4 pragmatic reasons to go green

I pen a monthly column in the Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, sharing with the readers my eco-friendly habits and tips.  Here is the loosely translated version of my article that was published on 5 August 2019.

How does one pick up environmental friendly habits and eventually stick to this seemingly inconvenient zero waste lifestyle?  Compare bringing along own set of reusables such as utensils, lunch boxes, shopping bags, and drinking bottles versus accepting single-use plastic/paper/styrofoam disposables;   worry-free shopping day out as the latter, right?

Even the stallholders are sometimes surprised by my bring-your-own (byo) efforts to go green.  Occasionally, one would attempt to be encouraging by complimenting me to be “saving the earth and the world” by going zero waste.  It is heartening to know that they are willing to accede to my requests to pack my order in my lunch box despite causing a temporary disruption to their “assembly line”.  However, I am also discouraged by the fact that I am the only person in the queue (sometimes, the entire hawker centre) that refuses disposable containers, utensils and plastic bags for my order.

In July, I attended an environmental talk hosted by the Temasek Shophouse. As the young entrepreneurs shared their journeys in setting up their social enterprises that tackle the local food waste issue, all attributed their commercial breakthroughs to an essential aspect of their business model; that it must make economic sense to their customers, either help them make a fatter profit or save on operational costs.  Just show ’em the money.

Assuming altruism doesn’t exist, how do I convince my peers to make the switch to a more sustainable lifestyle then?  I came up with four reasons, four pragmatic ones, inspired by the Economics 101 lesson takeaway from the Temasek Shophouse session (check out more upcoming events here.)

1. BYO habit saves me money

In our throw-away society, many have been conditioned to pay an additional 20 to 50 cents for the use of plastic containers for their takeaway orders.  These can add up if takeaway food orders are frequent.  Recently, some retailers have begun to charge for plastic bags, while cafes offer discounts to customers who bring their own reusable tumblers. My nylon shopping bags and stainless steel tumblers are now money-saving tools!

2. Zero-waste lifestyle saves me time.

Before going plastic-free, I spent a considerable amount of time sorting and cleaning stashes of recyclable PET containers and packaging materials.  A small recycling corner slowly expanded to cover half a storeroom with piles of “craft supplies” to-be waiting for me to work my upcycling magic.  Luckily, it dawned on me quickly that my rate of upcycling too low for my plastic waste producing rate.  I decided to stop accepting single-use plastics, and this simple step amazingly frees up a copious amount of time, now that I no longer need to deal with these avoidable plastic junk.

3. Place restrictions to boost creativity

According to this article, creativity can be boosted by restrictions as “the limiting nature of the task can bring out your most creative side.”  Without always relying on convenient and cheap disposables as my go-to solutions, I started exploring different waste-free alternatives or come up with my own solutions through improvisation or thinking out of the box.  Treat going single-use-plastic-free as a creative exercise for the brain!

Aside from creativity, I also picked up the good habit of planning ahead on what reusables I carry out as well as the discipline to stick to my shopping list based on the number of bags and containers I bring along.

4. Earth-friendly habits promote a healthier lifestyle

You may have heard of plastic pollution affecting the water and air quality, and marine life.  How about the problem of micro-plastics invading our own body?   As it turns out, what we thought we have thrown out as rubbish is coming back to haunt us, through ingestion.  Scientists have found traces of micro-plastics in the food we eat, such as fish and even salt.

It’s awfully uncomfortable watching stallholders pouring boiling hot soup into disposable plastic containers as harmful chemicals from plastic containers could leach into the food.  For the sake of my health, I would rather be safe by choosing takeaways packed in my own stainless steel Tingkat containers, even if this seems to be slightly more inconvenient way of pack food, compared to getting disposables.


These are some of my pragmatic reasons for turning green.  What’s yours?

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

If you asked me what shifted my lifestyle to go eco-friendly, I would tell you about “TRASHED“, a documentary film released in 2012 that greatly influenced my plastic-free habits today.  The scenes where an endless trail of toxic plastic waste piled up in the landfills or washed ashore will make one wonder how much single-use plastics everyone in the world goes through every day to create such a big environmental mess.  It didn’t take me long to raise the sustainable flag and begin my zero waste journey after watching the film.

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

Determined to weed out all single-use disposables and unnecessary (or unavoidable, in some cases) packaging waste, I turned to the family-run provision stores, traditional medical halls and wet markets in the neighbourhood as my less trendy solution to zero waste grocery stores, think bulk food stores minus the neat transparent dispensers, stylish canisters, and minimalistic decor.

Utility comes first.  An array of food items is displayed in the bags or cartons that they are delivered in.  Canned food and bottled sauces are stacked up to fill any space left on the shelves or walls.

