[OPINION PIECE] When Eco-efforts Get Trashed

Disclaimer: This post was prepared and written by the author in his/her own personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views and position of others within and affiliated to the Bachelor of Environmental Studies Programme. Opinions expressed should not be utilised outside of the context of which this article is set.


I totally forgot how angered I was when the packed food vendors first appeared outside the Science canteen until a recent Facebook post surfaced the matter once again. It started off with just this one Korean stall selling Kimchi rice and bulgogi, and it shocked environmental groups. It appeared out of the blue, without any prior discussion with environmental groups as far as I know. Admittedly, I can totally see why it came about. The canteen was terribly crowded and the queues were far too long to work out for anyone with a tight schedule.

I remember a group who were distributing reusable lunchboxes in an effort to cut down plastic waste (kudos to them, because I did nothing at all). However, it seemed like an overwhelming majority of the NUS community still chose to take their food out in disposable boxes. But what could I have expected? The pre-packed food was fast, convenient and not all that pricey compared to what was sold at the canteen. It also doesn’t help that the space on the second level that the management has opened up allows only packed food. Fast forward to today, there are now four of such stalls in the faculty, and four times the disposables. People can now pick and choose what kind of food they want to go with their plastic! 

That just felt like a huge slap in the face to the people who worked so hard to come up with schemes to encourage people to reduce their plastic consumption. While I wasn’t directly involved in planning one, I have friends who were and I can testify that it takes many months to get one going – there are budget planning, operational considerations and of course discussions with the related offices on implementation. Even with that, success is not guaranteed.

Then one day, the packed lunch initiative was rolled out.  This could have potentially offset the impact of months and months of Project Box (an initiative by NUS SAVE which rewards users who bring their own lunchboxes with meal discounts). It was disappointing that the management did not raise the issue of plastic waste in light of this. There were zero initiatives to cut down on even a fraction of the rubbish that is being churned out – I think bringing your own cutlery is not too difficult, even if you really had to pack your lunch and go. Moreover, not the slightest effort was made to promote existing initiatives to reduce plastic waste. It was as if the stacks of packaging filling up our trash cans were totally not an issue.

If anything, this is a reflection of how far we are from incorporating environmental factors into routine decision-making, even in established institutions. We’ve been told that knowledge is power, but we forget that power is not change. Stories about our suffocating oceans and overstuffed landfills will be nothing more than depressing trivia if we do not act upon them.

Another sobering realisation I had was that we might never win in a battle of convenience. No matter how hard we wreck our brains over lowering the barrier to making the environmentally favourable choice, the more destructive alternative will remain one step ahead.  It will always be easier to buy and throw than to clean up afterwards or to drive from place to place than to squeeze on stuffy and unreliable trains. While we are celebrating some singular tuckshop that charges 50 cents for takeaway, delivery services are out there making packed food more accessible and attractive to millions of people all over the island.

Perhaps we have been going a little off on a tangent with our efforts. Making eco-conscious decisions should be something that we should do because we have a responsibility towards the place we live, not because it comes out tops in some short-term cost-benefit analysis (because it hardly ever will). Caring for the environment is more like a value that we should inculcate in people, and I don’t mean the kind that can be measured in monetary terms. We shouldn’t see the targets of our efforts as mindless consumers because mindless consumers, as we learn from economics, always act in self-interest. They are simply cogs in a machine engineered for speed and low cost.

I believe that in every person, there is a struggle between the passive, manipulated consumer and an individual who wants to do what’s right even if it means expending a bit more energy in going against the current. We have to reach out to that individual. When I choose to source for and pay more for an ethically produced product for instance, it is never because it benefits me in any way. It is because I am able to see myself as part of something greater. No one should ever be too important or too busy to spare a thought for the people, animals and environment around them. This is in stark contrast to the advertising that we are exposed to every day, which seemingly fawns over us, makes us feel like royalty, and tells us that we are deserving of retail therapy every time we get by another week. The reality is that the more we buy into these messages, the more powerless we become as we needlessly spend our time and money on bad purchasing decisions rather than developing ourselves or helping others.

Given three words to describe the environmental movement, I would say that it is empowering, altruistic and forward-thinking. If not for environmental education, I would never have known how my actions could affect the skies, the ocean and other human beings, including those living halfway across the globe now and those who will come into this world decades later. Rather sadly, I also realised how absurd, selfish and wasteful society is.

I hope that anyone who reads will keep in mind the power you have in your hands. I can never stress enough how every individual matters. If we have the ability to cause climate change on a global scale, potentially start the 6th mass extinction, or even use up 2 billion plastic bags per year, then surely we can change it as well. You don’t have to jump straight away into a zero-waste lifestyle, go completely vegan, or give up all the luxuries in life. Environmentalists have often been labelled as hypocrites because we are unable to practice what we preach perfectly – we are all human and have our weaknesses, so let us all be a little more forgiving. Looking at things from a bigger picture, and just to give an example from a burning topic at the moment, it will be much better for everyone to cut down on a couple of plastic bags per week than for a minority to use absolutely zero.

Of course, there’s more to all this than just bags. There are so many things that you can do to help the environment and potentially other human beings as well. From bringing your own bottle, refusing that plastic straw, avoiding fast fashion, choosing products with sustainably produced palm oil, recycling your electronic waste, participating in a coastal clean-up, or thinking twice about an impulse purchase… the list goes on. What we can and are willing to do will be different for everyone, so it helps to reflect on what changes you can make in your daily life and read up on the issues that catch your attention (hence putting the “conscious” into eco-conscious).

With all that being said, I don’t mean to convey that we should all just stick with the preachy stuff from now on and not bother with behaviour-changing projects or initiatives that give people that extra push. After all, we are creatures of habit, values cannot be inculcated overnight and the problems the Earth faces today simply cannot wait. If you can, lend your support to some of the green groups out there who are pushing for schemes such as the plastic bag tax or are coming up with projects to increase recycling rates and reduce waste. Banding together and making our voices heard is the first step in getting our leaders to make high impact, eco-conscious decisions.

To end off, it may help to approach problems from a different perspective once in a while. The facts are out there and it’s time we started to care and take action. We are lucky to have grown up in a prosperous place, and it is almost never the case that “we have no choice”. This phrase is often used when people relinquish their power so as to abandon the responsibility it entails. Sure, the right choice may not be the easiest or cheapest one to make, but we should do it anyway for the sake of those who truly have none.

By: Ng Shu Tian (Y3 NVB)

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