Interview: Zero waste lifestyle not just for the rich, argues advocate Aurora Tin

It’s not just expensive bamboo toothbrushes and beeswax food wraps.

Some trash are unavoidable, even for someone as vigilant as Aurora. Trash like road tax stickers and medicine packaging end up in the jar. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

Since January 1, 2016, Aurora Tin has been living an almost completely “zero waste” lifestyle. What little unavoidable trash she comes across, she puts into her glass jar — a visually impactful display of persistence that is used by zero waste advocates.

What started as a personal one-year experiment grew into a network of over of over 11,000 people on the Zero Waste Malaysia Facebook group and the organising of Malaysia’s first Zero Waste Fest last year. The group, already a registered non-governmental organisation, also initiated a crowdsourced Zero Waste Map which lists out zero waste friendly stores and organisations in Malaysia.

Aurora is now out to prove that a zero waste lifestyle is not just a rich person’s game, with options being as accessible as looking to traditional practices for alternatives.

We sat down with Aurora, who shared her origin story, her experience as an advocate and advice on living a zero waste lifestyle:

Q: How did you get into the zero waste lifestyle?

I was a feature journalist for a local Chinese language daily focusing on environmental reporting. So I wrote about climate change and I wrote about plastic pollution.

While I was writing articles, I would eat a lot of snacks — potato chips, chocolates, things like that. By the time I was done writing, the bin would be full of plastic packaging.

So I always felt that it was very ironic. I was telling people to stop using plastic but I was still throwing away a lot of rubbish myself.

Then I came across an article by a foreign blogger on living a zero waste lifestyle. I asked my environmentalist friends for their opinions, and they argued that we lacked any kind of support system for it here.

I decided I was going to try it anyway, and set a one year mark as the target, starting January 1, 2016. So it’s me, my husband and our dog.

Q: Even your pet is living zero waste?

Yup. Probably the most zero waste pet dog in Malaysia.

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Aurora, holding up the entirety of over two years worth of trash. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

Q: What are the kinds of unavoidable trash that you come across?

There are a lot of unavoidable trash, as you can see from this jar. But not all of them. Some of the trash I took by accident.

The unavoidable one is normally health related or safety related trash. For example, medicine pill packaging and the road tax sticker.

But the road tax plastic portion of the sticker can actually be avoided as long as you collect it from JPJ (the Road Transport Department) yourself.  The road tax itself is made of paper, but the sticker it comes along with is not recyclable.

The tag for checked luggage are very unavoidable, unless you don’t check-in your luggage. So since last year, we don’t check-in any luggage anymore to avoid this waste.

Q: What would be considered waste?

The concept is very easy. As long as you don’t send it to the landfill, then it’s not trash. If it can be turned into other resources or if you can give away to people who reuse it again, then it’s not trash.

You focus on the 5Rs —  refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot. Then you won’t have trash because you don’t send it to a landfill.

There are certain things that I don’t put in my jar. For example, batteries need to be properly disposed by the waste management company. So we have to send those to the proper station. But I’ve gotten rid of clocks and watches, and other things that use batteries in the house. The only last thing that still uses battery in my house is the air conditioner remote.

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Some trash are unavoidable, even for someone as vigilant as Aurora. Trash like road tax stickers and medicine packaging end up in the jar. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

Q: Sounds like there’s no other option but to be hyper aware of every single thing in your life…

It sounds very complicated to many people because we all have so much trash in our lives. Where do you even begin?

But you should look at it as an ongoing journey to find alternatives to the trash that is in your life.

For example, if you look inside your trash bin, you find a piece of tissue paper. Then you can start thinking to yourself, “what could be a convenient alternative?” Perhaps a handkerchief?

You identify one recurring trash, and then you find an alternative to replace it, and then that one thing is done. You already remove one trash in your life.

You don’t have to change your entire life overnight. Just choose the one that is easiest for you to find alternatives. It could be a water bottle, a toothbrush, an alternative to plastic bags for your bread… anything.

Q: Would you consider what you do to be radical?

It is not normal, but I don’t think that it is extreme.

We focus on ourselves and we only do what we can do, and we try not to affect, or bring trouble to anyone else.

I think it’s not easy for everyone to accept this lifestyle at this moment, but I am beginning to realise that there are more and more Malaysians that are very interested.

