Merciless Release

Hey!

Hope everyone is still doing fine! This week I will be taking a look at the religious practice of mercy release. Mercy release is a common practice amongst Buddhists in countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, and China, with China accounting for 50% of the world’s Buddhist population.  Mercy release is believed to help practitioners accumulate good karma. However, the practice does not appear to be as ‘merciful’ as it seems. Traditionally, it involved the release of animals that were meant to be slaughtered or butchered. Nowadays, the practice has also extended to captured wild animals and pets. This has lead to many ethical and environmental issues being raised regarding this practice.

Goldfish, Aquarium, Underwater, Tropical, Pet, Swim
Goldfish are one of the commonly bought pets for mercy release. Source: Pixabay

This article mentions that most of the released animals do not end up surviving for long after. Certain species may also disrupt the local ecosystems when introduced as they can out-compete the other endemic species for resources which puts the survival of the endemic species at risk. Furthermore, the demand for this practice has also fueled an industry based on the re-capturing and release of wild animals which leads to ethical issues regarding animal rights. The captured animals may be forced to endure poor living conditions before being released and meeting the same fate when they are captured again.

In Singapore, the practice of mercy release is better regulated than in some regions, such as Hong Kong, where the lack of regulation has lead to severe impacts on wildlife and biodiversity. Personally, I have witnessed the release of Eurasian Tree Sparrows which were bought from a pet store in Singapore. As I watched the act, I wondered how humane it really was…

Eurasian Tree Sparrow - adult (Passer montanus malaccensis)
“Eurasian Tree Sparrow – adult (Passer montanus malaccensis)” by Lip Kee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It is ironic how Buddhist practitioners might be creating more ‘good’ when they choose not to partake in this practice instead. The practice is almost like a false act of goodwill, as the animals are being subjected to more harm instead when they are captured for release. It leads to a vicious cycle of capture and release of these animals to meet the demand for this practice. It also reflects an anthropocentric view, where Man has dominion over other creatures, with the power to determine the fate of these animals and grant them their freedom as an act of goodwill. The animals are seen as lesser beings and our kindness to them as a means to accumulate good karma or make up for our past wrongdoings.

To combat this issue, more attention has been placed on alternative methods to similarly accumulate good karma, such as by going vegetarian as mentioned in this article. Of course, changing to a vegetarian diet can be challenging to some since it is a significant change in one’s lifestyle choices. I feel that some believers might opt for practices like mercy release as it is much simpler to perform and all one has to do is pay for the release of the animals. In a sense, there is a monetary value being placed on the karma gained. I’m curious to find out what you guys feel about such practices, do share in the comments below!

Till next time!

Jun Yu

Jaded by traditions

Hi!

Welcome back to my blog! Last week I wrote about the tradition of burning incense. This week I will be exploring another tradition that dates back further. Jade is a precious gemstone of great cultural importance to the Chinese. Its history dates back to nearly 9,000 years ago during the early Neolithic period. Jade typically comes in two forms, the harder jadeite, and the softer nephrite that is more commonly found in China. Jade served mainly decorative purposes but is also believed to possess spiritual properties by some.  Confucius likened jade as a representation of “virtue, kindness, wisdom, justice, civility, music, sincerity, truth, Heaven and Earth”. This all points to how valuable jade is to the Chinese. Indeed, the popularity of this green gemstone is booming, with the nephrite jade market in China being valued at US$30 billion in 2016. As the Chinese economy grows, the demand for jade can be expected to increase as well, but the question is, where does all this jade come from?

Image by 涛涛 张 from Pixabay

Personally, I have worn a jade pendant ever since I was 13. Yet I have never wondered about the origins of this brilliant stone. The truth is Myanmar supplies about 70% of the world’s jadeite and its production process is cause for much concern. The jade industry in Myanmar has resulted in serious environmental and social impacts. This article recounts how the Hpakant region in Myanmar has changed over 20 years ever since industrial mining has taken over the place. Deforestation has replaced the greenery with mining pits and heavy machinery, while the mismanagement of waste products leads to water pollution. The changes to land cover have also resulted in an increased risk of environmental hazards like landslides. Besides the environmental impacts, rampant corruption and military conflict between the government and the local militia have also worsened the situation. The lack of regulation results in harsh working conditions and limited economic benefits reaching the workers. All this leads to a very exploitative industry with uneven distribution of benefits and shows the harsh truth behind this shiny green stone.

