Published 1 February 2016 ● Last Updated on 1 October 2020
Lauren Singers and Bea Johnson.
Both heroes … my heroes.
Lauren is a NY-based environmentalist. She generated a 16 oz maison jar worth of waste over the period 2013- 2015. Lauren does not have a rubbish bin in her house because she does not need it! The girl makes her own toothpaste, deodorant, uses recyclable bags to purchase groceries and vegetables, composts at the neighbourhood community composting facility, uses reusable bottles to buy her beer, reusable mugs for her coffee and bamboo brushes to brush her teeth!
Bea is a homemaker who lives in California with her husband, two teenage boys and a pet dog. This family of 5 generate a 32 oz maison jar worth of waste per annum. They have minimal wardrobes which can be packed in a stroller bag each, they rent their home out when they are on vacation, make their own household cleaning detergent (which they use diligently to clean everything in the house including their pet!), use hand-made tote bags for shopping, use maison jars for buying non vegetarian food (always in bulk), and compost at home! Bea makes at home her own eye kohl, mascara, and uses cocoa powder as a blush on. She strictly follows the 5 R principal- refuse (what you don’t need), reduce (the excesses), reuse (what can be reused), recycle (what can’t be reused but must be used) and rot (compost what can be).
A point you may have noticed (I sure did!) is that both these lovely ladies are based in the U.S.A. where there are multiple avenues which can facilitate one to be successful in a low waste effort – communal composting facilities, bulk dry grocery is sold without packaging, homes are larger (in the suburbs), vegetables and fruits are sold in farmers markets without packaging and such.
Which brings me to the key point of the article, is zero waste even possible in an average Asian household?
I tried to answer the question by re-evaluating my own lifestyle. But before I start, let me highlight here
Caveat 1 : It is on a best- effort basis.
Caveat 2: For the purpose of the analysis, I am taking the liberty of calling my home an average Asian household! We are a family of 5, 3 adults and 2 kids. We live in Singapore and we are a keen to be green bunch of people.
Caveat 3: I am also here assuming that Singapore can be representative of an average Asian city.
Golden rule before you start, if you’d like to make any attempt to move towards zero-waste too: Get your kids and partner’s buy-in. The purpose is defeated if the little opinion leaders and the hubby are not on board! So I did just that. It wasn’t very difficult because thanks to Secondsguru, our kids (my husband is still learning the ropes, but he’s showing promise) are already fairly aware of the right and not-quite-right in the area of waste creation and control.
Some useful resources/ documentaries to watch with the entire family: From cradle to cradle, Wall E, Slow Death by Rubber duck. For adults strictly: John Oliver: Food Waste.
Disclaimers out of the way, in order to list down what can be done to move towards making our average Asian household a lower waste generating one, I decided to use Bea Johnson’s 100 tips as a guideline. As I looked at our way of life with a critical eye, I realised that there are a few things we are already doing: we recycle a lot(List of what can be recycled in Singapore) , we give away to charities very often, we sort our waste fairly diligently so it can be recycled where possible – but there are several others we are miserably failing it. I gave my household a pass, moderately fair and a fail verdict on the different aspects I evaluated! (Truth be told, I was harsh!!). So here we go,
KITCHEN: Swapping paper towels for reusable rags, stainless steel containers for sandwich bags was very doable. The pressure cooker is already being used in our home, recycling leftover food is what we are masters at, we avoid buying water/drinks in pet bottles but if we do, we recycle it (Read: Piggy Bank Club), as for the milk/juice cartons, they are diligently rinsed and sent in for recycling, we carry our own water in bottles and take reusable coffee mugs for take away coffee! Many a times we recycle at home: my daughter recently made an iPhone cover using a used milk carton, my kids have made countless useful items using toilet paper rolls ( pen holders, color pencil storage boxes, halloween candy holders). The list is endless!
However, the part that seems a bit difficult in Singapore is composting at home. Unless you live in a landed property in Singapore, composting is not an easy-to-achieve task. [Read: Composting at home by Shivani Puri Malhotra ]. Trust me, I am still looking for that perfect home composting solution where you throw all the food waste in an electric composter and get compost out of it. Does anyone have any clue on such solutions for households (not industrial size) in Singapore? Another tough-to-execute kitchen rule in Singapore is to buy grocery in bulk- don’t get me wrong, vegetables and meats can be bought in bulk at the wet markets (though I am not sure how the food stall owners will react if you carry your own maison jars to buy your meats in :-)) , but the dry groceries still have to be bought packaged. Even the Warehouse Club by Fair Price has all bulk items which is great but they are sold pre-packaged.