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

Besides getting my regular supply of fresh produce and dry foodstuff from these stores, I also made friends with a seamstress (who has helped mend countless seams and replaced worn-out elastic bands) and a hardware store owner (who finds my love for old-school enamel wares and natural bristle brushes amusing,) What a vast ecosystem that supports a waste-less lifestyle!

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

These stores are only as zero waste as you allow them to be.  These small business owners have also kept up with Marketing101, packaging their products in clear shiny plastic bags to attract customers.  But there are still plenty of choices that don’t come prepacked or sealed, these are what I usually go for.

Not all stallholders are prepped for zero waste shoppers though, but thankfully the ones that I patronised are patient enough to accede to requests for purchases packed in my own containers or bags.  To save the stallholders’ time so that they can attend to more customers, I usually make my zero waste check out system as less hassle as possible for them, I can do the organising when I reach home.

Here are some of the packing habits I have adopted over years of shopping at traditional wet markets:

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

1. Put all purchase on the table.  Stand back and admire the produce at their prettiest, sans plastic wrappers.

// I usually buy just enough groceries to cook about four meals, so that I don’t overpack my fridge and end up blocking the much-needed air circulation to keep the air cold.

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

2. Remove these rubber bands before wrapping the vegetables with newspapers and storing them inside the fridge.

// I always stop the stallholder from packing the greens in plastic bags, they usually loosely cover the roots with newspaper to preventing soiling my shopping bag.

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

3. Wrap hardy vegetables like bitter gourd, carrot, lettuce, broccoli or cauliflower in homemade beeswax wraps or newspapers.  Store in the fridge.

// I notice that produce kept in beeswax wraps stay fresh longer, but I don’t recommend buying and keeping vegetables for more than two weeks just because they are wrapped in beeswax wrap!

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

5. Store vegetables that need not be stored inside the fridge in a breathable paper sack on the kitchen counter.

// Includes garlic, onions, tomato, potato, and today, I also bought monk fruit aka Luo Han Guo to make cooling tea.

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

6. Rinse to wash firm tofu, add water to cover tofu, store in a container and keep in the fridge.

// Wet market sells firm tofu and regular tofu without plastic packaging.  Just bring a container of the right size.  I love tofu, explore tofu recipes here and here, differentiate different types of tofu here and here!

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

7.  Button mushrooms are almost always sold in cling wrapped plastic boxes.  On occasions when I see them in paper box, I will grab enough to make a meal.  I will place the whole box inside the fridge.  They brown fast, so best kept in its original packaging with enough space to breath.  This site suggests storing in a paper bag.

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

8. Rinse and hang dry produce bags and shopping bags immediately, ready for the next grocery shopping trip.

// Why buy when there are free ones?  I asked for these mesh bags which the stalls discard.  Useful for buying fruits.

How I unpack, organise and store my weekly zero waste groceries // Mono+Co

There you go, all nicely wrapped and organised.  The next step is to start cooking and use up the groceries!

Simple Pleasures

// unlimited supply of sweet basil at home, it’s that simple.

// found a random encouragement note in a library book.  I am not alone.

// removing labels from jars and containers without leaving any adhesive residue behind should be this easy to encourage reusing and recycling.  Refilling these emptied detergent bottles with DIY citrus infused vinegar cleaner.

// mom couldn’t resist buying a box of unbelievably-cheap-but-expiring-really-really-soon Betty Crocker pancake mix from the discount store but needed help to finish.  That’s how I ended up having pancakes AND waffles for breakfast.

// gave my favourite good morning towel a make-over using natural food dye: turmeric, a shade that I really love after using it for my DIY beeswax food wrap.

// using food dye means I can use my cooking pot for the project.

// because every drop counts.  Transferring cooking oil to a repurposed glass bottle.

Of Muffins and Kitchen Compost

Of Muffins and Kitchen Compost // Mono + Co

I am lousy with plants but I somehow manage to keep my pots of sweet basil and Indian borage alive. There are two reasons why I try hard to keep plants along my corridor.  One, I get packing-free herbs without paying.  Two, I add trash to large pots of used potting soil.  Trash like eggshell, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and baking cups.

Of Muffins and Kitchen Compost // Mono + Co

I buy compostable baking cups and bury the used ones in a big pot of soil that I keep aside as my own lazy version of composting project.  That’s just one way of reusing trash from my kitchen.  I don’t have great gardening skills to tell you I am producing quality compost, but at least I am regularly harvesting basil leaves for my Aglio Olio recipes.

Regrettably, my non-compostable trash level piles high with plastic packaging from ingredients such as sugar, wholemeal flour, salt, milk and butter.

Although I send all plastic and cardboard waste for recycling, I really can’t be sure whether they will get that new lease of life as recycled products.  I have observed how the content in recycling bins are often mixed with contaminants and non-recyclable materials. Sometimes, bags from overfull recycling bins are transferred to general trash bins, undermining all the “rinse clean and dry” efforts of many household recyclers.

