Embracing a Low-Waste Lifestyle in Malaysia: From Refill Vans to Zero-Waste Shops

Embracing a Low-Waste Lifestyle in Malaysia: From Refill Vans to Zero-Waste Shops

KUALA LUMPUR – The presence of a dusky blue van in the upscale residential area of Sri Hartamas is hard to ignore. However, the condition of the van appears modest and dusty – a peculiar sight in a luxurious housing area.

Positioned by the roadside, the side and rear doors of the van are left open. A canopy is set up on one side, protecting items on a table from the sun. Hanging on the side of the van is a signboard that reads “Refiller Mobile,” complete with a list of items and prices.

Wearing a worn-out T-shirt paired with black cut-off jeans, Oh Sok Peng, the business owner, sits inside the van, surrounded by various small tanks containing various liquids. Oh is captured in the act of pouring green liquid into a reused plastic container.

– Image by BERNAMA

After wiping the sweat from her forehead, the petite woman resumes her work – pumping green liquid into bottles of laundry soap. Oh Sok Peng, the business owner, describes her venture as an effort to reduce plastic usage. However, she herself transfers various liquids from large plastic containers into different plastic bottles.

“Our business is not anti-plastic. We don’t claim that plastic is bad and should be completely banned. In our daily lives, we still need plastic containers to store liquids,” she says to Bernama.

She wipes the filled bottles before putting them aside and grabs another bottle to refill, this time with dishwashing liquid. Although Oh insists that she is not against plastic, what she does is part of plastic waste management.

This woman has two main objectives: to prevent new plastic from entering the market and to ensure that plastic used once remains in the recycling cycle instead of being sent to landfills. To achieve these goals, Oh is willing to drive to residential areas around Rawang, Selangor, and Bangsar almost every day, revisiting each location every two months.

What she does is part of a zero-waste or low-waste lifestyle, which involves reusing items and reducing plastic usage. This lifestyle has gained popularity worldwide, including in Malaysia, which may be timely given the country’s position in terms of plastic waste generation.

The “Trash” Country

Malaysia faces challenges related to plastic waste. Depending on the study consulted, the country ranks either second, fifth, or eighth in terms of the world’s largest contributors to plastic waste. Studies show that microplastics are present in the atmosphere, the deepest parts of the ocean, and in the bodies of animals and humans.

According to the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp), in 2021, 101,949 metric tons of plastic waste, or 13% of the total 772,349 metric tons of waste generated by the residents of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, ended up in landfills. Only 152.87 metric tons of plastic were recycled. The plastic recycling rate in the country for that year was 16%.

Although the plastic recycling rate increased in 2022, the total amount of plastic waste and other types of waste also increased. In total, 796,795 metric tons of waste, with 13% or 210,966 metric tons being plastic, were generated by the residents of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya last year.

The plastic recycling rate for that year was 18%, while the overall recycling rate for all types of waste was 33.16%, compared to the target of 40% by 2025.

Reducing and reusing plastic is part of the national circular economy plan to manage plastic waste through recycling. However, due to the low recycling rate among Malaysians, any effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste sent to landfills is a positive step.

Small Steps, Big Impact

Enterprises like Minimize are making efforts in this direction. This zero-waste store is located in Subang Jaya, Selangor, and is operated by Jayne Lee and her business partner Tan Pei Yen. According to the entrepreneurs, the idea was conceived in 2019 when Lee became curious about plastic waste after reading articles about single-use plastics like straws.

“It turns out that how we use things in our daily lives has an impact. So, I wondered how I could reduce my impact,” she shares with Bernama.

The answer was a store that sells plastic-free personal care items, packaged in plastic-free containers or sustainable wrappers. Their offerings include bamboo toothbrushes, chewable toothpaste, reusable napkins, and a “menstrual cup” and lip balm. Also available are iron food containers and silicone food container lids.

Lee and Tan also provide refill services for household items and local snacks such as love letters and crisps.

