VICE on Earth Day 2020

Environmentalists Tell Us How Their Zero-Waste Lifestyles Prepared Them for Lockdown

"Being zero-waste…helps one become more conscious of everyday habits and the environment, which is a plus in these times."

by Koh Ewe
22 April 2020, 7:35am

Photos courtesy of the subjects. 

On April 7, Singapore entered “circuit breaker” mode, a tightening of restrictions on public activities and movement to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus within its borders. Initially only to last until May 4, it was extended to June 1.

Like lockdowns everywhere, people are mostly stuck at home. Besides being stripped of the convenience of getting anything we want, any time we want, we’re also forced to confront the waste that we produce on a daily basis.

In the face of an unprecedented public health crisis, VICE finds out what a sustainable lifestyle looks like for Singaporeans right now and how going zero-waste may be the unexpected key to life under lockdown.

Roxane, 31

Environmentalists Tell Us How Their Zero-Waste Lifestyles Prepared Them for Lockdown

VICE: Hi Roxane! What does a “zero-waste lifestyle” mean to you?
Roxane: A zero-waste lifestyle is a concept, and not a realistic practice — even composting is a form of waste. It’s about being conscious of your impact through your consumer choices, trying to make the best decision, and maybe reconsidering whether you need to buy something in the first place. For example, I have a plant-based diet but that is only really helpful to the environment if I don’t replace animal products with heavily packaged refined foods.

For this reason, I prefer to use the term “zero-waste mindset” or “zero-waste attitude.” When you have a zero-waste mindset, you’re naturally wired to look at the options you have and make a decision based on the least waste between the two. It doesn’t mean they’re zero-waste all the time because sometimes, that's just not within reach in current society.

What are some of the habits you’ve cultivated with a zero-waste mindset?
For example, between buying pasta at the supermarket, refilling a pasta jar at a zero-waste refillery, and making my own (which involves getting all the ingredients), I choose to refill at a shop down the road. I am fortunate to have it close by.

Other examples include using a menstrual cup — I have not used pads and tampons in over a decade, except when I am caught off guard and have to run to the supermarket to get a small pack of liners.

Zero-waste can be complex. There are times when it’s just too much work, unless you are super organised and have all your meals ready to defrost and reheat. I haven’t found it hard to reduce food waste, because I cook very simply and eat a lot of raw food. I buy loose fruits and vegetables as much as they are available.

I have a cat named Meeko, and many ask me how it’s possible to go zero-waste with a pet. There are a few simple things you can do that make a world of difference. I bulk order cat litter made from soy, which I can flush down the toilet safely, avoiding plastic bags and terrible clay litter. For food, I have a large automatic feeder that can safely hold a few kilograms of dry pet food. This avoids small bags and cat food tins. Of course every now and then I buy snacks in plastic, but in my opinion, it’s the everyday stuff that matters the most. What you repeat daily has the potential for the greatest impact.

Do you think a zero-waste lifestyle has helped you better adapt to a life in circuit breaker mode?
The circuit breaker honestly hasn’t changed my lifestyle much, if at all, besides not being able to dine in restaurants.

I see everyone complaining about not being able to shop or how expensive it is to order everything online, but I don’t rely on service providers. I’m a creative person and I think anyone trying to reduce waste naturally becomes more open-minded and creative.

For instance, I saw a huge panic around the availability of masks, but the answer to me was simple. If I didn’t get one, then I would simply stitch one. Who doesn’t have old t-shirts or pillowcases? There’s also been a rush for sports products online, which shows how people just buy things for any small reason. Who needs new dumbbells? If I need something heavier, I use rice bags or whatever that’s available.

Reducing waste lies a lot in planning ahead, so I don’t feel like I’m suddenly stuck with last-minute needs in this period. I don’t have any! I know how to cook, so I don’t worry about food delivery. Reducing the dependence on various products makes life so much easier, mentally too! The toilet paper problem too — we all have bidets in Singapore, surely toilet paper isn’t an essential?

So I haven’t been affected by life in circuit breaker mode. With an open mind, you just find solutions for any restrictions you have.

Coco, 21

Environmentalists Tell Us How Their Zero-Waste Lifestyles Prepared Them for Lockdown

What does a “zero-waste lifestyle” mean to you?
Coco: I don’t think there’s a need to be a purist on this one — you don’t need to create absolutely no waste in a zero-waste lifestyle and it’s impossible anyway! I see it as striving to lead a low-impact lifestyle by avoiding unnecessary waste. This ranges from clothes to single-use plastic to food to electricity. Many times, what may seem unavoidable can be easily avoided with a simple tweak in one’s habits, a little commitment, and the belief that this adjustment, however small, is meaningful.

