It’s a beautiful December afternoon in Sabah, the beautiful coastal state in East Malaysia, where I live!
The sun is out, peeping through the clouds after non-stop rain all morning. The air outside is crisp and fresh. I can see my neighbors’ children riding their bikes outside. They are excited to be free after being cooped up indoors all morning. But this is not a post about the weather… I want to share with you my top 5 tips for living a life without plastics.
I’m sitting at my desk by the window, finalizing an Ad Campaign for a lovely Eco lodge near Kinabalu National Park.
The lodge owner recently listed it on Airbnb and Booking.com and needed professional photos taken of the property. He wanted to be able to upload them onto the two sites, as well as onto his social pages on Instagram and Facebook.
I’m excited at how well the photos came out, despite the rainy weather. On each of my travels, I always take a couple of extra pics of the landscape and pleasing sights, just to share with my friends on Facebook, Instagram, and my new blog.
It Has Been Rainy Lately
We have had so much rain in Malaysia over the last few days, and it feels like we’re living in a shower. This is monsoon season, and in Kota Kinabalu City, where I live, we’ve received the highest amount of rainfall on record in the last two years.
Thankfully, we haven’t had any power blackouts because of the storms, and the internet has also been stable. So I have used the time indoors to maximize my freelance work. I was even able to take on more short term work, so I’m thrilled that all the time cooped up indoors will be worth it.
My brother, who lives in the state of California, US, tells me that they have had lots of rain too this December. The Los Angeles Times was even calling it a ‘Rainfall Convoy’; such a funny name. It seems like the storm was in a convoy of 18-wheeler big rigs lined up in the sky, with each truck taking turns to pour it out on the Californians.
I know that I should be grateful for the rain, mainly because of the water crisis we’re facing in the city. But I’m one of those ‘Summer Lover’ personality types…… I thrive in the sunshine and wilt in gloomy weather. Umbrellas and boots bore me pretty quickly. My mum used to call me her ‘Little Sunflower’ because of this.
I miss her cooking and wish home wasn’t so far away. Nostalgic moments right there!
Malaysia’s Plastic Situation
Rain is a beautiful thing, but in some parts of Malaysia, it reveals a hideous problem that the country is struggling with: Plastic Waste Disposal.
When it comes to Plastic Pollution, Malaysia has been ranked as one of the worst countries in the world. When it rains, storm drains clogged up by plastic waste are unable to let through the storm run-off, creating flooding all over the cities.
And as for the beaches, some of them are gross…. bags, cans, and bottles wash up with the tide and litter the seashore.
Malaysia not only struggles to cope with safely disposing of its plastic waste but is also still importing plastic waste from other countries.
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: ‘Why would any country import plastic waste from another?’.
Well, in Malaysia’s case, it’s purely for commercial reasons. Recycling plastic has become a lucrative business niche in certain countries like China, the Philippines, and my very own Malaysia.
Illegal Recycling Plants
After China banned the importation of plastic waste in 2018, Malaysia became the world’s leading destination of plastic junk. We ended up receiving a whopping 7 tons more trash above the quantity it regularly imported annually. Plastic recycling plants opened up all over Malaysia to capitalize on the unexpected business boom, with many plants operating without proper licensing or control.
So what happens is that the plastic which is deemed unsuitable for recycling is usually burnt or dumped in landfills. Both of these are toxic to the environment. Burning releases poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere while dumping the plastic waste into landfills releases pollutants that end up contaminating land and water sources.
My Turning Point to Life Without Plastics
For a long time, I was one of the many Malaysians who were “passively concerned” about the alarming level of plastic pollution in the country but never really did much to change anything.
- I complained about the smoke from burning waste if I happened to be in the vicinity;
- Littered beaches were disgusting if I happened to stroll past a corner where plastic bottles, cans, and other junk had been dumped;
- As for the landfills, I never even gave them a second thought when driving passed them. To me, they were as noticeable as the power lines….just part of the terrain.
Like many other people, I reasoned that the plastic pollution in the country was a creation of past government regimes, so it was the government’s responsibility to “Take care of their problem” and provide a solution. We felt that the Malaysian government needed to step up its efforts in cleaning up the country.
Many of us believed that the Minister of Environment was not doing his job. We felt that our legislators in government were not passing (and enforcing) laws that would manage plastic use, plastic waste, and plastic pollution. Plastic wrapping and goods are so entrenched in my society that it’s almost impossible to live a life without plastics.
If you happened to live near an illegal recycling plant (and there are so many), you would see the billows of smoke from burning waste on the days when they would incinerate the trash. We would simply complain, get out a handkerchief or flimsy face-masks if it was awful, and continue with the day.
Back then, I lived about 10km from the nearest waste-burning plant, so I was always confident that I was a safe distance away. I did not think I would be affected by the plumes of noxious smoke.
People Started Getting Sick
That was until people around me started falling sick; it was my friends, neighbors, and their children. People were contracting nasty chest infections like bronchitis and pneumonia with alarming frequency. The children were the most vulnerable to these infections because their immunity is naturally weaker than that of adults.
Two things happened to me that marked my turning point towards embracing Conscious Living. In late 2018, my 5-year old nephew came down with a nasty chest infection that had him admitted to hospital for seven days straight, wheezing and weak.
