Uniting People Through Zero Waste

“I was the only customer for a while,” Claire Sancelot says about opening Malaysia’s first zero waste concept store The Hive Bulk Foods in 2016. A passionate advocator of zero waste (which focuses on sustainable living through the ‘6Rs’: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, recycle, and rot), Claire opened the Kuala Lumpur-based shop, selling a modest selection of package-free, sustainably sourced dry food and goods. Since then, The Hive’s catalogue has grown to include over 300 bulk whole foods, and has even become a unique place for customers to learn about different cultures and communities.

By Stacy Liu

An economist by trade, Claire grew up in France and learnt the importance of reusing and recycling from her parents. The push to go zero waste, however, only came after having twins; a significant increase in waste shocked her and her husband into making the change. “I started living zero waste in 2010. It was a fun and liberating experience more than anything,” she says.

At the time, Claire lived in Hong Kong and started the ‘Zero Waste Hong Kong’ blog to document and share her experiences of zero waste living in the city. Going public enabled her to raise awareness about the benefits of sustainable living while encouraging people to adopt an aspect—if not the entire philosophy—of zero waste.

In 2015, Claire and her family moved to Kuala Lumpur. Her excitement to find new places to shop sustainably for essential items soon led her to discover that the zero waste movement did not exist in the country. “It was non-existent,” Claire recalls, and like any other developing nation, Malaysia continues to face its own challenges with waste management.

According to an article published in The Star newspaper in May 2016, research conducted by the Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp Malaysia), a government agency dealing with solid waste, found that Malaysians produced approximately 38,000 tonnes of waste per day, 15,000 tonnes of which was food waste. The research added that 3000 tonnes of food waste—which consists of edible food discarded by retailers and consumers, and food past its expiry date—could have been avoided with careful meal planning.

A study published in Science magazine in 2015 also reported that Malaysia was the eighth largest producer of mismanaged plastic waste in the world, producing approximately one million tonnes of mismanaged waste. The country’s plastic problem has since escalated after China banned the importing and processing of plastic waste in January 2018. With more plastic recycling factories accepting and processing waste from foreign nations, the country is struggling to keep up.

The zero waste lifestyle acknowledges the global problems we face with waste management and encourages individuals to make sustainable choices.

“Zero waste living in KL is easier than zero waste living in Hong Kong, just because you have these amazing wet markets,” Claire says. When she arrived, what was missing was a local community to share practical information for zero waste living. Claire started the ‘Zero Waste Kuala Lumpur’ Facebook page as a solution to this problem, and used it to gather and share information, encourage the lifestyle, and create a group of likeminded people, passionate about eco-conscious living in Kuala Lumpur.

To further her advocacy—and seeing a fun opportunity in running a zero waste shop—Claire opened The Hive in 2016. She started small and sold only a few lifestyle products and sustainably sourced dry whole foods by weight; before long, she found herself needing a bigger space. “Quickly people were coming with their containers and started to see that it made sense,” she smiles. Selling items by weight allows customers to purchase only the amount they need, giving them the personal satisfaction of knowing they are shopping sustainably and wasting less.

Today The Hive has an impressive inventory of whole bulk foods (which includes: nuts, legumes, spices, seeds, grains, dried fruit, rice, cereal, spreads, oil, tea and coffee), zero waste cleaning products, personal care items and lifestyle goods. Marie-Magali Falcoz, The Hive’s marketing consultant, says that at first, their biggest challenge was sourcing for products. Convincing local suppliers to supply them with food in bulk without plastic was often difficult, but it got a little easier when the movement started to pick up. Today their daily challenges consist of careful food handling, storage, and inventory checking.

As to why Malaysia’s zero waste community started to blossom, Claire says it’s because of climate change. With more news outlets and people talking about global and local environment issues, people are becoming more aware of their own actions. The Hive also helps to spread awareness by participating in environmental campaigns and events, and occasionally holds a few workshops related to sustainable living. The shop also supports the public in their recycling efforts by allowing them to drop off certain items (such as e-waste and reading glasses) to be recycled.

The Hive operates as a social enterprise and tries to cultivate the local economy by partnering with local farmers, producers, small-scale women entrepreneurs and refugee communities. Because of this, keeping a consistent supply of stock can be a challenge, but shopping locally keeps money in the community and reduces our carbon footprint by shortening delivery times. “We try to promote the circular economy and its returns for the whole community,” says Claire, who strongly believes in cultivating the local economy for a sustainable future. As such, The Hive receives zero-to-little profit from the sale of their products.

While The Hive brings people with the same goal together, Marie noticed that it has also “become a meeting place for various people and cultures”. Beyond uniting under the zero waste banner, The Hive offers individuals a chance to learn about different cultures through food, “sometimes we offer items that some people are not used to and this lends an opportunity to broaden their horizons.”

Marie uses nutmeg as example: “I once had customers ask me what nutmeg was, and I was surprised they didn’t know. They commented about how unusual and pungent it was, but for us French, it’s a common ingredient we use in crème brûlée, tarts, white sauce…”

Often, certain food is only found at specific supermarkets or specialty stores, making them less likely to be discovered by people unaware of them. “To be honest, if I go to a wet market in Malaysia, I don’t know what all the spices and vegetables are or how to cook them; so I don’t go,” Marie continues, “But because we have a very diverse customer base, we try to bring in many different ingredients.”

Being surrounded by unfamiliar food can be a daunting experience, but at an accessible shop like The Hive—which first, draws people in for its zero waste concept—customers are more likely to open when they encounter something new. “This is something interesting and quite unique to The Hive,” says Marie.

As far as Malaysia’s zero waste movement goes, Claire feels that although we need to do much more, she couldn’t be happier: “Since I came to KL, the movement has grown tremendously! It is a growing trend as more and more people are concerned.” She goes on by recognising that more local celebrities are getting involved in the ‘green scene’ and promoting the cause. “KL is definitely the leader [in the zero waste] and Penang has also been leading the green revolution.” The Hive recently opened its second shop, and even has a few competitors now.

In 2019, The Hive will continue its advocacy for the zero waste movement through its workshops and participation in talks and campaigns. Marie says that the aim is to continue growing The Hive as a social enterprise while maintaining its rich community spirit.

“For Malaysia, the hope is that more and more people are concerned about their waste and live by following the ‘Refuse – Reduce – Reuse’ [concept],” says Claire. With more awareness, we can unite for a better future.
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