SINGAPORE: Mildred Chong and her granddaughter Emma Yoon used to live together and were very close. But when Emma turned six, her family moved out. And once the girl went to school, everything changed, lamented Mdm Chong.
“Sometimes I’d go to her house, and she’d either be on the laptop or in her room doing her work. We’d just say hello and ask, ‘Had your lunch?’ That’s all,” said the 71-year-old former army staff sergeant.
“I feel lonely sometimes because I’m away from them. It’s quite sad. I’ve missed her.”
Not only has there been less of a connection, but also little common ground.
Emma, now 15, is an eager environmentalist who has sworn off meat and is ditching single-use plastics, while her grandmother’s first thought on the issue is that reducing waste is “ma fan” (troublesome) and recycling is a waste of time.
“There’s a generation gap between me and Emma. She likes … saving the Earth and all that,” admitted Mdm Chong. “But our generation doesn’t do these types of things … I’d just dump (waste) in the plastic bag and down the chute.”
Having resisted any attempts to make her live a greener life, what would it take to bring them closer now?
That was the challenge faced by Emma and her when they had to work together on the programme On The Red Dot, in a series about four pairs of grandmothers and teenage grandchildren hoping to bridge their generation divide.
It meant confronting their different attitudes, trying to find a common goal and making discoveries about each other. (Watch the episode here.)
A BIG CHALLENGE
In Emma’s case, one thing she was determined to change was her grandmother’s non-green lifestyle, which is why she got Mdm Chong to embark on a zero-waste challenge together.
This involved each of them having to limit their rubbish over seven days to fit into a 500-millilitre glass jar, with the teenager inspired by the zero-waste movement she has seen on YouTube.
She brings a reusable lunchbox and cutlery to school, and has a recycling area set up at home, where she encourages her family to do their part. So she already sees such actions as a duty.
But even broaching the topic with Mdm Chong, on the other hand, was not easy. “How can all the trash go into (the jar)? Seven days is a lot,” she said. “Why are we doing this?”
“It’s to make us conscious of how much waste we’re producing,” replied her granddaughter, who cited the eight million kilogrammes of waste produced in Singapore each day.
While that figure surprised Mdm Chong, her response to Emma’s next point – that, at this rate, Singapore’s one landfill will run out of space for incinerated waste by 2035 – did not go down well with the girl. Said the senior:
It’s still far away. I don’t know if I’ll still be alive … So that’s your problem, not my problem.
It was a “frustrating” conversation, admitted her granddaughter. “At my every answer, she’d have a reaction to that. Trying to convince her to do it was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.
“It made me feel quite sad that she wasn’t really bothered.”
Nonetheless, her grandmother agreed to the challenge. Said Mdm Chong: “It’s a good chance for me to get closer to her. I hope I can understand what Emma wants.”
RUNNING INTO A PROBLEM
But the complaints began as soon as day one, when she started to cook for Emma and herself.
“Every day, I throw at least three bags of waste, sometimes more than that, depending on how much I cook. All this waste inside a small 500ml container? I don’t think I can do it,” she said.
When her granddaughter advised her to let the food rot, she replied: “We don’t have any (plant) around here … Throwing it into the dustbin is easier.”
Pointing to her full jar, she added: “What am I going to do with this now?”
Seeing there was that much waste from making one meal, Emma admitted: “This challenge is a bit harder than I thought it would be.”
But she found a solution: Singapore’s first insect farm, Insectta, where the larvae of black soldier flies are used to break down discarded food. And the next day, she took her grandmother to the farm in Margaret Drive.
At first, Mdm Chong found the maggots creepy. But then she was intrigued, wondering why the food waste they were feeding on was not smelly (they eat it before it decomposes), and how long it takes to become compost (two weeks).
She also asked Insectta co-founder Ng Jia Quan, 29, why he went into this business at his “very young” age (because, he said, food waste is a “very big issue” here).
And it dawned on her that food waste used to be fed to pigs when Singapore had pig farms, while the young generation are letting insects do the job now.
