How to lead a zero waste life in Malaysia

Back in the 1980s, a four-year-old child watched her parents recycle paper and glass in the French city of Lille.

Today, that child is 40-year-old Claire Sancelot, now a parent herself to three young girls. Like her “green” parents, she is also doing her bit for the environment. She now hopes her family would join in her efforts.

Sancelot, who is married to a Malaysian, is the founder of a popular blog (zerowastehongkong.com) and Facebook page she started five years ago when the family was living in Hong Kong.

At the end of August last year, her family – herself, husband, three children, a dog and a helper – relocated to Kuala Lumpur. She still maintains her blog and has added a new Facebook page (Zero Waste Kuala Lumpur). Via social media, Sancelot shares weekly tips on how to reduce waste; she aims to reduce her household garbage to one bag per month!

Zero waste is a philosophy to guide people to change their practices so that all products are reused and no trash is sent to the landfills and incinerators.

“People want to do something. They are sick and tired of pollution, haze, streets littered with trash and overpackaged food. There’s plastic everywhere and it never goes away,” says Sancelot, dubbed the “Green Queen” by Hong Kong media. She has also been hailed as “a one-woman green revolution” for her lifestyle.

Head of sales for a line of luxury products, Sancelot tries to involve her entire family. Her husband volunteered for beach cleaning numerous times during their sojourn in Hong Kong. Such activities are very common as the sea brings trash such as plastic, plastic bottles and polystyrene boxes on a daily basis.

“We started to go zero waste five years ago in Hong Kong when my oldest child (Lucie) was born. We realised how much garbage a baby was creating with just diapers, baby wipes and milk containers. It was a bucket (of waste) going to the landfill every day. Nothing could be recycled,” recalls a horrified Sancelot.

By recycling and never using plastic bags, she thought she was doing enough to save the environment. It later dawned on her that she and her family could do much more.

“We started to look at reusable, wash-able diapers and cotton wipes. Then we started to remove all disposables in the house, one thing at a time,” she says.

For her home and kitchen, she has replaced paper towels and napkins with cloth tea towels.

According to Sancelot, it’s now fashionable to find liquid soap in big plastic containers in bathrooms.

“These can be recycled but the idea is not to create waste. Recycling is not fully the solution. It requires a lot of energy and not all the plastic can be recycled,” emphasises Sancelot.

“I don’t even have a wastepaper basket in the toilet,” she says, showing her simple range of toiletries (comprising a bar of soap, DIY toothpaste and compostable bamboo toothbrushes).

She has homemade toothpaste and also makes her own household cleaning products with Castile soap, white vinegar and baking soda.

Her green revolution encompasses simple, minimalistic living.

In her spacious condominium, there is no sign of clutter. It is a haven tastefully decorated with a few art objects including a large painting and several books on the shelves in the living room.

With food, Sancelot admits: “We don’t eat processed food and don’t drink sodas or colas, so we never have cans. Water is best.”

She looks to local producers to reduce the carbon footprint.

“We are friends with a local organic farmer who delivers the vegetables once a week. We get our organic chicken delivered once a week too.”

In her kitchen, the drawers are stocked with a few glass jars or bottles of oils or sauces. In the larders, there are several glass jars of homebaked foodstuff: cookies, crackers and croutons. She takes out a basket from her refrigerator to show her week’s supply of organically grown vegetables. By getting her organic goods delivered, Sancelot saves time, money and more importantly, she is supporting the local farmers.

“Money goes straight to the producers of organic farms or poultry, not to middlemen,” she quips. “That’s good for the local economy.”

Being zero waste is more than being eco-friendly.

“You think buying local organic is more expensive. But you purchase much less. We’re happy with one chicken per week, organic vegetables like cherry tomatoes, broccoli, quinoa, organic rice and pasta,” she says.

The children also take organic milk but the packaging is recycled.

Even in her children’s French school, the diet is very regulated – meat or fish, fruits or vegetables and carbohydrates (pasta, rice or quinoa) and water.

For years, Sancelot has maintained a very minimal wardrobe and only adds a few pieces once in a while.

She has no qualms dressing her daughters Lucie, five, and twin girls Charlotte and Emilie, four, in pre-loved apparel. Ninety percent of things in their room – from bed to clothes and toys – are second-hand.

“There are plenty of websites in KL where you can buy second-hand,” says Sancelot. “I put an ad on Facebook saying we’re a very green family and mothers contacted me. I buy from one seller every six months including Christmas toys. We have the same taste and she has a daughter.”

Sancelot likes to think that she has cut down on household expenditure. “Studies have shown that people who go zero waste save up to 40% on annual expenses.”

In Hong Kong, she would give used but “still beautiful” clothes away to friends or donate them to charity.

“Why would My Little Pony toy be used by just one child? That’s crazy!” exclaims Sancelot. “My parents kept a lot of things. My mum kept my toys and my kids are playing with them. My books are still here,” she muses, emphasising that “things are not for single usage but should be reused”.

When out shopping, Sancelot refuses plastic bags, straws and all plastic waste and brings her own container when buying fish.

At events, she politely refuses souvenirs such as mugs or keychains (which indirectly reduces production). “These things clutter the house and are waste to the planet.”

When she goes out, must-haves in her handbag include a reusable tumbler, water bottle and shopping bag.

In her balcony, she has a garden filled with potted plants. She also makes compost from dried leaves, vegetable peels, eggshells, used tea leaves and spent coffee grounds. When her compost is full, she gives it to her organic farmer as fertiliser.

Basically, Sancelot hopes that society would “cut down the trash!”

“There are now seven billion people on the planet and global warming is a real threat; clean water, clean air and clean food are real concerns. Countries are already affected by global warming like sea levels rising in the Maldives and water shortage in Pakistan. We all need to change the way we consume. We only have one planet and it cannot be recycled.”

Sancelot’s green call for action is the 5Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot.

“Little daily changes go a long way. Refuse plastic bags, cups, straws, containers and single use items. Reduce what you consume. Reuse grocery totes, water bottles and cloth bags. Recycle what you cannot refuse, reduce and reuse. And finally, Rot (compost) the rest.”

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