Image by shibang from Pixabay

Of course, this exploitative nature is not just limited to jade mining, but also to most extractive industries seeking out other precious metals and gems. The nature of the industry also shows a stark contrast across the borders. On one end, the Chinese consumers get to admire the wonderfully crafted pieces of jade, whilst on the other end, workers and miners are suffering and barely able to make ends meet. It shows how our desires and wants can drive up demand for these luxury goods, with far-reaching impacts that most of us are blind to. Tradition is not the only ‘culprit’ here, as consumerism has contributed to the growing demand for jade and other precious stones. However, I do feel that our traditions will make it more challenging to tackle such issues. Precious stones like jade possess much intrinsic value due to our beliefs and traditions and will continue to do so with how deep-rooted these traditions are. Demand for jade is unlikely to go away and without improvements in the regulation of the industry, the situation might only worsen.

If you would like to find out more about the jade mining industry, this website has a lot of information and even tries to uncover the true value of the industry. Till next week!

Jun Yu

Incense-sitive

Hey all!
Welcome back to my blog! This week I will be touching on the topic of incense burning. Incense has a long history with China, dating thousands of years back to the Xia Dynasty (circa 2070 -1600 BC) where the practice first began. When incense is burnt, smoke is released along with various scents depending on the type of oils and wood used in production. The most common purpose for burning incense is for the worshipping of deities and ancestors, especially during festivals like the Chinese New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival.  Other purposes include timekeeping, odour-removal and even aromatherapy.

Photo by Dương Nhân from Pexels

Of course, there are concerns with the smoke that is released from the burning of incense. Many studies have documented the health risks of exposure to incense smoke, such as this study conducted in Taiwan. The study lists some of the pollutants in incense smoke, such as particulate matter (PM), and gases like carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxides. The study also mentions that temples in Taiwan burn approximately 3,580 tons of incense annually alone, and this is without factoring the incense burnt in households. As you can see, it all adds up. The amount of incense burnt by an individual might not amount to much in terms of pollutants, but the collective amount can be very impactful to our health and environment.

Curious to find out how my peers felt about this issue, I decided to conduct a short survey to gather their views. I had a total of 22 respondents, of which nine were working or studying in an environment-related field. Exactly half of the respondents have households that practice the burning of incense. The table below shows that burning of incense daily and during certain festivals is indeed quite common in these households.

Source: Author

Of the 22 respondents, only 3 of them felt that the burning of incense was not harmful to the environment.

Source: Author

I then probed further and asked the respondents how they felt about the willingness of their households to burn less incense. Majority of the responses indicated that their households would most likely be unwilling to do so, citing reasons such as religious practices and tradition being hard to break away from and how the impacts are seen as being relatively inconsequential, especially amongst the older generations. One respondent also mentioned that it would be possible if there was an alternative, else it would be difficult to convince people otherwise. The responses are unsurprising, as this tradition has existed for so long with seemingly little to no negative impacts. Even in the case of using alternatives, I feel that some might reject them and prefer to stick to the more traditional options, in fear of offending the recipients of their offerings and worship. These responses show that once again, traditions can pose a challenge when attempting to change the mindsets of others, especially one that is so integral to Chinese culture. As traditions can be a rather sensitive issue, I wonder how best we can approach them to achieve meaningful results.

See you next week!

Jun Yu

Celebrating Mid-(Au)Term

Hey Guys!

Its Mid-terms and Mid-Autumn this week, so I hope everyone’s still doing well! Last week I mentioned how mooncakes are a key source of food and packaging waste during the Mid-Autumn festival. This week I will be exploring another key element of the festival, lanterns.

