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From Tragedy to New Meaning: How Khor Sue Yee Became A Zero-Waste Advocate

Khor Sue Yee had been at a low point in her life; she and her family had lost their youngest brother and son to cancer, and it fell upon her to keep herself and her family out of a dark place. To that end, Khor had watched a lot of TED talks and inspiring videos to keep her emotions up, and it was one such video by American environmental activist, Lauren Singer that sparked her new goal of creating a zero-waste lifestyle, not just for herself, but also for her family and community[1].

The Problem With Waste

As Malaysia’s population grows, so does the amount of waste it generates. In 2021, the amount of waste generated daily was estimated at 38,427 metric tonnes per day. Of these, 82.5% were disposed of in landfills[2].

Source: Mashable SE Asia

Excessive waste generation has led to many problems in this country and the world over. Chief among these is plastic pollution entering our oceans; in fact, plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution (in fact, there are about 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean) and around 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year[3].

According to one study, Malaysia had produced more than 0.94 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic wastes per year by 2018, of which 0.14 to 0.37 million tonnes may have been washed into the oceans[4].

Equally worse is the burning of plastic waste which has detrimental effects on people’s health. Research in 2018 found that certain chemicals used in plastics such as Bisphenol A are carcinogenic and linked to endocrine disruption potentially causing reproductive and neurological problems and negatively affecting immune systems and adverse developmental consequences in children, such as early puberty[5].

The main thing about [these plastic fumes] is that they are carcinogenic… It also depends a lot on the types of plastics being burnt and the exposure to it. If you have short-term exposure at a high level you might have difficulty breathing… [or it might] trigger some effects in your lungs. But if it’s long-term exposure… that’s where the carcinogenic effects come in. – Tong Yen Wah, National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering professor[6]

Despite attempts by our government to reduce our waste generation and increase recycling rates, Malaysia is still quite behind compared to other developed countries at a rate of 28%. This issue is worsened by both Malaysia’s limited recycling process and capabilities and the fact that our recycling efforts are largely focused on plastics that are easily retrievable and highly valued such as plastic drink bottles. Because of this, our country’s landfills are filled to the brim with disposable food packaging made from low-quality plastics[7].

A Tragic Loss Blooms Into A New Way of Life

The zero-waste lifestyle was a concept that never really came to Khor’s mind before. “We never really heard of it back then!” she said.

That changed when Khor lost her youngest brother to cancer. This tragic loss has had a profound impact on her life and that of her family. This sense of loss made her rethink her life and how she wants to go about it.

My brother’s death blew a hole in me and made me reconsider everything. What kind of life did I want to live? What kind of person did I want to be? – Khor Sue Yee[1]

It was after watching a TED talk by Lauren Singer – who had been living a zero-waste life since 2012 and is known for claiming to have collected all the waste she created since 2012 in a 16oz mason jar – that Khor found something that resonated with her. A brand new motivation that will propel her toward finding a more meaningful life.

I realised I wanted to make my life matter and to make a tangible difference in the world. There’s only one performance. This is it. You don’t have time for fear and hesitation. You’ve just got to pursue what you believe in. – Khor Sue Yee[1]

As a nature lover herself, it didn’t take Khor much to think about how her actions affected the environment and the natural places she loves so much, and that she could truly make a change for the better by helping the environment in any way she can.

It occurred to me that nature is my thing and it was time I did something tangible to be kinder to the environment. This was where I could really make a difference. – Khor Sue Yee[1]

A Hero For Zero

It was after getting a job in Beijing as a technical engineer that Khor decided to begin her zero-waste journey. The zero-waste life is a difficult one, requiring absolute planning and hard searching to find a shop that suits a plastic purger’s needs. But the end results are always satisfying.

I wake up and think, ‘How am I going to make it through the day without using any single-use plastic? It’s a daily challenge but I think it becomes easier. It’s really just learning new behaviour. – Khor Sue Yee[1]

Source: Options

Khor documented her zero-waste journey on social media, and that was where she met fellow zero-waste advocate, journalist Aurora Tin. “She ‘liked’ one of my posts and we started a friendship soon after,” she recalls[1].