Tan Chai Pei Chee dealing with a customer – Image by BERNAMA

Their store accepts recyclable items like bottles and cooking oil, although “recycling should be the last step,” says Tan.
One of the products sold in the store is Lips Carpenter’s lip balm, which stands out because its tube is made of paper and is plastic-free. According to the founder of Lips Carpenter, Law Yifon, she decided to adopt a low-waste and sustainable lifestyle after realizing the amount of cosmetic waste she produced after a year of starting her business in 2018.

“Think about it. We can finish a lip balm in three to six months, or a maximum of a year if we use it every day. So why do we need a plastic container that can last for 500 years for a product that can be used up in a year?” she questions.

Her company also produces lipstick, which, while not in a plastic-free container, is sustainable because it has a refill option, and the container can also be recycled.
Among the soap products sold at Minimize – Image by BERNAMA

Such zero-waste options should help reduce waste in Malaysia, but to date, there is no evidence of the impact of these campaigns. Waste management authorities report an increase in the total amount of waste with the growing population.

Addressing Ignorance

Does this mean that the zero-waste movement has no impact on waste generation? Or, perhaps, not many people are joining the effort to reduce plastic waste?

One criticism of the movement is that it places responsibility on the public rather than on companies or the government. The Carbon Majors Report 2017 identified 100 companies responsible for 71% of global climate emissions, most of which are oil and gas companies. However, public consumption and disposal of plastic also contribute significantly.

Bernama interviewed several Malaysians about their awareness of and interest in the zero-waste lifestyle movement.

Most were unaware of the movement, but all expressed support after learning about it. However, many found such a lifestyle challenging to adopt. In the eyes of entrepreneurs and experts in the field, it is essential for the public to at least try to reduce their individual waste generation.

Professor Datuk Dr. Ahmad Ibrahim, an environmental engineering lecturer at UCSI University, is not surprised to hear that some members of the public find it challenging to adopt a zero-waste lifestyle.

“(A zero-waste lifestyle) is challenging to maintain because it involves a change in attitude. However, we can start by introducing regulations and so on,” he says via WhatsApp.
He adds that a circular economy encompassing the reuse of goods and waste is crucial to achieving the country’s low-carbon goals.

WOWO Ecowork owner Chai Pei Chee, 42, says that despite its increasing popularity, not many people are aware or understand the zero-waste movement. She previously closed her store in Ampang, Selangor, where she provided refill services and accepted bottles for reuse or recycling. She now operates her business online and on mobile platforms, offering services around Ampang.

“In my area, no one knows about my business. They ask, ‘What are you doing? Pouring dishwashing liquid into mineral water bottles, what’s that?’ “Out there, they think I sell very expensive organic items, so some are afraid to come to my store. (For them) organic means expensive,” she says, adding that her products are actually cheaper than those sold in supermarkets.

Oh agrees. Most of the cost of goods in grocery stores is packaging costs, usually high-quality, durable plastics. Through refilling and reusing bottles, customers only pay for the content, not the packaging.

“When they come to the van, they find out ‘Oh, the price is reasonable.’ ‘Oh, you help me reuse my plastic bottles.’ They become more open to this idea,” she explains.

Zero-waste services also have their limitations. In the context of this mobile refill service, Oh and others leave a carbon footprint. Additionally, for Oh, she needs to ensure there is a sufficient number of customers at each venue to make her journey worthwhile.

For traditional stores, they cater to local communities, with most customers coming from nearby areas. Online stores, on the other hand, must inevitably use plastic packaging, such as bubble wrap, to protect products during delivery.

Small Steps, Big Impact

Minimize operating in Subang Jaya – Image by BERNAMA

Like a barking dog on a hill, this effort will not yield the desired results unless the majority of the world’s population joins the movement. However, Lee, who believes that adopting a zero-waste lifestyle is not as difficult as imagined, says that fostering a recycling habit is actually more challenging.

Moreover, the habit of reusing items has long been practiced among Malaysians, such as turning biscuit tins into sewing tool containers or ice cream containers into alternative food containers.

One only needs to start taking those steps and exercise patience. “You have to try many times before you can practice it. Like us, we’ve been here for two years, and only now are we beginning to see more people coming and getting used to this lifestyle,” says Lee.

-BERNAMA

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