What are some ways that you try to minimise waste?
The list can go on and on. There are more common practices like finishing my food and bringing my own bag, cup, and container. Less conventional habits include using a handkerchief instead of tissue, using a bidet and only using toilet paper to dry off, not buying new clothes, and adjusting the settings of my electronic devices to conserve electricity.

How has the circuit breaker affected your zero-waste lifestyle?
I am very against consumerism so not being able to shop doesn’t affect me negatively. Getting food delivered is posing a bit of a challenge to my zero-waste lifestyle, but I say “a bit” because I’ve been able to get around it by supporting businesses that provide zero-waste food delivery! I collated them in a publicly accessible list.

In fact, this has given me an opportunity to cultivate a Bring Your Own (BYO) habit among my family members because they get takeaway food a lot more now and understand that BYOing helps businesses reduce packaging costs. I think it’s important to support local food and beverages businesses at this point.

What are some lessons that you hope people can learn from the lockdown experience?
I hope that during this lockdown, people can see how wasteful it is to get food to-go with disposable bags, boxes, and cutlery.

Now that everyone’s eating at home every day and collecting trash in their own bins instead of various public bins, they may find themselves clearing their bins a lot more and realise that it’s really wasteful.

I also hope that people realise we really don’t need that many things in life. During this period of lockdown, we literally only need two or three sets of clothes. There are so many items in our homes that are non-essential, things that we could seriously rethink whether we need to own in the first place. Could we have borrowed these items for a special occasion?

All that said, though, there’s a lot more nuance to this. I’m not saying that this lifestyle should apply to everyone. I understand that there are a lot of people out there who are struggling to meet their basic needs, especially in the time of COVID-19. When I talk about how people might realise there are so many things they don’t actually need, it definitely applies beyond bread and butter issues, to more privileged groups of people who also consume more.

On another note, this pandemic could also be an opportunity for people to become more sensitive to the needs of others. There are huge inequalities in our society which have put some in more vulnerable positions than others during this period.

It’s good to see an outpouring of support from some Singaporeans who have donated money or essential items to those in need.

Chu Yu, 21

Environmentalists Tell Us How Their Zero-Waste Lifestyles Prepared Them for Lockdown

What does a zero-waste lifestyle mean to you?
Chu Yu: It means doing your best to reduce the waste you produce, as much as possible, across the value-chain. This includes eating plant-based foods as their production processes generate significantly less waste, and using up perfectly edible food that would otherwise be wasted. It’s not limited to just reducing plastics and single-use packaging at the final consumption phase!

I practise BYO, eat plant-based, and reduce my food waste as much as possible. I also choose reduce-to-clear groceries if I know I can finish them.

How has the lockdown changed your lifestyle?
It has actually allowed me more time to cook delicious meals at home, which I love! Supporting food and beverages businesses is really important too, so I’m trying to support more of my favourite local vegan shops by bringing my own containers.

I wouldn’t say that being zero-waste has significantly helped me in these unusual times, but some zero-waste habits like BYO definitely help some businesses reduce woes over buying more single-use packaging.

Being zero-waste also helps one become more conscious of everyday habits and the environment, which is a plus in these times.

Going zero-waste requires a bit of research, so that helps people become more conscious. When people BYO for groceries and food, it could also help others think about how they could make more environmentally conscious choices.

Do you think that this lockdown experience could encourage people to go zero-waste?
Yes, definitely! Especially people who were quarantined in hotels. I saw on Instagram that someone collected and photographed the trash she produced in a week and it was really an eye-opener for her. I’m sure her sharing on social media also got people thinking about the trash they produce on a daily basis.

Mel, 29

Environmentalists Tell Us How Their Zero-Waste Lifestyles Prepared Them for Lockdown

What does a “zero-waste lifestyle” mean to you?
Mel: I prefer to look at it as being more mindful and conscious about the things we choose to use, buy, or consume.

The “zero” in the term "zero-waste" is an aim, not a rule.

How do you cultivate a “zero-waste mindset?”
The best tip I can share is to get into the habit of changing your mindset towards consumption. This is the one and only thing you need to do in order to start making changes.

My 3Rs are : Refuse, Reduce, Rethink

Refuse — Do I really need it or can I make do without it?

Reduce — If I must have it, how much of it do I need?

Rethink — Think, and think again, about whether your choices are the best ones.

The golden rule of zero-waste, I feel, is summed up in this old saying: "Use it Up, Wear It Out, Make Do or Do Without!" This thought process goes beyond the plastic waste that zero-waste is so often associated with. That’s why I prefer to see this lifestyle choice as being low waste, conscious, and mindful instead. There are many factors to consider when it comes to sustainability and the best thing you can do is to keep learning about the things that you use and buy.

