There are so many conversations around the topic of zero waste: how to eliminate the use of plastic straws, reduce the habit of single use plastic, and be more mindful about the general waste that we create. With all this talk on the small steps we can take to be more eco-conscious, we were curious about the possibility and feasibility of a zero waste lifestyle, especially living in a city like Singapore. A city where businesses and systems in place are routinely double bagging already plastic wrapped groceries, hawker owners throw in extra disposable cutlery, and food delivery arrives in plastic boxes double wrapped in a plastic and paper bag.
We took a vote on who would have to go zero waste for a full 7 days and I drew the short straw. We defined the boundaries of what would be considered zero waste and what wouldn’t: anything that is biodegradable, if disposed of correctly will be considered non-waste. However, anything that is plastic and non-biodegradable will be considered as waste and therefore will have to be collected and documented. Obviously for hygiene reasons, whatever waste created between you and the toilet bowl will be considered waste, and we will leave it at that.
This got me quite excited, I didn’t think it would be possible to be completely zero waste but I was curious to see what would come out of the week. In general, I’ve already employed some of the best practices in waste reduction. I use reusable cotton pads for my beauty and cosmetic routines, reducing the amount of cotton wipes and cotton pads that I would otherwise have disposed of on a daily basis. I’ve made the wonderful transition from disposable pads to Thinx period underwear that’s leak proof and can be washed and lined dried. And I (mostly) carry my own water bottle whenever I travel or go out. I don’t purchase any non-natural fiber clothing: opting instead for organic cotton, linen, tencel, silk and avoiding polyester and rayon at all cost. With that said, I’m still an avid plastic user – most of my plastic consumption actually comes from food. I prefer shopping in supermarkets instead of the wet market, as I’m not great at planning my meals and usually make last minute purchases at the mall before cooking up dinner. This also means that I don’t cook as often as I would like to and instead opt for the wide variety of food delivery systems made available to me via GrabFood, foodpanda, and Deliveroo. Think lots of food wrapped in plastic, delivery in plastic, and disposable plastic cutlery given even when specified to avoid.
Day 1: Saturday – Carbon Neutral Music Festival
I started the week with Garden Beats – Singapore’s Music & Picnic Festival, also known as the first carbon neutral music festival in Singapore. Garden Beats works with partners like Green is the New Black, ES Power, foodpanda, and PUB Singapore to make it a lot easier to be zero waste.
I was quite surprised to see foodpanda amidst the group of partners. To be honest food delivery never seem eco conscious to me. However, I was excited to hear Laura Kantor, Head of Sustainability at foodpanda, speak about their crusade on making food delivery more sustainable and environmentally friendly in Singapore. Their mission is for us to not just think about the plastic we see but also the food we choose to eat and its impact on the environment. Working with both food providers and consumers, foodpanda is consistently encouraging and helping us reduce plastic in food packaging.
One of the most important things I’ve realized is that disposing of your trash correctly isn’t as straightforward as we think it to be. At Garden Beats, there were bins for paper waste and general waste, and closer to the food areas there were also food waste bins. This allowed us to deconstruct our waste accordingly and throw them in the correct bins. The reason why it’s important to separate waste is because it makes recycling easier. It allows the people who are sorting through the trash to be more efficient and accurate with the trash, increases the probability of recycling, and reduces the amount of waste going into landfills.
Day 2: Sunday – Grocery Shopping
I woke up extra early because I wanted to go to the wet market and stock up on some groceries to preemptively reduce the amount of plastic waste I would create. Surprisingly (or maybe not so for some of you), the wet market is so much cheaper and has so much more fresh ingredients available. I filled up my bag of veggies and fruit and got them home with no plastic but 2 extra rubber bands that I’ve been reusing constantly at home since then.
The trick to storing vegetables over the week is to wash them once you’ve brought them home, dry the leaves thoroughly, wrap them in beeswax wraps, and store them in the fridge. Herbs works best if you put the roots (or stems if you don’t have any roots), in a jar of water like a bouquet of flowers and cover it with a wax wrap so they don’t end up smelling like the fridge or vice versa.
TIP: Get your wax wrap from @minimakers.sg I’ve tested several (at least 5) different brands of wax wraps from those based in Singapore to ones from the US and Australia – and this is by far my favourite! It closes well and doesn’t leave too much sticky residue when you use it to cover bowls and jars. Also #supportlocal whenever you can.
Since it was a Sunday, most of my day was focused on food waste! The first part of food packaging was already a difficult task in itself, but tackling what happens after was no easy feat either. Here’s what I learned:
1/ Cook less food – I’ve figured out that if I make all my servings slightly smaller I’m able to reduce the total amount of food waste in the end. More often than not, I have difficulty gauging portions and figuring out how much food is needed for each meal.
TIP: The tip around the worry of not cooking enough food is to have an easy prep dish or dessert at the end so that if people still have stomach space, you can cook it up easily! I usually do a blended fruit smoothie bowl with dried nuts, fresh cut fruits, or small frozen banoffee pies that I can easily take out if needed.
2/ Learn how to cut food more efficiently. When you don’t pay attention to what you’re cutting it’s quite easy to create more waste than necessary. Try collecting your “prep waste” in a single bin, bag, or bottle. After you cook your meal compare the actual food you’ve cooked VS the food waste you’ve created.
TIP: Make a broth out of veggie and meat scraps. It’s super easy to soak all of your dirty vegetables in a little bit of veggie soap to get all of the dirt out then boil it down in a big pot of water to get some flavourful broth. Technically there would still be waste from all the soup scrap, but you would have used the vegetables to their fullest before disposing of it.
3/ Learn how and what to compost! The thought of composting seemed really intimidating to me – I did not want maggots growing out of my pots nor did I want my neighbors to complain about any foul smell. So I read a tip online which really helped take away my fear: composting with the safest possible ratio. Usually online you get a recommendation of 2 parts green and 1 part brown. Green being anything fresh you want to be composting – fruit peel, leftover fresh vegetables, cuttings, rotting leaves, where as brown are leaves, dirt, newspaper, nut shells, things that aren’t likely to rot and smell bad. I cheated a little and mixed it all with a little bit of gardening soil first, so that it sped up the composting process. It also helps retain the smell, which is great because I don’t want my neighbours thinking I left a bucket of food waste outside. Mixing up about 1 part green to 1 part brown and 3 parts of soil. I left it outside and layered the top with a little more gardening soil – a few weeks later, I was gifted with super nutritious gardening soil.
TIP: Please do this at home in a potting container and not dig a hole in your garden (private and/or public). Composting should be done in small amounts contained from the large soil supply to reduce maggot growth. I also avoided anything that was cooked because cooking oil makes compositing difficult and I don’t think I’m ready to try that yet.
Day 3: Monday – Back to Work!
I was super ready post weekend so I had brought my own food and snacks in my reusable containers. I prepped food and was able to head home and have an actual zero-waste day. This was only possible because I did loads of prep work the day before! During lunch I was able to make a quick stop to our local waste free store to pick up some extra breakfast items and store it in my own container. With the growth of sustainable conscious trends – there are more and more options to purchase zero waste items.
TIP: There might not always be zero waste stores close to where you live but you’ll find that most Traditional Chinese Medicine stores would also be keen to package things in your container. These stores can carry up to a range of products from dried mushroom to beans and sometimes even barley. If you do live near to @eco_le_sg, @unpackt.sg, or @thesocialspace.sg these are some great home grown businesses that are making strides in the zero waste industry.
Day 4: Tuesday
I stayed up quite late on Monday night prepping for the beautiful zero-waste meal I was going to bring to work. Ironically, this led to me waking up late, which meant I forgot to bring said beautiful meal. That added on to the fact that a few ad hoc work came up, I was way too hungry when lunchtime came around and did not have enough time to go out for lunch. The team packed food back and I enjoyed my scrumptious vegetarian bee hoon and saved the styrofoam container as part of my waste.
My theory for this is that it’s not going to always be possible to live a zero waste life. Modern life is so entangled up with plastic that sometimes things like this unfortunately happens, and that is okay. There is no need to have ecoanxiety and stress out about your current waste and consumption, just look for other ways to reduce the overall impact.
Day 5: Wednesday – Dinner at my place
Lunch was relatively easy with me bringing my own food, but we had a guest over for dinner. Dinner for 5 and I had a meeting running late. My original intention was to bring my own tupperware and containers to my favourite Sichuan food place at the kopitiam and pack all the food back in my own container. This would eliminate the option of having to use plastic boxes. However, things never really work out the way you want them to and I had forgotten to bring my containers to work. My husband also had a long meeting so he was not able to stop by home and get the food before the order came in.
We ordered dinner for 5 and I made sure I selected no cutlery. The food came in 5 plastic containers and I was dreading having so much plastic until I realized that the containers are actually microwave safe and that meant that they are relatively dishwasher safe as well. So after having dinner we actually emptied out all the containers and put everything in the dishwasher without the dry setting on. Now this is not the best idea to live a zero-waste life as it’s somewhat of a loophole but I now use these boxes for take out to some places, holding my puppy’s treat when we go out for picnics, making small greenhouse when I’m growing new seeds, and also passed a few to my cousin who uses them to collect her clay when making new ceramics.
