Published 12 February 2018 ● Last Updated on 29 July 2020
At Secondsguru, we love meeting people from all walks of life who are incorporating eco-living into their diverse lifestyles. These eco-warriors not only inspire us, but give us the Eureka moment that we too can do it. That is why we ended up at the home of Emilie de Cannart, a working expat mom who has been consistently reducing the waste and clutter in her life for 3 years now. How does the Managing Director at Sassy Group Singapore juggle work, kids and sustainable living in this package-loving, plastic-friendly, farm-deficient city of Singapore? We literally made her open her cupboards to show us the way!
Here is Emilie, breaking the ice with some rapid-fire questions in this video below. Go on to read the changes she has made at her home to make her – and her family’s – life more eco-friendly.
Where did your eco consciousness take root? You’re have done more than your fair share of globe-trotting! How did your journey to zero waste begin?
I grew up in Belgium, and honestly I was brought up in some insanely wasteful ways! I moved to London, then Asia – Beijing, Hong Kong… but it is here in Singapore that I began change my lifestyle.
In 2015, I happened to attend a workshop by Marra Hensby of My Pure Earth. It was about the chemicals that make way to our house through household cleaners, and how we can avoid the toxins by making cleaning products ourselves. The learning I got… it was life changing. It made me take a closer look at the way my family and I were living.
Then I read Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home. [Editor’s note: Bea Johnson is a zero waste practitioner based in USA who generates just 1 maison jar of waste in a whole year.] Reading her book was like I was reading the Bible! There’s a part where she talks of going to pick up moss in the wood to use as toilet paper… to be honest, a part me feels so bad when I read her, that I am falling so short of expectations! But then, she is inspiring.
These were the big influences really that started me off on an eco-friendly lifestyle. And I haven’t looked back.
Do you feel going zero waste is a practical goal? Can you highlight some key ways in which you reduced your waste footprint?
For me, the first change was the biggest change – changing my cleaning habits. It was the hardest part. And over time that gets easier. I’ve been using the “recipe book” from My Pure Earth for years now.
Under my sink you will find all the things that we need to clean our house – as you can see – we don’t really have a lot! With just the principal ingredients like vinegar, baking soda and castile soap we have created the entire arsenal.
For instance – for the floor, we just use scented vinegar and water. You might be wondering what on Earth it is – it does look like worms! [Editor’s note: See picture below of Emile breathing it in!] We infuse our vinegar with lavender – so it leaves a nice fragrance. If you prefer other smells – you can use lemon, you can use orange, there are many choices.
We also make our all purpose cleaner. All you need is baking soda, castile soap, and water. You can add tea tree oil, that’s optional. There is really nothing to it!
For all our cutting boards – we clean them just with wedges of lemon and salt. For refreshing toilet spray – we have vinegar with lemon wedges. There’s a recipe for everything!
Yes, there are a couple of tricky things – such as toilet cleaners and bleach, where I struggle with homemade solutions. In such cases, I look to eco brands in the market.
Beyond cleaning, we have made a lot of changes in the way we run our kitchen. I try to buy food products in bulk as much as I can. Such as large cans of olive oil. Or cheese sticks – we used to buy them individually wrapped; now we buy the block and cut it.
Then of course, we use nearly no disposables now. No plastic straws in our home – we have 3 glass straws – and that’s all we’ve needed all along! We’ve started buying beeswax wraps (to replace clingwrap). We have stopped using paper towels mostly. At parties, we use our glasses and use chalk markers to name them. We’ve also got these silicone cups. Not ideal but they are reusable. So if we have something in the school snack box that is wet, we can use it to avoid additional wrapping.
We opt for products with lesser packaging. And in fact, to avoid the needless plastic covers on foods, we do a lot of snack and food making ourselves now, from scratch! Such as popcorn. And yoghurt. And granola bars [Editor’s note: we tried them – just scrumptious!]. My helper bakes these at home, so we avoid the packaging, plus we know exactly what goes in there: fruits, nuts, whole grain flour, oats, chia seeds, maple syrup, so it is super healthy and sweetened to our taste!
My helper is my greatest support in this. It definitely takes effort, time, and even planning. If tomorrow I had to do it all myself, I think the learning curve would be tough!
It is good to hear you have your helper on-board! What about your family – was it challenging? Were your kids and your husband encouraging or aghast when you started replacing the toilet paper, changing the cleaning chemicals, refusing the goodie bags, and so on…?