In case I have not repeated myself enough over the years, I believe reducing what I consume is going to make the most positive impact on the environment.  Forget recycling, because it only makes unnecessary trash generation less guilty.

I am sharing this whole wheat muffin recipe because it’s a keeper.  My daughter baked it for the family.

By the way, if you know how I can get zero waste butter, drop me a note will you?  I can easily cut down on cakes or substitute butter in recipes with oil.  But skipping butter on toast is a whole different level, especially for a bread lover like me.

Of Muffins and Kitchen Compost // Mono + Co


WHOLE WHEAT MUFFINS

adapted from here

1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar**
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
2 cups wholemeal flour

** original recipe called for 1/2 cup sugar plus 1/2 cup brown sugar

001. In a mixer bowl, add softened butter, sugar, and baking soda with cream at medium speed .

002. Add beaten egg and vanilla to the mixture and beat till light and fluffy.

003. Add milk, mix well.

004. Remove bowl from mixer and add wholemeal flour.  Using a spatula, stir to mix the batter until all ingredients are just combined, or no spots of flour is visible.

005.  Line muffin tray with baking cups.  Fill cups 2/3 full with muffin batter and bake for 15 minutes in a preheated oven at 200C.

Post-CNY Stuff : Five More Get Upcycled

First five here, this post shares mostly what I do with empty CNY goodie containers.

++006 P.E.T Containers, Large ++

// for infusing cheap artificial vinegar with orange peels to make great smelling all-purpose cleaner.  Compared to the dispensing spout from original vinegar bottle, the large larger mouth makes it easy to drop citrus peels into the container.  Right bottle with vinegar that has gone through just one day of rest with peels.


++ 007 P.E.T Containers, Small ++

// three of these fit the depth nicely in my pantry drawer where I keep the dry goods.

// bonus: they weigh 50 grams each without its red lid, useful for bulk grocery shopping where stall holders can do mental calculations faster without taring their weighing scales.


++ 008 Ferrero Roche Clear Box ++

// it’s too pretty, too functional to be thrown into the recycling bin,  I am sure there are areas at home or office that could do with one or two frill-less clear box like this.  If you’re crafty, you might like these ideas:  this herb planter, and this trinket box, this mini greenhouse, and this tiny aquarium.


++ 009 Tin Box No.1 ++

// Another airtight container great for buying/storing biscuits and crackers bought from the bulk snack shops at wet markets.  No: bulk shops are not limited to upscale shopping centres, and  yes: wet market in the heartlands carry many items in bulk sans packaging.  All we need to do is bring our own bags/containers and ask nicely for no plastic bags.


++ 010 Tin Box No. 2 ++

tin box recycling

//  I have no plans yet for this beautiful gift box that came with yummy pineapple tart.  When there is a creative block, I will turn to short-term hoarding as a solution.  A week of displaying this on the wall and if there are still no ideas, recycle it.  It’s progressing as you can see, the magnetic buttons were added to spur more ideas.

Tea Seed Powder, Again

I am a guest author this week at Secondguru, one of my favorite local eco-lifestyle website for green and sustainable living ideas.  Pop by and read me wax lyrical about the amazing tea seed powder.

I mentioned that I am always looking for more ways to use tea seed powder, sometimes also known as Camelia seed powder.  The multi-use eco-cleaning product that I originally sourced from Taiwan to replace commercial dish detergent (no more dry hands from daily dishwashing chore!) has since become a must-have item around my house.

This is one of those days when the sun is bright and laundry dry so fast that I start looking around the house for more things to wash, with tea seed powder of course.

And this is how I hang my makeup brushes to dry, clutched along my window grilles with stainless steel laundry pegs.

If you have not discover this wonderful natural cleaning product, it is pretty worth a try considering it’s really affordable at SGD4.90/kg.  I have shared more tips on teaseed powder uses and where to buy on Secondsguru!

Zero Waste Decor for Chinese New Year 2018

Today is the second day of Chinese New Year.  I can already forsee that there will hardly be much decoration waste to discard when the celebration is over.  We are happily reusing most of the decorative items from previous years and I use a lot of tassels like these to inject a Chinese new year feel into almost anything around the house.  Everything gets stowed away rather than being thrown away, and since they are not that elaborated, they don’t take up much space in the store room either.  As long as I can practice self-control when it comes to pretty wicker hamper baskets!

Zero Waste Decor for Chinese New Year 2018 // Mono + Co

// reused : vase, tassel, mini wooden peg with bird motif, grey jute string, patterned origami paper.
// new : baby’s breath in pink, to be dried and added to my dry flower collection.