It’s not about a number in the end. It’s not about achieving that “zero,” or a 15-item capsule wardrobe, or how many pieces of trash you have in a jar. It’s about being conscious of our choices and actions.

How has the circuit breaker affected your lifestyle?
I am one of the lucky ones who can work from home with some adjustments. The production for our business has slowed down quite a bit, and we shifted our focus to essential items like bath supplies, bamboo toothbrush, soap, and reusable masks made from off-cut fabrics.

Personally, I reduce going out on grocery runs, and do a little more planning for what to buy when I do.

How do you think your “zero-waste” mindset comes into play during this period?
This "more conscious" lifestyle has changed my relationship with clothes, food, and general consumption. I am less stressed over having a certain quantity of supplies, and try to identify exactly what I need. I do not take, buy, or consume more than what is needed.

Shihui, 37

Environmentalists Tell Us How Their Zero-Waste Lifestyles Prepared Them for Lockdown

What does a “zero-waste lifestyle” look like for you?
Shihui: A “zero-waste lifestyle” is one where I minimise consumption and waste. I buy and use only what I need. As a result, I also get to really enjoy what I buy, use, and have. Without the clutter, I can truly focus on what makes me happy.

To be zero-waste is to buy what I need, so that I can savour what I’ve bought, feel that it is enough and just right, and not have to throw away any excess.

How has the circuit breaker changed your lifestyle?
Prior to the circuit breaker, I had not ordered food delivery before. During this period, I’ve sometimes ordered food to be delivered to friends, as a way of letting them know I care for them.

At home, I only have two reusable masks and no disposable masks. This has been helpful to “moderate” how often I should be making grocery trips, exercise, or get takeaway food, since the masks take time to dry after each wash.

Has your zero-waste lifestyle been challenged during the pandemic?
Yes. For example, I have donated disposable masks to migrant worker organisations who are distributing it to migrant workers. People ask how it aligns with my “zero-waste lifestyle.” I feel that it is about intentional care — be it for the planet or for communities — and seeing what is the best thing to do in each moment.

Do you think your zero-waste lifestyle helped you adapt to circuit breaker measures?
I think it has helped very much! When I started on the zero-waste journey in 2017, I began to trim away what is “extra” or what I didn’t really need in my life. I accumulated less items and stopped chasing entertainment.

It has allowed me to focus on people and on the things that really matter to me.

Life during this circuit breaker period is pretty much the same — stripped of all the excess, there is more time to spend with people that truly matter to us. I cherish simple moments like enjoying the sunset, the changing colours of the sky outside my window, or the fragrance from a cup of tea.

I’m learning to be content with what I have, and this inner peace is meaningful, with or without COVID-19.

Clare, 27

Environmentalists Tell Us How Their Zero-Waste Lifestyles Prepared Them for Lockdown

How would you define a “zero-waste lifestyle?”
Clare: A “zero-waste lifestyle” is a lifestyle where people aim to produce as little waste as possible in their daily life to make a sustainable impact on the earth and the society in the long run.

While the name suggests a lifestyle where the individual produces no waste completely, practically-speaking, I believe that the production of waste is inevitable given the economy and society we live in today. However, what we can definitely control is the amount of waste we generate on a daily basis, and this includes our individual choices.

Has the circuit breaker changed this definition for you?
In the beginning, the zero-waste community had conflicting values especially when we saw more people starting to wear their disposable masks out. However, in times like this, we understand that sometimes we need to re-evaluate values. When the safety and health of others takes precedence, our values have to shift accordingly too.

Ultimately, our goal is to create positive change that is beneficial for both the environment and for the people who live in it.

It is up to us to constantly adapt and to think of new ways to promote values that can support ourselves, our community, and society at large, no matter what circumstances we are thrown into.

What does a zero-waste lifestyle look like for you during this circuit breaker period?
My coworkers and I have always been using our reusable containers for food takeaways whenever we can. This aligns with the government’s statement about using reusables during this period to help local businesses minimise packaging costs. I spoke to a vendor who operates a chicken rice stall and he agreed that customers who bring their own containers help him cut costs on disposables.

One of my coworkers, Chun Yeow, has a rooftop community garden where he grows his own vegetables. On an emotional level, he also thinks that growing his own vegetables has been a therapeutic experience and it’s his way of escaping from the pressures of life, especially during this time.

What are some lessons you hope people will take away from this lockdown experience?
I think people should remain open to using more online tools, whether it is for e-learning in schools or for business conferences. This helps to limit travelling, especially air travels. A lot of money is also often used for food catering and accommodation when people around the world travel to these meetings, and a lot of food is generally wasted at such events.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Find Koh Ewe on Instagram.


VICE is committed to ongoing coverage of the global climate crisis. Read all of our Earth Day 2020 coverage here, and more of our climate change coverage here.