There are times when it is hard, particularly when I have to say no to my kids – it breaks my heart! So I have to find ways for them to work with me. Like on my son’s birthday, where I said he couldn’t ask for many gifts. But we did get him one thing and it was something he really wanted, so it worked out.
A discussion I recently had with my kids was over candy. I’ve tried to make it – it’s not great, so I had to go back to buy. But of course, I didn’t buy the individually wrapped ones, and we had to have a conversation – with me telling them to save on all the wrappings! Luckily, it was candy so they were just happy to get some, and it was fine. There are small things like that… But I think it’s good, it gets them thinking every time.
Going zero waste clearly needs effort, planning and attention to details – and even access to zero-waste products like package-free foods, wrapping-free sweets and so on! How hard or easy is it to achieve this in Singapore, and is the landscape changing?
Like many zero-wasters out there, I am not trying to be only zero waste – but also clean, and responsible, and sustainable and organic. It’s really difficult. But things are changing.
I think 2 or 3 years ago, if I asked the supermarket delivery to remove the plastic from whatever they sent- they would have said no. That’s something that’s definitely changed. I use Zenxin to buy organic produce, and they are happy to remove packaging on request!
Another thing getting easier: buying organic. I find my local Cold Storage has a really good selection of products. Likewise, there are more retailers – online and in the supermarket aisles – who are selling sustainable produce.
Any unexpected challenges that you are facing?
I find that these days I am not as content with what I do! At the beginning I was very happy with what I was achieving… but now change is incremental, and every time I drop the ball, I feel such disappointment. I feel that is the hardest part to deal with! [Editor’s note: Emile, you are doing a fantastic job! Believe us, we left feeling very inspired by you, and more than a little disappointed at our efforts!]
Any tips for those of us who are at the beginning of our zero waste journey?
I like the motto my friend has for living life with a sustainable ethic: “I will go as far as I can, until it makes my life difficult. There I stop.” That’s what I do – I just try my best. And that’s what think works – start with baby steps. Do what you can do for now, and over time, you will find you can do more.
Now for some rapid-fire questions [scroll up for video] so we know you better!
If I opened your handbag, will I find something that helps you be more environment friendly?
Of course! I have in my bag a glass water bottle; and I have a bag that I can use if I go to the supermarket, to hold anything that I buy. You’ll find also napkins, so I can use them as a handkerchief, or to wipe anything – that way I don’t have to have disposable wipes.
When you see other people littering, or using disposables, or displaying other anti-environment behaviour – which one annoys you the most?
I think to me the ultimate is someone buying a water bottle and putting it in a plastic bag. I think to me they are the two most shocking things… but I have done it so I can’t really condemn anyone! But nowadays that really irritates me.
When your friends see you refusing straws, or carrying shopping bags, are they supportive, or do they think you are over the top, or just cuckoo going through a phase?
I think they probably think I’m going through a phase. And they’re hoping I’ll grow out of it soon! But I don’t think it’s gonna go anywhere. I’m hoping to convert them before I go back to anywhere I was before.
Did you sacrifice any luxury or convenience when you started turning your life more sustainable?
Oh yes! First of all – toilet paper. It’s a small thing, but it took a while to get used to it! Then the beauty products – I’ve had to be more careful because it’s not just the matter of zero-waste, but also what products they have inside. So I think being more mindful – it’s not really a sacrifice, because at the end it is a positive experience.
Did you discover any new brand or product that you would like to share with us?
A friend of mine recommended Argan Oil as this amazing product to put on your face. And I thought, “well surely you can’t use just one product!”. But it works and it is really natural – plus you can use it on your lips, you can use it on your eyes, you can take make-up off. It’s really a miracle product. There’s a local brand that distributes (in Singapore) which also makes it convenient.
Do you feel hopeful for the future or wary about climate changes taking place around the world?
I try not to think about it too much because I think there is a lot of data that is really disturbing and probably depressing. So I try and affect the circle that I am in, with myself being the most important one. And I try not to impose too much, I try and change so it’s natural and feels like it’s a natural evolution. And if I can manage to touch other people’s lives, then I feel like I have done everything that I can.
And finally – Which is your favourite FaceBook resource for eco-friendly living?
Well that would have to be Secondsguru for sure! Thank you!
Has this chat with Emilie inspired you to make your lifestyle more eco-friendly? Read more on our Eco-warrior Series: