received a smaller portion than normal, so standard-sized disposables now take that stress away.
As an ordinary consumer, each conversation reveals how urban development changed the way we interact with one another, with businesses and with nature. The demand for speed and efficiency has grown the food delivery sector into a huge market with 1.1 million users worth USD164 million in 2018. If food hygiene and fast service are important, how can we redesign operations so that environmentally-friendly practices still make business sense? If labour policies affect workers in F&B or municipal cleaning roles, what needs to happen in Singapore so that we can move forward together in ways that are fair and socially just for everyone? How do we balance all these seemingly competing factors?
Demand for takeaway meals and food delivery, soars amid stricter COVID-19 safe distancing measures, with an accompanying surge in the use of disposable food packaging.
My journey began on 29 May 2017, when I woke up, reached for my mobile phone, switched off the alarm and started to scroll through my social media feed. An ordinary day, starting with a routine many of us are familiar with.
“ ‘The Great Barrier Reef is damaged, beyond repair and can no longer be saved,’ say scientists.” Below the news headline was a photo of bleached corals. Where was the bright orange anemone hosting shy clownfish? Where was Nemo? I learnt that the Great Barrier Reef is “relatively young at 500,000 years, and this modern form is 8,000 years old, having developed after the last ice age.” My first thought was, “How did human beings destroy in mere decades what had flourished for millennia?”
I felt an immense wave of anger surging up, first at countries that generated the largest greenhouse emissions, next at the speed of urbanisation and industrialisation. This was followed by anger at corporations that practised deforestation, destructive commercial fishing or unabated mining and drilling, and subsequently at car-makers, giant fast fashion retailers, global food companies with unsustainable commercial farming practices, as well as at society for not caring about what was happening to our one and only home planet.
Finally, I was upset with myself, for living a city life with all its comforts and conveniences, without thinking about what was necessary to sustain it. Then again, where we stay, how we eat, what we wear, the things we purchase, how we commute and the energy we use are fixed options presented to consumers after governments and global organisations have made the important decisions. There was nothing an individual could do, and this was just too much.
Something had irreversibly changed in me by the next morning. I cannot change what happen in other countries, neither can I write policies to regulate international corporations and their business practices. But I can certainly take 100% control of my choices and change how I live.
Fast-forward a few months into my new way of life and thinking, an acquaintance said, “Aiyah, one person won’t make much difference lah. This is troublesome for the people around you!” As an engineer by training, I like to make evidence-based decisions. My habits to reduce waste and live sustainably had to be quantified to show the impact of committed individual action. With real world data, people would be able to see that even small actions can accumulate to create positive impact. I downloaded a generic tally app to keep track of the disposables I avoided by bringing my own items around.
Whenever a stranger was curious about my tabao box in an event buffet line, or someone at a cafe asked about my reusable cup, I tried to chat with them or show my tabao tally. Sometimes they had more questions, for example “How do you wash your box after each meal, it’s so oily!”, “What happens if you are meeting 4 friends?”, or “Aren’t you wasting water to wash your items?”. Now I have an ever-growing list of FAQs and replies – “Usually I can find a sink with a soap dispenser to clean my items!”, “I’ve brought ten plates and sets of cutleries to a gathering before,” or “Plastic or paper disposables also require electricity, water and raw materials in the manufacturing and delivery process, so washing takes up fewer resources overall!”
Other comments were harsher, “You’re slowing the queue down, can you hurry up?”, “You never forget to bring your items meh?”, “Why should I change if others don’t change?”, “If people throw dirty things into the recycling bin, all my efforts are wasted,” or “You don’t eat and don’t buy anything, you don’t live at all, then you don’t use anything!”. I learnt to prepare exact payments for hawkers, and observe which stalls I would disrupt the least with BYO. I became more mindful about my habit of buying food as a way to avoid boredom or tension. With unexpected cynicism or rudeness from others, each experience taught me about the different reasons people have for resisting change, and enabled me to learn about friendlier, kinder ways to reach out.
Unlike the tenacity of my BYO habit, reducing water usage and quitting of fast fashion, my ongoing efforts to turn vegetarian, use less electricity (from cutting down air-conditioner usage and charging my phone less often etc.) and eat less meat are still slow going. Sometimes I wonder if I am being hypocritical. In those moments, I recall it took 35 years before my newfound awareness. We are more committed if we value progress over never making a mistake, on our journey to be more environmentally conscious. These challenges keep me grounded, and help me to empathise with those who are still trying to find the motivation to lead a greener lifestyle. I have also grown to be patient with those who feel that environmental sustainability is not their concern.
As I document my BYO actions online, old friends have reconnected with me. Some strangers I met virtually became new friends, as we encouraged one another to persevere in our efforts even while others might not approve.
The amount of waste I avoided as one individual is insignificant given the global dimension of the challenge, but imagine if all of Singapore was dedicated to this!
As more voices join in to speak up for the environment, it is my hope that even as generations before had the power to destroy, our generation and the generations after will have the knowledge, commitment and tenacity to protect and renew this one and only home that we have! Will you join me?
Did you know?
Scientists estimate that the total amount of packaging waste from the burgeoning food delivery businesses in China’s megacities has surged seven-fold from 0.2 million in 2015 to 1.5 million metric tons in 20172. That includes 1.2 million tons of plastic containers, 175,000 tons of disposable chopsticks, 164,000 tons of plastic bags and 44,000 tons of plastic spoons. Put together, this surpasses the amount of residential and commercial trash of all kinds disposed of annually by the city of Philadelphia in the United States. In 2018, the estimate grew to two million tons3.
In India, 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste are generated daily, most of which are contributed to by food consumption4. Although no authoritative data is available, online retail and food delivery business are acknowledged to be a generous contributor to the widening use of plastic. Deepinder Goyal, CEO of Zomato — one of the largest food aggregators in the world — said in a September 2018 blog that “orders through food-delivery aggregators was adding up to 22,000 tonnes of plastic waste every month in India5.”
Khee Shihui is @tabaogirl on Instagram. She uses social media to encourage herself and people around her to live more carefully and lightly on this one world that we have.
“Tabao” = to take away (food).