Verdict: MODERATELY FAIR
BATHROOM: I have to admit other than 100% recycled toilet paper, we are not very low-waste in our bathroom. We do not make our own antiperspirant, we do not use package free solid soap, or make our own toothpaste. I can’t get myself to shampoo my hair with baking soda and vinegar or use lemon water instead of hair spray. What I will say here however is that I will try the following- bamboo toothbrush, making my own toothpaste, trying cocoa powder as a bronzer, making my own homemade balm, using vinegar for mold (given there is plenty of it in on my winter wear and shoes from my Hong Kong). I will update you on this in a few months! Good luck to my family!
LAUNDRY and CLEANING:We already use rags for cleaning all surfaces, metal scourer for stainless steels, have houseplants all around us. What I need to also source is a wooden brush for light scrubbing of dishes. I am very charged up and inspired to make my own all purpose cleaner and Homemade starch using tips from Bea. Sadly our dishwasher is a decade-old monolith which runs for 1.5 hours and uses a lot of water, but I am convinced that it is more water-efficient over hand-washing. We live in a rented unit, so will negotiate a new dishwasher at the next lease renewal. Meanwhile if anyone has an interesting suggestions on how to get efficient in using water to wash dishes, please drop me a line on email@example.com.
Verdict: MODERATELY FAIR
DINING and ENTERTAINING: Almost every time we entertain, we use ceramic dishes, use tap water with lemon slices and mint instead of fizzy water, we stopped buying CD’s aeons ago (all the music is on our free-to-use spotify playlist) and we hardly watch T.V.. For birthday gift wrapping we use newspaper and recycled colored ribbons. Where I need to incorporate Bea’s tips in our household are in making our own candles using beeswax and lead free wick and also gifting “experiences” to friends for B days and parties rather than just another not-of-much-use gift. The one suggestion that I find most difficult to execute is the one where she says we must educate our friends on our zero waste efforts so that they don’t bring waste to our homes. If any of you have your tips here , then please share!!
Verdict: MODERATELY FAIR
OFFICE: Given I have my own home office, I was wary of doing this assessment the most. After all this is one part of the home I can’t blame anyone for. The good news is that the home office did quite well on most fronts- reusing single-sided paper, using paper clips, using memory sticks instead of CDs, reusing envelopes. Occasionally the kids and I make recycle used paper to made handmade paper. We are diligent library users and donate our books regularly to the library/ salvation army. All the waste that is produced is allocated to recycling bin. Printer cartridges are a part of e-waste and we drop them (with other e-waste items) at the designated collection points in Singapore so that they can be properly recycled.
CLOSET: The online shopping bug has not hit me yet and I hope I stay as removed from it as I have always been. Even though we regularly donate old clothes which are in good condition, all our closets need to be sorted through for those pieces of clothing that are just hanging in there in the hope of being worn one day! Once this is done, I plan to donate most of them to a local charity and send some back home with my wonderful helper for her nieces and grandkids to wear. Then I have grand plans to start some serious upcycling and make tote bags, dusting cloth, clothes for small nieces and nephews from my rarely worn outfits. My bags and shoes collection is way more respectable than most girls I know, but then again, I need to cut down there! I have set myself an end February 2016 target to clear up my wardrobe and make it lean and mean. I would like make a special mention of Agatha Lee here who is the Singapore based expert on wardrobe recycling, upcycling, mending and runs workshops round the year to help out in these areas. She also co runs “Connected Threads Asia“, a platform where all the stakeholders of the fashion industry in Singapore – designers, manufacturers and consumers – can collaborate via events, discussions and dialogue with the ultimate objective to make the industry a socially and environmentally responsible one. Bravo Agy!
MEDICATION: We have a minimal supply at home at any given point in time. We believe in air drying open wounds unless serious, do not buy jumbo medicines. I do not own a “neti pot” and can’t imagine myself using it even after practicing yoga for over 7 years! If anything changes here, I will share it on Secondsguru Face Book page for sure! The most inspiring bit in Bea’s tips were the natural alternatives which I have decided to use as and when needed.
GARDENING: Ours is not much of a garden but we do have house plants in our open balcony, use metal and wooden tools, give away plant saplings to friends who want them! So hell no, we can not pee at the base of citrus plants in our very open balcony and I do not think that it will happen in the near future either. Sadly, composting is again missing in our little balcony garden.
