Updated: Jun 17, 2020
by Juita Ramli.
One of my first experiences in Malaysia on “no plastic bag” shopping was at a departmental store in Damansara Jaya. I was back home for my summer holidays from the UK. The year was 1990. I was queueing to pay at the Women’s Department checkout and was standing behind a European lady who was in the midst of paying for her purchase. She seemed happy until the assistant cashier started to bundle the merchandise into the ubiquitous shopping bag rendering rather largely the name of the departmental store. Quite immediately the European lady protested and promptly requested that her purchase not be packed into the plastic bag.
The cashier was utterly confused and said that this is common practice in Malaysia. The European lady wasn’t going to comply. The staff, unable to express her predicament should she not carry out her job as per the SOP, persisted. In no time, the customer, aghast with her dilemma, started to berate the assistant cashier on the evils of plastic bags and that we as customers should have the choice to decline its use. She also ranted on about how ignorant we were about the impacts of plastic bags on the environment. I can only guess from her accent that she hailed from one of the Scandinavian nations. I was stunned. Awkwardly, I was in awe of this European woman. I had never witnessed such behaviour in public, more so in a departmental store where shoppers generally quietly browse. The worse a Malaysian would do is argue with the cashier about the price of the merchandise. I doubt her rant was quite understood by the poor girls behind the cashier. They looked totally bewildered. I don’t remember if the European lady left with or without her merchandise packed in the plastic bag. Despite the unpleasantness of the afternoon, I was grateful for the incident. I was enlightened on customer rights, about the evils of plastics, about responsible shopping, about impacts of our daily lives on nature and the environment. I suppose this was the beginning of my journey towards becoming a more conscious and responsible consumer vis-à-vis the environment.
My exposure to green living during that period was limited to glass bottle recycling and use of plastic bags with a fee. Established supermarkets in the UK placed in their car parks designated bins for bottle separation. Glass bottles were separated according to colours: clear, brown and green. Supermarkets charged 5-10 pence per plastic bag at the checkout but didn’t quite offer alternatives. So unless you were a super conscious consumer, you would not be prepared with BYO shopping bags at the register. My foray into green living following my return to Malaysia started with trying to get my mum to reuse plastic bottles for house cleaning. I paid for several memberships with well-known international brands for this purpose with little success. My meagre salary as a new graduate meant that I couldn’t quite afford their biodegradable cleaning products. But I learnt that it makes absolute sense to reuse the bottles. Purchasing the same product repeatedly and discarding used empty bottles into the bins seemed ridiculous when you could just buy refills. These MLMs partially developed the “green living” concept but didn’t take it to the next level. Perhaps, because their raison d’etre is profit-making and not, sustainable living. Nonetheless, I learnt some good things from their business concepts.
Thirty years on much has changed. Zero waste stores now exist not only in developed countries like the UK but are popping up everywhere in Malaysia. Many stores throughout Malaysia charge consumers for plastic bags and offer reusable shopping bags for a fee. Most do so because they are adhering to local laws prohibiting the use of single-use plastic; however, more and more stores are voluntarily establishing ‘no single use plastic’ at their checkouts. Hip and traditional establishments alike have joined the “No Plastic Straw” campaign where customers are encouraged to BYO straws or provided stainless steel straws in the effort to prevent further damage to the environment caused by discarded plastic straws. Despite the lack of laws on recycling, many NGOs, Resident Associations and councils have established recycling centres encouraging the public to voluntarily participate in trash separation. As a result, several private companies have become proactive in developing the necessary technology to manage separated trash for profit and engaging with recycling centres in providing the necessary service for disposal of trash away from landfills.
These encouraging developments on waste management in Malaysia have had a positive impact on my efforts to become a zero waste consumer. Currently, with a family of six, my green living attempts include separation of trash, compost making, recycling reusable items, decreasing unnecessary consumables, and reducing as practically as possible the use of single-use plastic. The latter is often a challenge in an urban environment such as KL especially when it comes to buying takeaway food. Although I pride in labelling myself as the ‘Tiffin Mum’, I do find myself occasionally without a takeaway container in my car. It is quite depressing when I become conflicted over my desire to buy food and balancing that against its purchase packed in harmful single-use, flimsy red plastic bags.
This conflict continues in my pantry as I have yet to be a completely zero-waste cook. Many items I need for cooking are packed in plastics. Supermarket vegetables and fruits are largely wrapped in cling films. Fortunately a few grocers are beginning to offer fresh produce wrapped in compostable materials such as banana leaves whilst some grocers are open to requests declining plastic bags. Going to the pasar or wet market is key in my effort to reduce food plastic wrappers. It is heartening that pasar sellers are open to not plastic-wrapping fresh produce nor providing you with flimsy plastic bags when you decline. Pasar-shopping means no price stickers on your purchase either! At the pasar, I bring containers to put my fresh meat and dry goods such as lentils, spices and powders. Vegetables and fruit go into my shopping bag or basket: satisfying and reliving the days when I used to accompany my mum to the pasar!
I am happy that in recent years I have been able to return to refilling household cleaners and personal care items at zero waste stores I frequent in KL. Many outlets are happy for you to bring your own containers for refills of floor cleaners, laundry detergents, dish washers, handwashing liquids, shampoos, body wash etc. I patronize these outlets for a few things as the refills can be quite pricey. My preference is a particular wash powder made of recycled soap that works wonders for almost every cleaning need at home. It comes in a paper box with no plastic in sight.
Separating trash was much more of an effort at the home front but with practice and constant reminders my family members are much better with tossing rubbish into correct bins. Many years ago I was pleased with a purchase at Ikea of a three-bin waste separation system. So at home, plastics, aluminum and paper go into separate bins. Glass items are placed in another box. But it was not until recently that I was able to finally participate in an external waste separation effort organized by an NGO based near our residential area. The NGO provides a recycling centre for separation of plastic, glass, paper, aluminium, used electronic items and batteries, used clothes, and spent cooking oils.
Living in an apartment meant that I had to find suitable ways to compost food scraps. After several attempts, I am now composting using the ‘Bokashi’ method, which has proven successful as using this method eliminates uninvited pests and undesirable smells. Although I use the compost in the pots of herbs I have around the kitchen, I do generate quite large amounts of compost. So my extra compost would go to community gardens that are happy to receive home composts to fertilise their vegetable gardens. Nothing wasted!
Much has changed since my encounter with that Scandinavian lady in 1999. “Living Green” in Malaysia is getting easier and not impossible. It takes effort just like many other good habits we desire to achieve. With impacts of global warming and climate change we are witnessing at this turn of century, I believe individual collective efforts contribute to nurturing our already damaged natural environment. Yes, the natural environment is capable of restoring itself. The revival of the bushland in Australia after unprecedented, massive bushfires is a recent example of nature’s amazing capabilities. But humans can’t live in environments that experience recurrent environmental devastation. Responsible consumerism though “Green Living” is necessary toward achieving the bigger picture of arresting impacts of global warming and climate change. Let’s together be “Green Living” ambassadors for the planet and survival of our future generation.