Another thing she learnt was that the larvae can feed on okara – soya bean residue – which caught her interest because she helps out regularly at her son-in-law’s soya bean shop.
“We’ve been throwing it away for at least 10 years,” she said. “If you want, you can (come) and collect it.”
A GROWING REALISATION
And so her gradual awakening began. When she met Emma the next day, she said: “Good thing we managed to recycle our food waste yesterday.”
While her granddaughter recognised her receptiveness to the issue as a “good step forward”, there was another thing the girl wanted to do: Wean her off single-use plastics. And looking at Mdm Chong’s jar, she saw two straws.
“That’s a lot of straws in such a short time,” she remarked. “Maybe you should consider using fewer straws … because they can’t be recycled.”
WATCH: Can Emma convince Mdm Chong to go plastic-fee? (Dur 5:43)
As part of her action plan, she had decided to take her grandmother to Unpackt, Singapore’s first zero-waste grocery store, in Sembawang Hills Estate.
That meant bringing their own containers. And when Mdm Chong bought soya sauce, she was surprised that it cost only 45 cents, as the store’s food is sold by weight, without the packaging.
Emma was quick to highlight this, saying: “See, so there are the plus points of not using packaging.”
Her grandmother was reminded of the past once more. She said:
A shop like this is quite interesting to me. It’s like going back to the olden times, when we bought things using our own containers.
Again she also asked the co-founder of the enterprise, 36-year-old Florence Tay, her reason for being in this line of work.
The reply – that packaging ends up as rubbish and “what we’re leaving for the next generation isn’t wealth and health but plastic pollution for them to handle” – left her looking thoughtful.
Turning to her, Emma asked if she thought the waste issue was still not her problem, to which she said: “Now I understand. A bit.”
What she realised also was that young people like her granddaughter were genuinely concerned about the state of the environment.
NEGLECTED, AND APPRECIATED AGAIN
For Emma’s part, she made a discovery of her own after their visit. When she asked her grandmother how the zero-waste week had been so far, Mdm Chong said: “I’m happy because I got a chance to spend time with you.
“That’s why I took up the challenge. We used to have time together … Nowadays, sometimes I don’t even see you.”
That “really touched” the teenager, who had “no idea” that her grandmother felt neglected. “She never did voice those feelings to me,” said Emma, who tried to reciprocate by expressing happiness about Mdm Chong’s receptiveness to the challenge.
“You’re putting in effort to learn, and you’re asking very good questions,” she told her. “What counts is that you’ve tried.”
The week was not over, however, and on the fifth day, they went to the Love Life Carnival, which aimed to teach visitors how to live a sustainable life.
Emma was hoping that her grandmother would see that “it’s not just young people who are protecting the environment, but people of all ages because it’s everyone’s responsibility”.
That message sank in when Mdm Chong learnt from the exhibits that Singapore’s recycling rate was way below that of other countries – and that plastic could take 100 to 1,000 years to decompose.
“Now I think the environment needs protection because there is a lot of wastage, like food waste and disposable items,” she said.
Just as clear was that both of them had grown closer. And what made Emma “really proud” of her grandmother was the latter’s initiative the next day to display stainless steel straws and reusable mugs for sale at their family’s soya bean shop.
When the week was up, they both also managed to fit their non-recyclable rubbish into their jars. Mdm Chong, however, had one last surprise for her granddaughter.
Having noticed that the girl had been putting mainly tissue in her jar, she gave her a handkerchief to help her “cut down more” on her waste.
Said Emma: “I was definitely not expecting this much enthusiasm and participation from my grandmother … This is one of the best weeks we’ve spent together.
“Now that I know she wants to spend time with me, I’ll definitely make more time for her because our time on this earth is limited. So we should make the best of what we have.”
Mildred and Emma are one of four pairs of grandmothers and grandchildren featured on On The Red Dot. Watch the episode here. The next episode of the series airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 on Friday, July 13, at 9.30pm.