The green house effect

Some families are taking a stronger stance on reducing waste, teaching their children to recycle from a young age

One of the family rules found on the refrigerator in the home of Ms June Lim reads: "Anything that can be reused or recycled cannot be thrown away."

She and her family do not pay lip service to being green. The 31-year- old mother of three and her husband have a recycling bin in their three-room HDB flat in Bedok for used paper, plastic, metal and glass.

Ms Lim would also take some other kinds of items - such as electronic products, ink cartridges and lightbulbs - to designated recycling points in other parts of the island. Unwanted clothes and household items are given away.

From the age of two, Ms Lim's sons - now aged eight, six and three - have been taught to throw unwanted items, starting with plastic and paper packaging, into the recycling bin.

Over the past three years, she has been an active member on the sgfreecycle Facebook group, which aims to reduce waste by connecting people who are giving things away to those who are looking for those things. She is also a member of Singapore Glove Project, where people meet to pick up litter on their walks or jogs.

Ms Lim, a freelance actress and emcee, says she was brought up by her mother to be frugal and the habit stuck. A YouTube video she watched a few years ago about seabirds dying after ingesting plastic from the sea also left an impression on her.

"It made me want to do my part for the environment," she says.

But she and her family appear to be an exception to the norm among households here. Domestic waste, mostly from households, made up 2.1 million tonnes out of the 7.5 million tonnes of waste generated in 2014. But while the overall recycling rate of all types of waste is around 60 per cent, only 19 per cent of domestic waste gets a new life.

Mr Eugene Tay, founder of environmental group Zero Waste SG, believes that few households recycle because it is convenient for residents to just throw their waste down rubbish chutes.

He says: "They might not know where their waste ends up or understand the need to recycle. Also, residents pay a fixed waste disposal fee regardless of the amount they throw away."

But families have a role to play in boosting the recycling rate here.

Mr Tay says that as the top three types of waste in Singapore are plastics, food and paper, families can start by minimising these types of waste in the first place.

To reduce plastic waste, they can buy products with less plastic packaging and avoid using takeaway disposable containers and cutlery.

To avoid buying too much food, families can draw up a shopping list of what food to buy before they go shopping. They should also store their food properly to minimise spoilage, and keep and cook any leftover food.

To reduce paper waste, Mr Tay says families can switch to online bills and statements, use cloth for cleaning instead of paper towels, and recycle paper.

For Ms Agatha Lee, 42, and her husband, practising the three Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle is a no-brainer. She says: "We don't want a home full of things we don't need."

The family keep their food waste to a minimum, use recyclable shopping bags and repair or upcycle old clothes.

Their 11-year-old son knows how to sew and has made new shorts out of old trousers. He also knows how to replace the elastic band in his shorts when it is stretched loose.

Ms Lee, who also runs an environmental website, Green Issues by Agy, says: "Practising the three Rs also saves money and the Earth."


Kids make toys instead of watching television

When Dr Kiruthika Ramanathan Curic recently threw a birthday party for her seven-year-old daughter Sophia, she asked the guests to bring no presents but preloved children's books of theirs instead.

After the party, she gave each guest a book Sophia was no longer reading instead of a goodie bag, like at other children's parties.

Says Dr Curic, 34, a senior manager in the science education sector: "It's our statement against consumerism."

It’s our statement against consumerism.
DR KIRUTHIKA RAMANATHAN CURIC on requesting no presents for her daughter’s seventh birthday and asking guests to give children’s books of theirs instead

She has another daughter, Anjali, aged nine. Her husband, Dr Adrian Curic, 39, is a computer engineer.

The family keep their leftover food in the fridge to be eaten the next day.

Vegetable and fruit peel and used coffee grounds are thrown into a plastic bag, which the children then mix into a compost bed they keep outside their four-room HDB flat in Bukit Batok. This is used to fertilise their pots of ornamental and edible plants grown along the corridor.

Both Dr Curic and her husband teach their children not to have too many possessions.

Instead of relying on the television and iPad for entertainment (the family do not own either device), the children spend their free time making things out of unwanted materials such as paper, wood, cloth and cardboard in the house or salvaged from the neighbourhood. These are kept in a cupboard in a "work room", which also houses tools such as cutters, drills, saws and scissors.

The children are allowed to use these implements under super- vision. Anjali also knows how to use a sewing machine.

Last year, with the help of their parents, Sophia made an electric pottery wheel from an old standing fan, salvaged wood and an old bicycle wheel.

Anjali sewed a handbag for her mother using mummy's old maternity jeans and also made a skirt for herself from an old sari.

The Curics say their desire to reduce and reuse came about largely after their daughters came along.

Says Dr Curic: "I wanted them to harbour the right values towards the things around them, to appreciate that a lot of effort goes into making these things, so they shouldn't waste them."

Lea Wee


Turning empty drink cartons into lamps and coin purses

Very little goes to waste in Madam Lily Han's five-room HDB flat in Bendemeer.

Toilet rolls and old magazines are turned into pencil holders. Old newspapers are handwoven into baskets, and empty drink tetrapaks made into lamps and coin purses. Used coffee sachets are not discarded but turned into laptop slipcases.

Madam Han, 58, a pioneer generation coordinator and a mother of four, says her interest in fashioning things out of waste started in 2001. She wanted to make a few frames for the photographs of her youngest daughter, who was then a few months old.

As it was inconvenient for her to go out shopping with four young children in tow, she decided to make her own photo frames using old calendar stands and ice-cream sticks her children discarded.

"I found it so fulfilling to find new use for old things," she says.


Madam Lily Han with her third daughter, Shu Yu, making wallets out of tetrapak. They have also made an iPad holder from 400 pieces of 3-in-1 coffee sachets and a lamp from tetrapak (above). PHOTO: COURTESY OF LILY HAN

She gets ideas from the things she sees around her and also improvises, teaching her daughters, aged between 15 and 31, to "upcycle" things from unwanted materials at home, such as cloth, cardboard, newspaper, styrofoam and tissue boxes.

Learning their lessons well, her children have a habit of making instead of buying gifts for their friends and teachers.

Her third daughter, Shu Yu, especially enjoys turning would-be trash into something of value.

The 20-year-old undergraduate says: "Using unwanted things, instead of buying something, to create, gives me the luxury of experimenting. I don't have to stress over wasting the thing if it does not turn out well."

Since 2011, Madam Han, who is married to machinist Tony Lee, 66, has also been running regular upcycling workshops for the public at the residents' committee near her home. Her children join her sometimes.

She says: "When people find they can turn something useless into something useful, they are often very amazed and happy."

Lea Wee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'The green house effect'. Print Edition | Subscribe