'We can't leave everything to cleaners': How these Singaporeans show small actions can bring about change

From organising monthly litter-picking sessions to rescuing old electronics, their actions go a long way towards creating a more liveable home for everyone

Mr Rahul Gupta (right) with his wife Ms Preethi Gupta lead the monthly litter-picking activity at Tanjong Rhu Estate. PHOTO: TANJONG RHU NEIGHBOURHOOD COMMITTEE

A dream home extends beyond the four walls of the house or flat you reside in. It is about a clean, green and sustainable Singapore, that is liveable, endearing and vibrant. Without this, there would not even be a home for your family and you.

This school of thought resonates strongly with Mr Rahul Gupta. Every first Sunday of the month, the 48-year-old leads his wife and 16-year-old son as well as fellow neighbours and volunteers on litter-picking "runs" in their estate.

A resident in the area for 16 years, Mr Gupta is serving his second term as the chairperson of the Tanjong Rhu Neighbourhood Committee.

For safety distancing purposes, volunteers are allocated different routes in pairs, especially along the Tanjong Rhu Promenade park connector that heads into Gardens by the Bay.

"This buzzing area has lots of people coming here for picnics and outdoor activities. It is great but it also means that a lot of litter is left behind. Imagine used masks and cigarette butts landing up in the Marina Reservoir and going into our drinking water," says Mr Gupta.

Every litter-picking mission takes about 90 minutes to 120 minutes, with each volunteer bagging almost 2kg to 3kg of trash, or what amounts to the weight of five basketballs. The team usually finds discarded food and drink containers, cigarette butts, even used socks… and once, an entire vehicle tyre.

In addition to these monthly litter-picking runs, Mr Gupta's committee also works with nine condominiums at Tanjong Rhu Estate on the "Walk & Clean" initiative. This provides residents with litter-picking tools like gloves, trash bags and tongs so they can pick up rubbish on their casual walks. "Many people are civic-minded and want to help but they do not have the right equipment at the right time."

On why he is so engaged in keeping his neighbourhood clean, the global chief marketing officer at a fintech company says it's all about having a sense of ownership.

"This is my neighbourhood and my country, and we all have a bigger role to play. We can't leave everything to the authorities or our army of cleaners. It's shameful and shows the maturity of our country if we cannot even keep our own country clean. I believe in bringing about positive change instead of complaining. Every small action can contribute to keeping Singapore clean. We can help to reduce the problem even if we cannot solve it."

The active community volunteer with the National Environment Agency (NEA) adds: "It's important for a small group to lead and show the way. You can start small or you won't start at all."

In his monthly litter-picking team, the youngest volunteer is 23 while the oldest is 75, proof that age is just a number in keeping Singapore clean and green.

Starting as young as 16

Teenager Laura Lee is an example of how one's age is not an obstacle in being environmentally conscious.

As a secondary three student at Nanyang Girls' High School, she had already kickstarted ZeroWasteNanyang, one of the school's first grounds-up environmental movement.

Under this, a few initiatives were launched, including the StrawFreeChallenge to eliminate the use of drinking straws in the school canteen. She also played a part in implementing the ExpressQueue to encourage schoolmates to bring their own lunch boxes so that they could cut the lunch queue and pick up their meals quickly. Outside of school, Ms Lee, who admits to loving bubble milk tea like many of her peers, brings her own cup and straw.

"Rejecting a straw or a cup can go a long way," she explains. "I also believe that incentives can spur good habits. Instead of the stick, we give the carrot."

Ms Laura Lee founded ToiletRollSG, an initiative that involves collecting toilet rolls for recycling. PHOTO: NATIONAL ENVIRONMENT AGENCY

In 2018, she started recycling initiative ToiletRollSG where students in different schools collected used toilet rolls. For every kilogram collected, recycling and waste management company VEOLIA gave 5 cents in return. ToiletRollSG would then donate the sum to support social causes in Singapore such as the National Kidney Foundation to subsidise the dialysis treatments of patients. At her own school, classes that collected the most toilet rolls - one class hauled in 200kg of these - won prizes.

But why toilet rolls? "They are convenient to collect and also one of the purest forms of waste to recycle because they are made of only one material," explains the 18-year-old who is studying for her A Levels at Hwa Chong Institution. "Initiatives must be economically viable too. For example, it's more difficult to recycle pens because they are made up of too many different materials like rubber casings, metals and plastics which require more resources to separate, and it's hard to recycle used straws, due to hygiene reasons."

She hopes that collecting toilet rolls or encouraging the young to cut down on the use of disposables will spur others to start their own initiatives too and create a ripple effect.

"A truly advanced society is about people who are responsible for the future generations. Some people think that climate change will affect only the future but its impact is present and near."

Want not, waste not

Case in point: the amount of disposed waste in Singapore has already gone up seven-fold in the last 40 years. At this rate, Semakau Landfill, which is Singapore's only landfill, will run out of space by 2035. Double whammy: there isn't enough land in Singapore to build new landfills or incineration plants either.

Not contributing further to e-waste is one of the reasons why Mr Danny Lim believes in not buying more than necessary.

"We are consumer driven because replacing something has become easier and cheaper than repairing it."

The 53-year-old and his family invest only in good quality electronics that will last longer or that can be repaired.

He has a day job as the Community Innovation Lead at Sustainable Living Lab and helps to "rescue and repair" old electronics under the company's Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative Repair Kopitiam.

Although he did a lot of circuit diagnostic and repair in his previous job and has a background in mechanical engineering, Mr Lim was challenged when he opened up his first item, a fan.

He learnt the ropes along the way and today, he can repair air fryers, fans, toasters and, his speciality, microwave ovens. In fact, Danny enjoys tinkering so much that he has filled two bedrooms in his home with spare components.

To minimise contributing to e-waste, Mr Danny Lim repairs old electronics and appliances like this digital kettle. PHOTO: DANNY LIM

Besides thinking twice before buying, he says that another way to cut down on e-waste is to maintain and service one's electronics regularly. For instance, regularly dusting laptops can help facilitate better airflow and prevent it from overheating.

A clean and green Singapore means no mosquito breeding

Adopting good everyday habits is something that Mr Sunnie Tan, PBM, chairman of Ayer Rajah-Gek Poh Constituency, Community Emergency and Engagement Committee (C2E), believes in and practises.

Together with his volunteers, the 68-year-old conducts door-to-door visits, ground engagement and, in more recent pandemic times, uses chat groups and social media videos to educate residents on the dangers of mosquito breeding and on high-rise littering. He also works closely with foreign worker ambassadors on communicating these messages to foreign workers living in dormitories in the neighbourhood.

Prior to the pandemic, Mr Sunnie Tan (right) made regular rounds in hawker centres in his neighbourhood to educate residents on the dangers of mosquito breeding (this photo was taken before the Covid-19 pandemic). PHOTO: AYER RAJAH-GEK POH C2E COMMITTEE

Keeping the mozzies away can be as simple as overturning pails and wiping their rims or changing the water in vases to prevent mosquito breeding.

With the Merchants' Association, Mr Tan also educates hawkers, market stallholders and shop owners on the risks of mosquito breeding.

"We don't sit around and wait for clusters and cases to happen. We want our residents to live in a clean and green environment that is healthy. If there are dengue clusters, they won't be happy, and we want to do our best to give them a happy environment."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.