Lanterns are often carried around by celebrants on the night of Mid-Autumn and used as decorations as well. These lanterns can range from the traditional paper and cellophane lanterns to the modern plastic lanterns. They come in all shapes and sizes as well, with some even taking the form of animals or fictional characters! These lanterns of various unique designs help to liven up the celebration, but they also pose the same problem as the mooncakes: waste.

This year, Gardens By The Bay has set up a few lantern displays in the spirit of celebration. Intrigued, I decided to go down to take a look at these installations. Here are some pictures of the displays.

‘Illuminations of Joy’, Source: Author
‘Colonnade of Lights’, Source: Author

The ‘Illuminations of Joy’ and the ‘Colonnade of Lights’ are two of the lantern displays at the Gardens. Rows upon rows of lanterns stretched as far as the eye could see down the walkway, giving the dull path a vibrant makeover. The ‘Illuminations of Joy’ features 400 cellophane lanterns that were beautifully hand-coloured, while the ‘Colonnade of Lights’ consists of 1,500 paper lanterns that were similarly painted by hand. Many questions came to mind as I admired the decorations… Would these lanterns be re-used in future festivals? Or would they simply be disposed of once the festival was over? How recyclable were these lanterns? I lack the answers to these questions now, but I doubt they paint a pretty picture. These decorations served well to amp up the atmosphere, but they also shed some light on the wasteful nature of the festival.

Families celebrating Mid-Autumn with lanterns, Source: Author

Of course, the decorations were not the only source of lanterns. Visitors to the Gardens could also be seen carrying lanterns along as they explored the area, especially families with young children. All these lanterns add up to a lot of waste that is produced each year, and Mid-Autumn is not the only festival where lanterns are a big part of the celebration. The quantity of waste is not the only issue for concern here. Materials like cellophane, although biodegradable, are linked with a pollutive production process that involves the use of carbon disulfide and might release methane emissions. As such, cellophane can have a sizeable carbon footprint and might not be that much better than traditional plastics. Lanterns powered by batteries also raise the issue of e-waste collection and disposal.

All in all, it would appear that most celebrations are pretty wasteful and unsustainable due to the many decorations that are often involved. I’m curious to find out what do you think about festivals and sustainability. Are we being too wasteful with all these decorations? Do share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!

-Jun Yu

P.S. Here’s an interesting video from Hong Kong where recycled plastic bottles were used to create a lantern display for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Perhaps it is possible to celebrate sustainably.

 

The Dark Side of the Moon(cake)

Hey!

Welcome back! This week we will be taking a look at a different Chinese Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which just happens to be around the corner (1 October)! The Mid-Autumn Festival is another time for family reunions and is said to be the day where the moon shines the brightest. Many stories about Mid-Autumn are associated with the moon, and so the moon is celebrated and appreciated during the festival as well. A key part of this festival is the eating of mooncakes, a circular pastry with white lotus paste as its main filling. Other ingredients can be added into the paste as well, such as salted egg yolks, nuts, and smoked duck.

Source: Pexels. By Streetwindy

Mooncakes are delicious and I always look forward to this time of the year when they are in hot demand. However, it is because of the seasonal demand of mooncakes that leads to much wastage as well. Bakeries and hotels that mass produce mooncakes for Mid-Autumn tend to overproduce which leads to much surplus at the end of the festival. In Hong Kong last year, it was reported by the South China Morning Post that the increase in mooncakes going to waste was expected to be around 0.7 million, leading to a total of 2.9 million mooncakes being wasted.

The waste doesn’t stop there. Mooncakes are often packaged in intricate and fancy boxes to increase their aesthetic appeal and make them presentable gifts. Retailers have to find ways to stand out against the competition, which can lead to them designing more elaborate box designs to capture the attention of potential customers. However, as reported by CNA in 2019, these boxes are often hard to recycle as plastic is usually incorporated with paper for the production of these boxes.

