Nothing Goes To Waste

New Straits Times
Wed, 21 Feb 2007

For this Penang couple, almost nothing goes to waste
by Nisha Sabanayagam

KUALA LUMPUR: Imagine producing only one bag of rubbish per month, per household. Impossible?

Not for Penang couple Mylene Ooi, 62, and her 73-year-old husband, Don Theseira. They have been perfecting the concept of zero waste for the past six years.

“Almost nothing leaves my house,” said Ooi.

Items such as paper, glass bottles, aluminium cans, old clothes and more are recycled.

Ooi says the zero waste concept is quite simple, starting with not buying what you don’t need.

Then there is the practice of clean production. This means buying household items that leave little or no waste.

By using bars of soap instead of liquid detergent for cleaning, for example, Ooi is practising clean production.

“When the soap is used up, you have no plastic containers to throw away,” she said.

The couple always has a tiffin carrier in the car, so if they decide to buy takeaway food, it can be packed in the carrier.

This means they don’t need the styrofoam containers or plastic bags.

Ooi has no love for plastic because it is difficult and expensive to recycle.

“I hate plastic,” she said, adding that the few things she has that are made of plastic are “treated like gold” and not thrown away with the rubbish.

With her “10 pot” composting system, Ooi has also reduced the amount of kitchen waste she produces.

She collects all her fruit and vegetable peels and leftovers from meals, and at the end of the day, puts it in a flower pot and covers it with five centimetres of soil.

She does this to the same pot for the next two days before moving on to the next one. By the time she starts filling the 10th pot, the contents of the first is ready to be used as compost.

“I dump it into my garden and start all over again,” she said. “There is no need to put kitchen waste in a bag and trash it.”

The couple’s environmental campaign began about 10 years ago, after Theseira read a news article about schoolchildren recycling newspapers in the neighbourhood.

“If the school kids can do it, then the taman can do it too,” he said.

So the couple spread the word, and, once a month, neighbours would bring their old newspapers to their home to be sold to a recycling contractor.

“Soon, people from other neighbourhoods were bringing us their papers,” said Ooi.

From newspapers, it spread to glass and aluminium tins, and the rest is history.

Today, Theseira and Ooi give free talks on zero waste and recycling to a wide range of people, including large corporations like Petronas and Intel.

Most of the companies that have invited Ooi and Theseira to speak have set up recycling spaces within their grounds.

The employees bring their glass or plastic on a certain day of the month and leave it at the designated area.

The company then gets a contractor to collect the items, said Ooi.

The money from the sale of the items is used for employees’ events, such as office parties or family days.

“It’s a win-win situation,” said Ooi, who thinks most people are willing to recycle but find it inconvenient.

“So we try to show them how to make it convenient,” she said.

The couple was invited to set up a booth at the Malaysian Environmental NGOs (Mengo) Annual Conference last month, and they tried to speak to as many government officials as possible about the zero waste concept.

“The government must do its part,” said Ooi, adding that there should be a law against packaging that cannot be recycled.

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. They have won grants and awards from Reader’s Digest magazine and the Ford environmental foundation.

Not ones to rest on their laurels, their next focus will be on saving and recycling water.

“People need to remember that we are only ‘renting’ this earth and we need to leave something for our grandchildren,” said Ooi.