Aurora Tin is the founder of Zero Waste Malaysia, a non-profit organization sharing tips and solutions on personal waste reduction through workshops, talks, exhibitions, and campaigns. With a background in environmental journalism, she started a Zero Trash Project in 2016 and has since committed to this lifestyle. We joined with her to talk about all things zero waste.
Here are 9 questions breaking down everything you need to know about zero waste:
Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the catalyst for you to move towards a zero waste lifestyle? How do the dots connect to now?
I am a writer and a zero waste lifestyle advocate. I have been living a zero waste lifestyle since 1st Jan 2016. I started my One Year Zero Waste Experiment in 2016 together with my husband and we put all our trash in a 500ml pasta sauce jar, a jar that still holds our waste even now.
Before all this started, I was a journalist focused on environmental reporting. However, I felt disappointed in myself when I realized that I was also contributing to environmental issues. By that time I had just finished a book called No Impact Man by Colin Beaver and was amazed by his zero waste journey. I thought that if he could do that in New York, then I could also do the same in Malaysia. That’s how I started.
Soon my stories garnered media attraction and were featured on different channels, more and more people joined the Facebook group I created “Zero Waste Malaysia” in conjunction with my experiment. We were not very active for the first year until we organized our first offline event: a Zero Waste Night Market Shopping Trip in early 2017. Soon after, we formed our first volunteer team, developed Asia’s First Zero Waste Map and finally in Dec 2017 we organized Malaysia’s First Zero Waste Fest – this was where the whole Zero Waste Malaysia movement took off. Since then we’ve grow rapidly and got ourselves registered as a non-profit organization in Malaysia. To date we have 22k members across the country.
What were some of the biggest challenges for you in this transition? Any unexpected ones?
At the beginning everything was very challenging, it was very difficult to buy a bubble milk tea jar, and I didn’t even know where to buy food without packaging! However with many practices, I found that it was not that difficult to adopt a zero waste lifestyle. It’s actually a journey to find alternatives to replace things that create trash in our life. I’d just go to my trash bin, check out what’s inside, take one trash out and start to find alternative for it. So now if you ask me what’s the biggest challenge in this transition, I would say the biggest challenge was to make the decision to transform my entire lifestyle. To overcome all the fear and uncertainty took a lot of courage. But once I made the decision, the rest came easy. Trash was never the biggest challenge in this journey, it was always the mentality of it all.
You often talk about the difficulty in committing to a zero waste lifestyle while considering cultural sensitivities, how do you balance them both?
I started my journey with love: the love for nature, for animals and of course the love people. It is important to remember the reasons why I started it all. Of course I try my very best to give consideration to the environment and any cultural activities by putting in a lot of preparation, planning and communication to ensure zero waste. However there are times when things get out of control and I need to compromise. I find that it’s equally important to make sure our lifestyle doesn’t bring any trouble to anyone else, because this is the choice that we made, no one else should “suffer” from that.
What are 3 misconceptions people may have about zero waste living?
Zero waste lifestyle doesn’t make any trash at all, zero waste lifestyle is expensive, and zero waste lifestyle is all about sacrificing.
What would you say are the advantages in living zero waste?
There are three main advantages I benefit from living zero waste: Firstly, I save a lot of money. By refusing unnecessary waste, reducing consumption and reusing everything I already owned, I cut down around 40% of my household expenses. Secondly, I am much healthier. Living zero waste lifestyle means that I consume less packaged food, as oftentimes packaged food means processed food. Now I eat more natural, unprocessed and fresh food than before. Also, personal care products without packaging are more likely to be handmade by local makers, which helps me to stay away from chemicals and artificial preservatives. Lastly, I am happier. I used to feel guilty about my impact towards the environment as someone who loves nature yet polluted it at the same time. The inconsistency weighed me down and made me feel disappointed in myself. Since I started my zero waste journey, I don’t make any unnecessary burdens to Mother Nature, and this really makes me happy.
With the ascend of environmental and sustainable issues, what advice would you give someone who wanted to live zero waste. Where should they start?
Zero waste lifestyle is a journey to find alternatives, we replace things or behaviors that create waste with a substitute that does not create waste. We all come from different backgrounds so there’s no one answer that fits all. The first thing to do is to take a look at your trash bin, understand what kind of waste you make every day, then pick the one that is the least important to you. For example, you might find one plastic straw in your trash bin, and you decide to start your journey by removing this trash from your life. What you need to do is to think about the alternatives to replace this straw.
When we are looking for alternatives, we use 5R principles as our guide, which is Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot. Ask yourself if you can refuse to use straw, if the answer is yes, then next time you just need to say I don’t want a straw when ordering beverage. By using magical R “refuse”, you already removed this trash forever from your life. What if you can’t refuse plastic straw? Is that possible you use it less (reduce) or get yourself a reusable straw (reuse)? Zero waste lifestyle might seem highly difficult but it all starts with baby steps, remove one trash at a time, as long as you have started this journey, you are already one step further than you were yesterday!
I noticed that part of your zero waste commitment is also to buy nothing new – what are your thoughts on swapping, donating and repurposing clothes? How can the impression of it being “cheap” be changed?
We are now living in a linear economy where we take, process, and throw precious resources without fully utilizing them. We have been practicing this model for decades and creating huge amounts of waste. What we are trying to move towards now, is a circular economy where everything should either be reused or repurposed, no resources should be buried in the landfill for naught. The system is not there yet but swapping, donating and repurposing is definitely contributing to circular economy. It doesn’t have to be cheap but it definitely needs some creativity. For example, swapping clothing with friends who have similar tastes definitely can maintain your sense of fashion while conserving the environment.
What can brands do to be more thoughtful in their impact?
Brands should alter their mindset when designing a product, each product should be designed in a way that can be repaired, reused, repurposed, or at least recycled or biodegradable. Companies should take the responsibilities to the products that they make, hold themselves accountable to the way their intentions impact the environment.
What do you see for the future of zero waste? Where are the biggest challenges, and wastage?
Along with the rise of climate change, I anticipate that the zero waste concept will become a major trend in industry, commercial, and individual levels in the very near future. Government, companies, and individuals will realize that applying a zero waste concept to every single decision they make will actually bring a huge benefit to the organization, society, economy and environment in the long run. The biggest challenge is still to change the mindset of the decision maker, once they are ready to make a systematic change, every other problem won’t be a problem anymore. I always say, if humans can go to the moon, then there’s nothing that’s impossible, the only thing that really limits us is our imagination.
Aurora Tin is the founder of the non-profit organization, Zero Waste Malaysia. She is also an author and columnist focusing on environmental reporting. She started her Zero Trash Project on January 1, 2016, finding alternatives for every trash in her daily life. After practicing her Zero Waste Lifestyle for more than 3 years, the amount of trash her family has produced can be fit into a 500-ml glass jar weighing less than 100g. She writes a weekly column for major media in Singapore and Malaysia. She was also a speaker of TEDx Petaling Street 2016. In 2016, she founded Zero Waste Malaysia with Sue Yee Khor. They share tips and solutions on personal waste reduction through workshops, talks, exhibitions, and campaigns. Malaysia’s First Zero Waste Fest was held in December 2017 with special guest Bea Johnson, the founder of the global zero waste movement. The fest was featured on 20 major media outlets and reached millions of audiences nationwide. Zero Waste Malaysia also launched Asia’s first Zero Waste Map that includes over 500 zero waste-related businesses and organisations. Currently, Zero Waste Malaysia has over twenty three thousand members across the country.