I realize it’s not possible to live a 100% zero-waste life, but we can at least try to be less wasteful with our items and stop thinking about disposing as a solution.
Day 6: Thursday
I brought my own food for lunch and cooked at night for dinner. Very minimal waste, until I decided to make fruit juice. Now fruit juice is a great way to get a “healthy dessert” if you’re concerned about what you’re eating, but there is so much fruit scrap when you make your own juice. I’m not sure if that’s contributing to more or less food waste so to combat the food waste I’ve created I ended up composting all of the scraps left over but I’m still definitely on the fence about whether this is counterproductive.
Day 7: Friday Night Out
I woke up craving McDonald’s and it’s just crazy difficult for me to say no, especially when my husband is a fan too. We ordered McDonald’s take out and asked for no straws, cutlery, and sauces and wrote that in the note as well. The delivery came and there were a few things we could recycle like the paper wrapped around the burger and the paper bag for the delivery, but I still ended up with an extra paper cup.
I worked from home that day so food was no problem, and decided to do a girl’s night out because what’s a zero waste week without some challenges! After a great deal of research, I settled on a bar that promotes conscious consumerism. Meaning they source as many local ingredients as possible, work with local distillery, and do not provide straws and throw away utensils. There are so many local restaurants, bars, and eateries that are trying to do this in Singapore and with a little research you’ll be able to reduce the waste that you incur even when you’re eating out.
It was definitely time consuming trying to go zero waste. A lot of the waste can only be reduced if you do extra prep work in the beginning, which is quite manageable if you know what your focus is. There are so many aspects to a zero waste lifestyle, but I found that the two aspects that are easiest to make changes to are beauty and body care, and food preparation. It’s a small change on how you make purchases and what you do with your products once you’re done, and all of that has a wonderful ripple effect in reducing the waste you create.
I found that the easiest way to reduce waste in your daily beauty and body care routine is to look at the products that you’re using. One thing that helped me the most was changing from disposable cotton pads into reusable cotton pads – I experimented crochet cotton towels, stitched cotton fabric, and even mini crochet cotton pads. I use them to remove makeup, apply toner, and also to wash off any mud mask that I use.
TIP: Keep a container beside your sink to collect all the used cotton pads, once you’ve collected a few used cotton pads, wash them all with your towels in the washing machine to keep them real clean.
The other thing to think about is purchasing soap bars instead of soap, which comes without or with minimal packaging. Consider opting for brands that offer refill packages of their shampoo and conditioners, or simply purchasing bigger bottles.
The most difficult changes in trying to go zero waste are take out cups and receipts. It not difficult to bring a water bottle whenever you go out, but sometimes when you want to grab a cup of coffee or bubble tea it’s quite difficult to avoid cups. Usually with take out beverage cups, I try my best to reuse them either by potting plants in them, or using it to hold up my smaller plants. However, there are only so many seedlings I can grow in my kitchen without overdoing it and so at some point the beverage cups have to become waste.
The bigger problems are with receipts. Almost every purchase that we make now comes with receipts, sometimes even two when you use your credit card. However, most receipts are thermal paper and BPA-coated. Bisphenol A (BPA) is actually a plastic component and also has some nasty chemistry that makes it harmful for the body. This means that receipts shouldn’t be recycled not just because they aren’t recyclable but because it will also contaminate all the recyclable paper. They will also pollute BPA if buried in landfill or burnt, so there really isn’t a good way to dispose of such materials.
TIP: I was looking at reducing my meat intake and the go to knee jerk reaction to that to substitute my meat with more fish. After watching Blue the film, I realized that eating fish in general isn’t great as well – especially large fish such as tuna and salmon. Which was good timing as I happened to chance across Kühlbarra, a locally farmed fish based in Singapore that delivers fresh sustainably farmed harvest to order fish to your doorstep.
Keep in mind that sustainability is a journey, and it’s not going to be possible to be literally zero waste nor will it be possible to make changes overnight. You can try your best to reduce as much waste as you possible can, by making conscious decisions to reduce your waste. Look to some of the amazing people creating great content on Instagram for inspiration and ideas on how to reduce your waste:
1. Lauren Singer @trashisfortossers – CEO of Package Free Shop
2. @litterless – An environmental writer and organizer sharing resources and building community around the topic of zero waste
3. Ran @zerowaste.japan – A mother of 2 living the zero waste lifestyle in Japan