On the bright side, due to the compartmentalisation that is common in the boxes, they can be easily re-used for many purposes. To find out more, I did a short poll on Instagram asking my friends how they dealt with empty mooncake boxes. The results show that the majority try to re-use the boxes, with some offering suggestions like using the boxes to store stationery, coins and jewellery.

Source: Author

In fact, some producers have been trying to encourage the re-use of the boxes, such as by placing a mirror inside the box to turn it into a makeup kit. As mentioned in the CNA article, some companies are also trying to create mooncake boxes that are more recyclable and reusable.

Mooncake box that can double up as a makeup box (Source: Author)

All in all, this seems like a step in the right direction. However, I feel that this is not enough. There is still far too much waste being generated and it is unlikely that we will always find another purpose for all the boxes if we buy mooncakes every year. Hence, I feel that we should try to reject the notion of having these wonderfully crafted boxes when buying mooncakes, especially when it is only for our own consumption and not for gifting purposes. To me, all the boxes are adding is an extra cost to my wallet when all I want is those delicious mooncakes… 🤤

That’s all for this week and I hope everyone has a great week ahead!

Jun Yu

Wear-ing the environment away

Hello Everyone! Welcome back to my blog!

Last week, I wrote about the clothing waste that is produced during the Chinese New Year (CNY) season and introduced some of the more innovative strategies we can adopt to tackle this issue. I also mentioned about conducting a survey to find out more. Well, the results are in, so let’s take a look!

I had a total of 34 respondents for the survey and based on the results, it would seem that I lead quite a wasteful lifestyle amongst my friends and peers 😔. The majority (76.5%) of the respondents only bought 1-2 new outfits during CNY and a small handful (14.7%) do not buy new clothes at all! When asked about how often they would wear these clothes after CNY, the most popular response was ‘A few times’ (35.3%), followed by ‘Regularly’ (26.5%) and ‘Rarely’ (20.6%).  Clearly, I am way more wasteful than more of my friends and peers, having bought around 3-4 outfits on average and rarely wearing them after CNY. However, the results still do not paint a pretty picture — seeing that the majority do not wear these new clothes regularly. We clearly have too many clothes to wear.

Next, I asked the respondents about the strategies to tackle the issue of clothing waste.

Source: Author

As you can see from the graph above, almost all of the respondents were aware of some of these strategies. One respondent also suggested using old clothes as towels/rags for cleaning purposes, which is especially suitable for Spring cleaning during CNY.

Source: Author

However, when we look at the next question, we can see that there is room for more action. A large majority of the respondents have tried donating or recycling their old clothes, but the other strategies like clothing swaps are upcycling are not as popular. This is not surprising as clothing donation drives are a dime a dozen, whereas it is rarer to come across organisations hosting clothing swaps or upcycling events. Awareness of the other strategies does not seem to be the issue here. Instead, I believe it is more of a mindset issue. Some may feel that these pre-owned clothes do not offer the same value as brand new clothes or are uncomfortable with wearing clothes that belonged to others.

An interesting comment I received stated that recycling/donating clothes should be the last resort as an excessive amount of unwanted clothes are collected in Singapore, with much of it being exported in the end. Indeed, as I had mentioned in my previous post, very little of Singapore’s textile waste is actually recycled. This shows that we should give these other strategies a shot as they can prolong the lifespans of our unwanted clothing and lower the demand for brand new clothing.

Lastly, I would like to mention that this was just a simple survey to get a gauge of what my friends and peers think, and is by no means representative. Most of the respondents fall within the age group of 18-25 so the responses here could be very different when compared to other age groups. Perhaps a deeper study that is more encompassing could be done in the future.

Till next time.

Jun Yu

New Year, New Me

Hello! Welcome back to my blog!

Last week I mentioned how some of our Chinese New Year (CNY) traditions were raising environmental concerns. In this post, I will be sharing more about one such tradition.