Verdict: MODERATELY FAIR
– One common thread in the above review is that composting is much needed and sadly difficult to execute in Singapore but perhaps possible in Asian countries where homes come with gardens. Just wondering whether a community level solution like in the U.S work in Singapore ? Perhaps community centres get together and install composting machines to start off with and then it can be done at the individual condominium level? The good news is that the National Environment Agency(NEA) in Singapore is holding food waste recycling trial runs in Tiong Bahru Wet Market and Ang Mo Kio Wet Market and hawker centre. Food waste recycling machines have been installed and stall holders are getting trained on how it is to be used. The pilot trials will run till 2017 and will explore the viability and feasibility of on-site food waste recycling systems. This is NOT composting but I would say a step in the right direction.
– DIY culture nurtures hand-made home remedies which are natural and less wasteful- toothpaste, deodorant, medicines, cleaning liquid, shampoo, rags to wiping cloth…the list goes on. Let’s try and gradually adapt as many of these as we can in our day-to-day life.
– While my kids have agreed to co-operate , I hope that the euphoria does not wane and they continue to do so, particularly when I execute the made-at-home toothpaste, hair wash, donate their ‘favourite’ albeit ‘never worn’ clothes and such.
Am I preaching and asking you to turn zero waste overnight? Absolutely not! But I do hope my little self analysis will nudge you to do your own. Not all of us can be Lauren Singers or Bea Johnson – but we don’t have to be! All we need is to care for the environment (and if you have read this far, I am sure you do!) and inch a little more towards a little less waste.
It would be great if our readers would attempt a self analysis and give us feedback on firstname.lastname@example.org on whether reducing waste is indeed an area of interest for them. And if you are already doing it well, please send in success stories so that we can share them with our readers (with your permission of course!) We can set up a community of like minded individuals and work towards a common goal: One of lesser waste in our lives.
Watch how Lauren and Bea manage the ‘towards zero waste lifestyle’ in their respective homes.
Related Articles: Composting at home by Shivani Puri Malhotra
Simone13 May 2017
I’ve enjoyed your article. There’s a home composter machine for food waste available from a Korean company. But it’s pricey. http://list.qoo10.sg/item/SMART-CARA-CS-10-W-FOOD-CYCLER-INDOOR-KITCHEN-COMPOSTER-EASY/445997473
The price has increased since I last asked, 2 years ago.
Imaan21 February 2016
Great article.If there is a will its very doable .I have to say since I started composting at home ( and it happened in the first month of moving in, my dustbin rarely has anything in it.I recycle every bit of paper,plastic tin etc through a recycling company that collects once a week.My kids use the blank side of printed paper notices for their work.I use newspaper instead of plastic bags to pick up after my dog.All my kitchen waste goes either in the compost bin or the bokashi or as a feed to my birds.I carry my own shopping bag everywhere.Yes , have to start carrying my cup for juices and coffee.And last three years I haven’t used disposable cutlery for my kids birthday parties or any parties for that matter.Gift Wrapping papers are reused or I simply use newspaper/ old magazines.I make Party bags for kids birthdays parties with old magazines.And off course, we subscribe to all the newspapers and magazines online.Vinegar and Soda are great cleaning agents and I have started using them a lot.Though making my own shampoo and toothpaste are Great ideas.Its doable folks !!
Lara Rath21 February 2016
Wow Imaan. Hats off to you for your efforts. It’s people like you who will inspire more to follow the path towards less waste. Please keep it up!
Agatha15 February 2016
To be honest it’s a difficult journey but let’s take it one step at a time! Things will get better once a critical mass has been achieved. Thanks for the mention.
Lara Rath15 February 2016
True Agy. Moreover Secondsguru is just showing the direction to our readers. Little steps with lots of motivation will truly make this journey more meaningful.
Nrc2 February 2016
Hai, really enjoyed your blog. My tip for composting is a wormery. I did have one on my balcony. There are several options, handmade or store bought. In goes anything organic except bread and mest. Out comes worm tea, your plants will love this.
There is a lot of info online ?
Lara Rath2 February 2016
Appreciate your suggestion to my question on ways to do composting at home. I will definitely do more research on wormeries. Honestly what I am looking for is an option which (hopefully) comes in a machine form , one where the creepy crawlies have no scope to entering my home via the balcony :-).
Rajiv Nanda1 February 2016
Thanks Lara for sharing. Good account of all the opportunity to recycle / re-use. We all need to follow and do our part to make the world a better place for the the future
Lara Rath2 February 2016
Thanks Rajiv. If we have been able to convince to start thinking more green, we feel honoured. Let’s keep the green flag flying as a community!