Our mounting waste problem lies in a buy-and-throw-away culture. In the midst of affluence, asks To Kien, can we care enough to repair, reinvent and reuse our 'old' things?
SINGAPORE: The other day I asked my son, a Primary 4 student at a local public school: “Do you learn and do reduce-reuse-recycle projects at school?” “Mostly recycling, daddy. We only do some recyclables collecting competitions,” he responded, to my surprise.
Among the three ‘R’s, much more attention is paid to recycling. It is important, but not paramount.
This year, we continue to produce more waste and at the same time, the recycling rate has dropped. If this trend persists, the Semakau landfill will be full by around 2035.
So how can the Government inform and educate people well, when some of us - such as the elderly, young children or maids - don’t usually use the computer, surf the net, watch television or read the newspapers?
Rather than recycling as a cure for this situation, we need to focus more on waste prevention and on cutting off more at the source, by practising what I call the Big Cut.
The Big Cut has 5Rs.
CUT NUMBER 1: REFUSE, OR REFRAIN.
Let’s refuse unnecessary offers; refrain from giving in to our wants, and try to stick to our needs.
We can be considerate in even minor things, such as when we are about to change a spoon and plate during a catered meal, take an extra straw, or receive take-away foam boxes or plastic bags.
The “buy 3 get 1 free” promotion is one of many marketing strategies that encourage bulk purchase, rather than buying what we need. (Photo: To Kien)
As a researcher and educator in a design university, I like observing and identifying problems around us. Sometimes, they spark various design ideas and solutions. I’ll share some of these to provide food for thought.
For instance, to help “refuse” our wants, app designers could write a simple app for shopping that reminds us what we need to buy, and warns us about what we don't need by prompting our pre-recorded inventory of all similar items stored at home.
CUT NUMBER 2: WHEN WE CAN’T REFUSE OR REFRAIN, LET’S REDUCE.
One of the First World problems is excessive consumerism and the “abundance society”. Many of us have more shoes, bags, furniture or gadgets at home than we need and actually use.
There are growing signs, however, that such mass consumerism is slowing due to demographic aging, economic slowdown, resource scarcity and so on; and it is gradually being replaced by the rise of the sharing economy and do-it-yourself (DIY) production.
When we bring home a lot, then factor in storage space, we will realise we are actually paying a lot, especially in the expensive context of housing in Singapore.
Buy less, and interior designers can design more creative hybrid furniture - such as sofa-bed storage - for more compact homes. This helps reduce furniture purchases and, ultimately, bulky trash.
Sometimes, we end up throwing away expired food because we bought it in bulk. France recently passed a law that orders supermarkets to donate unconsumed food approaching best-before dates to charity. Singapore can learn from this.
Watch: IT Figures on Food Waste
When I was reading about the 3Rs on the National Environment Agency’s website, one suggestion to reduce waste bothered me: “Purchase items in bulk quantities”. I suggest reviewing it.
As for how to spur Singaporeans to reduce waste? A system of “pay as you throw” proposed by the NEA might work.
Spotted on the NEA’s website
CUT NUMBER 3: REUSE.
One man’s waste, they say, is another man’s treasure. Instead of throwing away things that are still usable, we could hold garage sales or give away items no longer wanted to others who need them.
I remember my childhood in Vietnam, when many “đồng nát” (junk-buyers, similar to Singapore’s karung guni men) frequently patrolled the city to buy or collect almost everything unused from households. You could hear them coming with their melodic sales chants and horns.
It’s not only in lower-income countries, but also in some higher-income ones, that people practise this “reuse” culture. Germany and Japan, where I studied, are examples.
One of my weekend pastimes in Germany was to visit flea markets. There I could find not only surprisingly good bargains, but also many beautiful and rare household items from around the world to satisfy my collecting hobby.
Used clothes, books, chairs and even washing machines at a flea market in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo: To Kien)
In Japan, our kind host ran a campus bazaar to support foreign students like my wife and me. When we had kids, we were heartened when she gave us some of her children’s nice old clothes that she had prudently kept - for 15 years.
Second-hand shops are popular - and as Japanese people use and keep their stuff very carefully, one can often find very good pre-loved stuff in great variety, and for a real bargain.
The shops usually have a little workshop at the back where staff buy used stuff and then clean, overhaul or beautify them on the spot. I remember one shop’s slogan: “We buy and sell literally everything, except airplanes.”
A second-hand shop in Japan, where one can find almost anything at a bargain. (Photo: To Kien)
Singapore doesn’t have many second-hand flea markets. The most famous one at Sungei Road will soon close.
While some neighbourhood ones are organised now and then by grassroots groups, we could arrange for more of them on vacant pieces of lands or under-used pockets of space, and encourage families to participate.
We could give second-hand shops a chance too, like those run by the Salvation Army and the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. Meanwhile, online listings like Gumtree and groups such as SgFreecycle or Singapore Really Really Free Market are useful. They connect like-minded people and promote a sharing and pooling culture.
Sold at Sungei Road's Thieves' market. (Photos: Ooi Book Keong)
CUT NUMBER 4: REPAIR.
Repairing discourages our throwaway culture and makes us value what we have.
Many old items, such as presents or souvenirs, carry memories. We want to make use of them until they are truly unusable.
It is mostly because getting an item repaired could cost nearly as much as buying a brand-new version, that many of us decide to take the second option. This is why in Sweden, the government is now proposing tax breaks on repairs to everything from shoes to washing machines, so that it makes economic sense to get broken things fixed.