Zero Waste Decor for Chinese New Year 2018 // Mono + Co

// reused : hamper basket, artificial peach blossom from hamper deco, tassel, red packets
// new : mandarin oranges.  When all the exchanges are done after the new year visits, the fruits will be eaten, the peels to be soaked in white vinegar to make an citrus infused all-purpose cleaner.

Zero Waste Decor for Chinese New Year 2018 // Mono + Co

// reused : a pair of door couplets and 3 “福” wall decorative images, since I refrain from buying zodiac specific ones.

Zero Waste Decor for Chinese New Year 2018 // Mono + Co

// reused : red packets from last year turned into lanterns this year, and tassels.

Zero Waste Decor for Chinese New Year 2018 // Mono + Co

// reused : umeshu glass bottle-turned-vase for a bouquet of artificial flowers, also pre-loved.

Zero Waste Failures

Not all my waste-free-upcycling-craft-attempts are smooth sailing.  As much as I hope to transform every discard into something useful or wish that I can make everything that I need from scratch, sometimes, they just don’t turn out the way I thought, or like they say: Pinterest fail.

Here are a few to share:

++ DIY Shower Pouf ++

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

// inspired by this
// material: nylon mesh packaging bags for garlic, free from vegetable stalls. jute string, from Daiso.
// how it failed: the material was too rough as a shower pouf, the tough nylon makes them better off as produce bags. turned out that nylon is a recyclable material, so off they go into the blue recycling bin,

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

++ DIY green fabric dye++

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

// inspired by this
// material: wilting pandan leaves that were unsold by end of day, free from stallholder
// how it failed: the fabric did not absorb the color with the boil and soak method, my fabric used to squeeze pandan juice ended up many shades darker (photo below right).

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

++ DIY five stones ++

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

// material: used empty silk pyramid tea bags, dried green bean as filling
// how it failed: the fabric just couldn’t hold the stitches, started falling apart after the 4th game.  better zero waste luck sticking to loose tea leaves.

++ DIY liquid laundry detergent ++

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

// inspired by this
// material: labour brand bar soap
// how it failed: the liquid soap turned into blobs of fats instead of a running liquid detergent

++ DIY cocoa eyeliner ++

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

// inspired by this
// material: cocoa powder and coconut oil
// how it failed: not sure why, but mixture turned clumpy after a few days and became too difficult to apply evenly.

++ DIY Reusable facial cleansing pads ++

Zero Waste Failures // Mono + Co

// inspired by this
// material: cotton fabric from an old blouse
// why it failed: the material was too rough for wiping makeup off my face.

Eight Treasures Herbal Soup [八珍汤]

Eight Treasures Herbal Soup [八珍汤] // Mono + Co

I am not a fan of stocking up, not even dried ingredients that can keep well for months.  When I need the Eight Treasures herbal soup ingredients, I still prefer to visit the traditional medicinal halls to get the ingredients when it’s time to prepare it.  I usually don’t give a second thought about getting my herbs wrapped with their traditional pink wrapping paper, as long as it is not plastic.  But since I had a tenugui with me on this particular day, I thought why not use it instead.

Eight Treasures Herbal Soup [八珍汤] // Mono + Co

I passed the tenugui to the boss and asked for my “Eight Treasures” (八珍) to be packed without using his paper wrapper, his customers in the shop started to chuckle.
“Boss,  from now on must provide hankerchieves as free gift with your herbs!” they jokingly commented.

Eight Treasures Herbal Soup [八珍汤] // Mono + Co

Anyway, I don’t know how, but the tenugui seemed to open up a conversation with the usually reserved boss.  As he started chatting while stacking my herbs super neatly on the tenugui, he also gave me few tips to prepare the soup:
// always rinse the herbs briefly to remove dirt,
// place the herbs and water in a pot, and bring to boil together,
// turn down heat, always reduce to simmer for better result, for this soup about 1.5 – 2 hours,
// for additional nutrition, add 1 fresh chicken egg to cook with the soup, must rinse the shell under running water to clean
// sieve the herbs, drink the soup and consume the egg, that has absorbed the “essence” from the herbs,
// to the seived herbs, add just enough water to cover them, and cook for second time to yield a slightly diluted version, in order not to waste it.

Eight Treasures Herbal Soup [八珍汤] // Mono + Co

I was apprehensive about leaving the shell to cook in the soup so I added de-shelled hardboiled egg on my first try.

Then I read this post where the author cooked the egg first, then add to the cooking soup with shell intact but cracked.

Eight Treasures Herbal Soup [八珍汤] // Mono + Co

I tried with the cracked eggshell method on my second try and served it with mee sua.

Feeling more adventurous, I found this post where the author rinsed the shell, soaked in brine for 15 minutes, before proceeding to cook it in the soup.

Let me update this post when I cook this soup again.