Tin created a Facebook group in 2016 for like-minded zero-waste champions to share their tips and tricks, such as suggesting alternatives for single-use items, places that allow product refills without extra packaging, and providing ideas on how to reuse, retrofit and upcycle old items[8], and subsequently invited Khor to join the group. “We had around 10 people in the group at that time,” she recalls[1].

This small group would serve as the earliest incarnation of Zero-Waste Malaysia. And in 2018, Khor and Tin would register the group as a non-profit organisation with the aim of increasing awareness of sustainable living and promoting a zero-waste lifestyle by advocating individual actions[8].

Since these humble beginnings, Zero-Waste Malaysia became one of the leading organisations advocating for better waste management, with over 40,000 community members. They received the Commonwealth Points of Light Award Recipient in 2019 and the 6th Worldwide Excellence Award (WEA) among other achievements and were crucial in the launch of Malaysia’s first ever Trash Encyclopaedia.

Little Steps To Becoming Zero-Waste 

If you would like to join Zero-Waste Malaysia’s cause and make meaningful positive contributions to the Earth, then try going zero-waste yourself. There are many approaches to becoming zero-waste, but it can be a rather difficult task and is not something that can happen overnight. But once you become zero-waste, you will learn that there are many benefits to this lifestyle that will change you and your family for the better.

Try taking small steps first and remember Bea Johnson’s 5 Rs of Zero-Waste:

  1. Refuse: Avoid using plastics and other environmentally-unfriendly materials when you can. Instead of using disposable styrofoam food packaging, bring along Tupperware or metal food containers. And instead of plastic bags, bring your own reusable bags to hold your groceries and other items. Above all else, always learn to say ‘no’ to free stuff. For those of you looking for a zero-waste store to shop at, we recommend NUDE The Zero Waste Store in Petaling Jaya, The Hive Bulk Foods in Bangsar and the online store, The Kinder Soap Company.
  2. Reduce: You can reduce the amount of waste that you produce by simply reducing your spending. Think about what you actually need right now and don’t spend on products needlessly. Try to find the best quality items that can fit within your budget; well-made items will last longer and thus reduce the number of times you need to repurchase them.
  3. Reuse: Don’t throw away that water bottle! It can still be used to contain water and other liquids. And if you had to use a plastic bag, try reusing it in the future so long as it is in good condition. If your old clothes have become torn, consider using them as wash rags instead of simply throwing them away. And instead of purchasing new detergents, you can visit one of the many outlets of Bring Your Own Bottle (BYOB) to refill your empty detergent bottles instead. Null Zero Waste Factory also has dispensing spots for you to refill your bottles instead of buying new ones.
  4. Recycle: Recycling is one of the most ubiquitous ways to reduce waste – but it is far from perfect. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle, just consider more feasible alternatives such as simply reducing your plastic usage. In the meantime, be sure to properly sort out your recyclables and put them into the proper containers or donate them to an organisation that can recycle such materials.
  5. Rot: Compost your organic food waste. It’s great for home gardeners! And if you can find one, consider donating your food waste to a composting pick-up service.

By following this guideline, you will quickly learn how to adapt to a zero-waste lifestyle and thus reap all the benefits that it provides while also doing your part for the Earth’s environment.

Explore our sources

  1. E. Koshy (2022) A devastating loss led this woman to become a change-maker in the zero-waste movement! New Straits Times. Link.
  3. M. Fava (2022) Ocean plastic pollution an overview: data and statistics. UNESCO Ocean Literacy Portal. Link.
  4. H.L. Chen, T.K. Nath, S.C., Vernon Foo, C.G. & A.M. Lechner (2021) The plastic waste problem in Malaysia: management, recycling and disposal of local and global plastic waste. SN Applied Sciences. Link.
  5. UN Environment Programme (2021) NEGLECTED: Environmental Justice Impacts of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution. Link.
  6. Y. Tan (2019) Plastic pollution: One town smothered by 17,000 tonnes of rubbish. BBC. Link.
  7. K. Kaur (2021) Malaysia’s Plastic Problem Everyone Forgot – What You Can Do About It. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  8. E. Yap (2019) Aurora Tin and Khor Sue Yee spearhead national zero-waste movement in Malaysia. Options. Link.

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