My family cycles daily, and I usually repair our loyal “two-wheeled friends”. But I have seen many bicycles thrown away merely because of minor faults, such as an inner tube puncture.
I fix my own bicycles, here on my patio. (Photo: To Kien)
It’s good if someone in the family can fix things. The joy we get when we succeed in creatively repairing something on our own is tremendous. But if no one in the family has the skills, it would be great if we could take the stuff to a nearby “fix hub”.
My idea is to have one in each precinct, located in a community club or centre. This network could link up with the emerging makerspace movement in Singapore, so that individuals can share their skills and resources such as space, tools and excess materials.
At a recent workshop that I convened as part of a research project in Jurong East, some residents expressed that they would like to have a DIY workshop or maker space (for repairing things) as well as weekend bazaars (to exchange items for reuse) in their neighbourhood.
Each school in Singapore could set up a “fix lab”, too.
Watch: Repair Kopitiam helps you learn how to fix stuff
FINALLY, CUT NUMBER 5: REMAKE.
When something just cannot be fixed despite our efforts, we can dismantle it and repurpose the parts to make something new, or even repair something else that is broken.
I do field surveys extensively for work. In many developing countries, I’m often amazed to see people repairing and remaking things so creatively and widely.
There is a term, reverse innovation, which refers to an innovation seen first (or likely to be used first) in the developing world before spreading to the industrialised world. Repairing and remaking foster such innovations.
I had a spoilt fan, and I kept its heavy base to make the base of a garden parasol (the main part, which I bought from IKEA, fit perfectly). I also had a coat stand no longer in use, and I repurposed it to hang planters on my patio.
The repurposed fan base and coat stand. My kids also remade a used plastic container into a watering can. (Photo: To Kien)
To remake things, we may need common “banks” of re-usable parts. Let’s design and provide shelves at HDB void decks or condominium amenity hubs, with three labels: 'Fully reusable', 'Reusable but requires fixing', and 'Parts only'.
Then, encourage people to place their unwanted items on the suitable shelf for others to take freely.
I often teach my son how to repair or remake things as an essential life skill. One day, when his sister sat on his cherished soccer ball and accidentally exploded it, he was upset and his friends told him to throw it away.
He said, “No, I’ll fix it.”
In the evening, he and I examined the torn ball. Although the inner bladder could not be mended, we remade the ball by buying a S$2 Daiso rubber ball to put inside, pumped it up, sewed back the cover - and voilà! Ready for kick-off.
Watch: How we fixed my son’s ball
The journey to a low-waste future is bumpy. There are various common prejudices to overcome.
First, the thinking that “it’s the authorities’ job”.
The authorities can improve waste collection and management systems, set up new fix-hubs, improve policies and enhance public awareness. But to change people’s habits, mindsets, behaviours and actions, it’s up to all of us.
Second: “I don’t see where my trash ends up, so I don’t care”.
Let’s get in the face of trash throwers. Confront them with photos and graphics displayed on the sides of refuse chutes or bins, showing where their trash ends up. In public spaces, show images of the Semakau landfill filling up over time, with real-time figures updated periodically.
The Semakau landfill. (TODAY file photo)
Third: “Other people don’t practice this. Why should I?”
Well, if one by one everybody starts practising the Big Cut, we’ll see many little changes, and eventually a big transformation will happen.
Fourth: “Second-hand? Repair? We aren’t that poor, we have our pride!”
Material status is important in newly affluent societies, and Singaporeans have been no less wrapped up in the 5Cs - cash, credit card, car, condo, country club.
Yet, as societies advance and mature, mindsets, value systems and judging indicators start to shift towards a new set of Cs - creativity, collaboration, contribution, compassion and confidence. It becomes no longer about dollars and cents, but about caring for our planet.
EVERYONE A CHAMPION
And as mindsets change, let every one of us start championing the Big Cut. Let’s show our families and neighbors how it’s done, and we can do it progressively.
First, begin in our home.
I taught my son by doing a little social experiment. He had a toy car in good condition that he no longer played with. He and I wanted to give it to someone but we didn’t know who would need it.
I suggested, “Let’s bring it to the playground, leave it there and see what happens.” And he did so excitedly.
Watch: Who would want an old toy car?
When we came back on different days and at various times, we witnessed different children playing cheerfully with the toy and even scrambling for it. “Are you happy to see your neighbours’ friends happy?” I asked. My son smiled and nodded.
Next, our neighbourhood.
I propose setting up, in each neighbourhood, a small library of occasionally-used tools such as mechanical sets, drillers and plumbing equipment, with a minimal fee per use. Such a shared library can help neighbours bond, and it can be associated with fix-hubs.
For now, everyone can do as I did - create an inventory list of tools using Google Documents, for sharing among friends. This helps every member keep track of who has what tools that they can borrow.
A MacBook Pro battery replacement party. (Photo: Facebook.com/RepairKopitiam)
Then, schools and universities.
They can serve as model mini-societies, championing the Big Cut among the next generation. I have co-mentored several student projects on the 3Rs, and it is inspiring to see young Singaporeans show their creativity in their sense of responsibility for the environment.
Finally, island-wide communities.
I’ve mentioned a few in this article, but there are others rallying against the throwaway culture by urging people to bring their own containers, to repair rather than throw away, and to DIY.
Our efforts to refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and remake in many small ways mean we save big at the end of the day. We will all collectively ensure a better environment for ourselves, our loved ones and future generations.
Dr To Kien is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). He is a licensed architect, researcher and educator in Urban Planning, Social Architecture and Sustainable Design. He has been a Resource Person on the Singapore Institute of Architects’ Sustainability Committee since 2013.