Ok, I think I can finally say it out loud here, my travel tastes are changing.
We’re mid-way into a four day long weekend and all I did was look forward to try out cycling in town, host family and do a few things together with B now that he’s finally home a bit from his insane work trips. Of course, me being me, we had a planner and all that, because you know, moods sometimes threaten to thwart the best intentions unless we have a calendar ;)
When I don’t have a travel blog for a few months, I usually write about my latest travel thoughts. This time though, I figured I’d document a journey of a different kind – a year of learning about the zero waste movement and how one can try a few things on a small scale. This journey started with my thoughts about conscious travel and has now taken priority in my mind as I struggle to find meaning in vacations that are not just the relaxing kind.
“Stuff” in our lives has two aspects. What comes in and how it’s made. What goes out and how it’s disposed. While “a journey towards zero waste” might sound like it’s all about the disposal, much of it has to do with how and why we acquire things as well. So I’ll split this journey into two, terming it inputs and outputs to amuse my inner engineer (I know she’s there somewhere, although I’ve lost sight of her for a while now).
I’ve disliked shopping as far as I can remember, buying mostly essentials with the occasional fling purchase here and there. Thinking about what and how I buy other things in my life has changed my shopping habits, sometimes taking me beyond a convenient distance to hunt them down.
I’m still experimenting in the area of alternatives to plastic items. Apart from reusable cutlery and bags, other items like toothbrushes and bar shampoos haven’t worked for me at all. I’ve decided that it’s worth it to look for alternatives for items I use frequently (like takeaway) and not worry too much about things I replace only once in a few months (like toothbrushes).
Although I was a hoarder till three years ago, I’ve always looked for outlets to sell, donate and recycle whatever little I was discarding instead of sending it to the trash. It seems to me now that I’ve had an instinct to leave a minimal footprint, even with my hoarded possessions which were almost always neatly stacked and often inventoried.
The recycle aspect expanded my brain space this last year, as I added tetra-packs, aerosols, pens and bulbs to the regular list of recyclables (paper, plastic, glass, metal). I watched China raised the bar on the type of plastic they accept for recycling, throwing the entire recycling supply chain into a frenzy all around the world because they were the largest acceptor. Horror stories surfaced of illegal recyclers in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam accepting shipments of plastic and then unsafely burning those that could not be recycled. Pasir Gudang right across the border being one such example. Singapore’s biggest online environment groups began to debate if it was better to send plastic to be recycled unsafely, or if it was better to send it to our waste-to-energy (WTE) plants where it burns clean without any residue.
My choice? I send whatever I can to be reused at a creative school and let them send it to trash at its end-of-life. The rest I just trash unless it is a high quality, obviously recycled resin type like cleaning liquid bottles and takeaway boxes.
Blue recycle bins exist on all properties but get so contaminated that only 2% of items are recycled and rest are sent to trash. Someone with good intentions is thwarted by someone who aspirationally recycles without knowing how bad contamination can be. I now lug all my recyclables to a godsend, Tzu Chi, where volunteers sort it all before sending it to the recyclers and avoid this layer of contamination.
A large part of this journey also depends on how the city/state/country one lives in manages both consumption and waste.
Inputs: Singapore is quite heavy on plastic packaging for practically anything, with cashiers and hawker stalls reaching for plastic so fast that it’s quite difficult to thwart when you’re carrying your own reusables. I’ve become quite a polite ninja over the year, learning exactly what and how to say at various types of places. As an adult, nothing has taught me to smile and be nice as this journey has!
Outputs: Singapore incinerates it’s waste for energy at four WTE plants that provide 2% of the nation’s electricity, with the resulting ash sent to Semakau landfill and the air cleaned to WHO standards. Semakau is a man made offshore landfill covered with … wait for it … mangrove trees, corals and solar panels. Yes, it’s true. Look it up, maybe they’ve added more! Sadly, Semakau is expected to fill up a full 15 years before its projected end date, indicating the magnitude of the waste creation problem in the country.
Countries like India mostly use landfills and are only now looking at WTE plants. Countries like USA have both landfills and WTEs. The Nordic countries incentivise the heck out of their citizens to recycle across categories. And Taiwan has aced the game in Asia with recycling trucks that play music and apps that announce their arrival in neighbourhoods. China will soon follow, with penalties for incorrect recycling. It’s a joy to read these various journeys across the globe, while trying not to be disheartened that Singapore refuses to even ban plastic bags. Oh well.
As I buckle down at home this year with at least four months between big trips (this year’s theme seems to be “think big!”), I’ve found an outlet for both physical and mental journeys on this path of reducing consumption and waste generation. Events, talks and volunteer opportunities have fed into this journey at many points, helping me learn and implement with enough time spent at home to explore my options. What started as a desire to travel with low impact has now translated into a desire to live with low impact. And that, dear diary, is my ode of gratitude to travel.