I visited the family in hospital as they looked after their little boy, and it was heartbreaking. The doctors treating my nephew told us that the poor air quality in our neighborhood, contaminated by smoke from burning trash, was a primary cause of the chest infection.
When they gave me the statistics of the number of people they treat every day for respiratory infections, I was shell-shocked. It hit home that we were all at a high risk of becoming the next health statistic!
Moving to Sabah to Escape Pollution
That was when my husband and I decided to move to Sabah, away from the flight path of ‘Death by Plastic Smoke.’ We chose Sabah because it’s a beautiful place set on the East Coast of Malaysia. It has contrasting scenes of an equatorial rain forest in the interior, yet offering modern city life in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu.
Malaysia has recycling plants everywhere, but what we liked about Sabah is that the state strictly regulates the plants there. They only serve as collection points for paper and plastic waste. The plastic is then exported for recycling in the main recycling facilities located in Kuala Lumpur.
Which leads me to the second major event that caused me to re-evaluate my lifestyle seriously. I fell pregnant in early 2019. With a baby coming, everything changes. Your world suddenly stops revolving around you as an individual, and your entire thought process and life changes to prioritize the baby.
Since this happened a short while after my nephew’s bout with chest illness, I was galvanized into action. There was No Way I was going to continue exposing myself to the polluted air during my pregnancy and risk my baby’s health too. By February 2019, we were settled in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Supporting the Circular Economy
Over the last year, I’ve been doing a lot of research, just to get to know as much as possible about zero waste and the circular economy. It’s become a deliberate daily decision for us that we work to mold our lives into sustainable approaches. Over the past year-plus, we’ve made a lot of changes to our lifestyle and habits. Living a life without plastics has become our new mission as a family.
Sustainable Things We Do at Home:
These are some of the sustainable things we do at home:
- Separate our trash into glass, paper, plastics (duh… I know! That’s an obvious one, right! Let’s just leave it here for the sustainability newbies.)
- We refuse to buy plastic-wrapped bakery products like bread and buns. We found a lovely family-run bakery who pack the baked goodies in brown bag wrappers. We like it that we can reuse the brown bags for other stuff around the house, like lining our trash cans.
- We are going shopping with our carrier bags made of cloth and other biodegradable materials. This promotes the concept of reuse and also works to reduce the amount of packaging used by the store. Sometimes stores overdo packaging, which we usually end up throwing away the excess stuff.
If you enjoy DIY projects, you could make your shopping bags from old sheets or other fabric. If you prefer to buy, there are plenty of cotton or non-woven, Eco shopping bags that you can pick up.
I found some with fun messages on ecobags.com; they even do custom printing if you want your personalized message – Pretty Cool! Stasher Bags and Lunch Skins also have some pretty smart sustainable packaging solutions that you can check out.
4. When I go to the farmers market, I carry recycled jars and ice-cream tubs to put my herbs and smaller vegetables in. I use them to pack strawberries, chilies, grapes, and such small items. In this way, I don’t need packaging from the sellers, and I don’t take extra home bags that I don’t need.
5. Refusing single-use bags for fruit and vegetables, especially those that don’t get punctured or quickly squashed. Pineapples, carrots, citrus fruits, apples, cabbage, etc. are examples of fruit and veggies that can be carried without individual wrappers or bags. Most times, we use some nifty hand-woven wicker baskets, like this one here, which works perfectly.
Online Communities I Support
These are some of the Facebook Groups I discovered and joined, to get in on the action.
- Zero Waste Sabah movement
- Zero Plastic Community (Facebook Link here)
- Okuri – Zero Waste Shop (Facebook Link here)
Just a little brief about the Zero Waste Sabah movement: I got to learn about this movement when I was tagged to one of their Facebook posts. Zero Waste Sabah had been getting a lot of air time for their initiatives in getting people involved in waste management. In their first year alone, they have grown to 7487 members, with new members joining daily.
Zero Waste Sabah movement actively reaches out to educate people that plastic pollution is not just a ‘government problem.’ They create awareness to show that each person is responsible for looking after the environment we live in. Each of us is responsible for looking after Mother Earth. This movement advocates for a sustainable and circular economy, through the 5R Principles:
Live Plastic Free – Learning as We Go
There’s something that Zero Waste Sabah and many other sustainability movements have achieved in East Malaysia. They have succeeded in changing the mindset of the community, to be that of taking responsibility for the change they want to see.
So far, I have learned a lot: I am still learning as I go along, but I’m determined to support the circular economy. I want my child to have a healthy world to grow up in, so I am doing it for future generations.
It’s No Longer About Me.
Following this intro to living a life without plastics, my next posts will explore plastic-free and Zero Waste lifestyles. So I’ll be revealing to you my journey towards a Zero Waste Kitchen and Zero Waste for Kitchen Leftovers. If you love coffee, or even if you prefer tea like me, then you must check out my Zero Waste for Coffee & Tea Lovers post.
There’s so much fantastic stuff you can do with leftover coffee grounds, and it will shock you. Please join me on this journey – it’s going to be so worth it, I promise you.
Have you started living consciously? Are you involved in any Eco activities? We would love to know: Drop us a line on any of our Social Media handles and share your thoughts and experiences with us.