Some zero waste alternatives to everyday items, alongside Aurora’s “trash jar” of two years. — Photo by Wong Yok Teng

Q: What are some of the criticisms that the zero waste lifestyle face, and how do you address that?

People criticise how zero waste lifestyle is not very inclusive because it looks like a game of rich people. Some of the products are more expensive than usual products.

Like bamboo toothbrushes. Just one bamboo toothbrush, the average price is more than RM10 for one. So the price difference is very huge.

But that is a misconception, and we’re trying to prove that this is wrong.

If you cannot afford bamboo toothbrush, just don’t use bamboo toothbrushes. You can stick to the normal toothbrush, as long as after you’re done with it, send it for recycling. Or if you don’t want to use plastic toothbrush anymore, and you don’t have more money, maybe you can try a very cheap option, which is miswak. In Malay it’s called “kayu sugi”.

And it’s very cheap. It’s only one or two ringgit and you can buy it anywhere in Malaysia.

There’s no one answer for all and it’s also not about being perfect. So just find an alternative that is easy for you to buy.

In Malaysia, yes, we don’t have that many “eco products” in the market, but the perfect thing about going zero waste in Malaysia is that we have a lot of natural and traditional options. Just that we don’t pay any attention to it.

Like the 999 soap bar. It’s a very old-fashioned soap bar and it’s only RM2 each.

If you are on a small budget like me, you can still go zero waste, and you can save a lot of money. I think I save 40 percent of household expenses at least, after going zero waste.

Q: What’s the easiest way for someone to start?

I tell people that the easiest starting point would be to stop using plastic straws, because you won’t have to spend money or change your lifestyle. But that’s only useful advice for people who already want to start.

Because even though it’s a simple act, it doesn’t convince people who aren’t already interested in zero waste. Some of my friends don’t see the impact that this brings, and say that “the straw is so small”. And it’s too small a gesture for them to care.

So for the advocacy aspect, I focus on planting a seed in people’s minds. Because people can only change on their own, and when they are ready to make their change, at least they will have a place to start.

The crowdsourced Zero Waste Map already lists over 300 stores and organisations in Malaysia that are zero waste friendly.

Q: Do you see a big difference in the infrastructure for zero waste resources from before you started compared to what is available now?

When I first started, I had no information about how to go zero waste in Malaysia. You cannot get any information online. I was struggling at first because I couldn’t find any food without packaging. I didn’t know where to get my detergent. I was under a lot of pressure, so I spent a lot of time online, asking my fiends where I could get stuff.

I gathered information from friends and family who would update me on places they see selling things without packaging. Then my husband and I would ride our motorcycle out to confirm it.

And I don’t want this to be a deterrent for others anymore. I know that this will be the most challenging part for people starting this journey. Last year our volunteer team launched the Zero Waste Map. Everyone can access it.

On this app, we now have more than 330 shops and organisations that provide zero waste related services or products across the country. You can get dry food. You can get dry almonds with your own containers. Aside from food, you can also get personal products, you can identify where you can drop your compost and where you can send your items to recycle among other things.

Even with my experience, I’m still using it now, because there are so many new shops being added by volunteers that I didn’t know about before.

Most of the shops and organisations are in Klang Valley because our volunteers are mostly in this area. We have some in Penang, some smaller towns like Muar, which is my hometown.

Beyond our internal work, we also see a lot of new zero waste shops that have open to be a part of this movement.

Q: How do you feel about the size of the network now?

I’m still very surprised by all this. This was not in my plan. When I started, I only want to remove the trash from my life because I felt so guilty. So I started that facebook group because I wanted my friends to join, so that if I had questions, they could answer me. It was like a private consultation team.

Three months later, the media started to interview me. I was very surprised because I felt like I should at least complete one year before people would actually be impressed. But people would be interested immediately, and following those interviews, more and more people joined the group.

So since last year, I partnered with my co-founder Sue Yee Khor, and we started recruiting volunteers, organising some offline events, developed this database, and then we organised the first Malaysian Zero Waste Fest.

Now we are already a registered NGO in Malaysia. Because we think that if we want to do it bigger, we need to be more than a Facebook group. We want to be a non profit organisation, so what we do is more to education.

You can find out more about Zero Waste Malaysia by following their Facebook page, or by checking out their website. Utilise the Zero Waste Map here.

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