‘Out with the old, in with the new’ is a commonly heard mantra during CNY. It reflects a belief that one should replace our old belongings to rid ourselves of bad luck and welcome good luck and prosperity into our lives. Clothes, shoes, furniture, decorations… the shopping list goes on. Such a lifestyle is incredibly wasteful. I too, am guilty of this, having bought a new red shirt for CNY that I have not worn since.  In fact, there are many other shirts that I have bought and rarely worn over the years. I did some digging around in my wardrobe and found that on average I bought around 3-4 new outfits every CNY.

The red shirt I bought this year that I’ve only worn once…
All the CNY shirts in the past 3 years which I’ve rarely worn…

This tradition leads to us buying many things that we don’t need while throwing away items that could still be useful. In 2019, Singapore produced 168,000 tonnes of textile waste, of which only 4% was recycled. Of course, CNY produces other types of waste, and multiplied by the sheer number of celebrants around the world, it all starts to add up. The obvious answer to this issue is to simply not buy new outfits every year and stick to our old ones. But are there ways where we can still have new outfits to usher in good luck while being sustainable? Of course, there are!

 

For starters, we can take part in clothes swaps! These can be held at the workplace or through online platforms to exchange fresh outfits. ‘The Fashion Pulpit‘ is an example of an online platform for clothes swapping. They offer various membership plans that allow one to go from a one-time swap to a full year of unlimited swapping. In fact, they even host a special swap event for CNY where one can swap up to 10 pieces of traditional clothing, footwear and accessories for $25. This seems like a perfect option to welcome some luck (and extra savings) into our lives during CNY.

clothing swap
(Source: Creative Commons – “clothing swap” by interrobang is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Another alternative to consider is upcycling. Upcycling clothes involve taking old or worn-out clothing and repurposing them into ‘new’ ones.  It allows us to create our own masterpieces and refresh our wardrobes. Communities such as Fashion Makerspace organise upcycling workshops which can help beginners get started.  Indeed, this idea of creating new from old does seem apt for CNY.

These sustainable strategies intrigued me and made me tempted to try them out come next CNY (assuming COVID-20 doesn’t happen…). These strategies were new to me and it made me wonder about how popular they were. As such, I decided to do a survey on my friends and family to find out more about their consumption patterns during CNY and the popularity of such strategies. I will be sharing my findings in the following week so stay tuned!

Cheers,

Jun Yu

A New Start

Hello there!

Welcome to my Blog! I’m Jun Yu, a Year One student from the National University of Singapore, where I’m currently pursuing a Bachelor of Environmental Studies. This is my first time writing a blog, so I’m excited to be sharing this experience with you all. I hope this blog will be an interesting journey of reflection and learning for all of us.

This blog will be about the environmental impacts that come with Chinese customs and traditions. What led me to arrive at this topic was my personal experiences. I am Chinese and have been following many of these customs from a young age. Back then, I rarely questioned these customs and blindly followed what my parents told me to do. But as I grew older, I started to think more about these customs and how they could be affecting our environment negatively.

I will begin this journey by looking at the Chinese New Year (CNY), the biggest Chinese festival celebrated in the world. For me, CNY was the only time of the year I would see some of my relatives. I am Singaporean, but my father is Malaysian and his hometown is Tawau, Sabah. As Tawau is in East Malaysia, it meant that the only way to get there was by plane. And so every CNY (up until I was 19), I would fly to Tawau with my parents to celebrate with my relatives.

(Source: https://aseanup.com/free-maps-malaysia/)

Celebrating CNY in Malaysia was a very different experience from celebrating in Singapore. The celebrations there were way more…explosive! Laws in Malaysia were less strict, so it was common for households to be setting off their own fireworks and firecrackers.

A picture of me celebrating CNY in Tawau, 2017

But behind all the celebrations, hide certain ugly truths about wasteful consumption and pollutive behaviours. Food & clothing waste, carbon emissions & air pollution. These are not the terms that would come to one’s mind when CNY is mentioned. But these are precisely the environmental issues that are cause for concern due to some of the customs that are being followed. These are customs that I too, have been ‘guilty’ of. Therefore, I wish to dive deeper into these issues in the upcoming weeks.

That’s all for now and I hope to see you next week!

Jun Yu