|One man’s trash is another man’s treasure? The tedious job of sorting by colour and grade|
Avoid discussing religion, politics or anything below the waist – that used to be the advice handed out to young ladies of good breeding on the subject of proper conversational etiquette. So investigating what people use after their number twos definitely rates high on the vulgarity scale. Of course, much of Malaysia is traditionally hand and water territory but this is a story
about toilet paper – bog roll, loo paper, whatever you might call it – and specifically, the recycled variety. You see, when we wanted to test the waters of the practice of waste management here in Sarawak, we decided to follow a recycling trail of toilet paper to trace Kuching’s environmental movement (if you’ll pardon the puns!). In other words, when we answer the call of nature, does nature call?
Reduce, reuse, recycle, reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s a modern day mantra. Say it enough times and you might achieve enlightenment. Save the environment, be a better person in just three easy steps! Environmentalism has been gaining momentum for decades, making global warming and deforestation the twin spectres of our times. Yet strangely, as a society, our environmental consciousness sometimes seems in direct proportion to our distance from nature, the preserve of city slickers from developed nations who learn all about it on their tablets and 52” TVs. Often, it seems like the netizens of New York are far more likely to ‘care’ about the ‘environment’ (inverted commas very much intended) than the orang of the ulu. All 10 top recyclers in the world are from so-called Western countries, with Switzerland recycling a whopping 52% of its rubbish. Sadly, according to official figures, Malaysia is down near the bottom of the heap, with just 5%.
But what is the actual state of environmentalism, or more specifically recycling, here in Sarawak, where official figures are often subverted by private enterprise? Here we live cheek by jowl with the natural world – many of us still a short trip away from a host of natural wonders – plunging waterfalls, dense jungle, impenetrable caves, turtle islands and mighty mangroves. We are just 30 years away from one of the most extensive and bio-diverse rainforests the planet has ever seen, though today sadly we also have the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia on our doorstep. Which all begs the question: how conscious of it all are we? Let’s talk toilet paper!
Where does the trail lead us? Unlike Western countries where householders give it away free direct to big players, here in Kuching, recycling seems to be a private affair. In this case, we start with the Householder. Taught to recycle from a young age, she does it all – newspaper, bottles, cans. Plastic bags are reused, ice cream containers cleaned and refilled. When she has a stack of paper, she picks up the phone and in comes the recycler, the next person on the trail.
Our Recycler runs a small business from his house, taking in anything from newspaper to tin cans to old electronic goods, which he strips and sorts and then sells on. This is a cash transaction. Householders expect payment and our Recycler insists on it, even if his customers demur; he takes it as a mark of integrity. After all, this is business; a business that he has been in for twenty years; a business that he has used to feed, clothe and educate his family. He started selling ice cream from a bicycle and picking up trash as an additional source of income and a meagre one at that – at one stage he even used to trade old newspapers for new toilet rolls! But eventually he got his own car (not a traditionally environmental move!) and his business was born. For several years, the recycling industry expanded and prices went up; though eventually competitors flooded in. Our recycler has stepped back now, his children all grown, but he alone collects between five and seven tons of newspaper a month!
Enter our Transporter. The youngest of the group, he has been in this game for seven years, though his employer has been around nearer fifteen. His role is to take his truck around government offices, banks and recyclers like ours, to collect their unwanted paper. Hailing from Beliong, where his father works on a palm oil plantation, this is a country boy. But he is pragmatic in his approach: one load is much the same as another. But he does use the recycled toilet paper – fewer chemicals and lower in price – and presumably, easy access to abundant supply given his daily visits delivering up to 15 tonnes of potential pulp to our last link, the Manufacturer.
Hai Ming Paper Mill hides itself in 7th mile. The first thing you see as you enter is a pile of waste wood that is used to stoke the gigantic boilers, in operation 24-7 for the last 30 years. This used to be one of two paperrecycling firms in Sarawak, before See Hua closed their recycling arm, churning out a variety of paper products, including our area of interest, the recycled loo roll! Truckloads of paper enter, are sorted into various colours and grades for the various colours and grades of loo roll, before being flung into a churner (not a technical term!). This is an enormous blender that creates a maelstrom of paper pulp which feeds into a series of cogs and wheels and mangles and machines which, at the end, squeeze out a long line of toilet rolls. These are then shipped out to end in homes across Sarawak, including that of our own Householder. The cycle is complete!
So, let’s also come full circle to our original question. How environmentally conscious is this apparently environmental loop? Do these players ponder the fate of the trees and the birds and the fishes? Well, yes; of course they all care about that; who would say otherwise! But is that the root of their recycling drive? In reality, not really. This particular habit seems to take the pragmatic approach – everyone gets paid and so everyone is happy. The environmental benefits are just a bonus. Our householder, environmental by nature but also practical in the extreme, states that she would recycle whether she got paid or not, but adds that she would have to get rid of it anyway. Our recycler is happy he helps to keep the environment tidy and landfill to a minimum, but family definitely comes first. Our transporter, musing on the subject of the proposed ban on plastic bags, simply doesn’t see how it would work: after all, the people who make them have a right to earn a living too. And our manufacturer, although they stamp ‘recycled’ on their toilet roll, have the motto: ‘Better service, better quality and better prices.’ Not a cheep about the birds and the bees!
What seems clear is that, here in Sarawak, recycling is small-scale enterprise with a definite profit motive. But so what? Our transporter gives us the opinion: ‘Singapore can be clean because they are rich.’ After all, many Kuching folk are just a few generations away from genuine deprivation (though younger generations of Sarawak should take note), rooting their motivation as strongly in reuse and reduce as in recycle. Sayang, bah! How many times have we heard it when it comes to waste? In the words of our Householder: “Why should I buy expensive containers when I can get it for free?” Sometimes, in the West, where helping the environment is often a cause, profit can be seen as a dirty word. But Asians are, in this respect, much more honest. Make the world tidier, make life easier, make our environment cleaner, and make a little money along the way. Perhaps the West worries more because, frankly, they are more wasteful. In the end, all these multiple links – householder, recycler, transporter, manufacturer – add up to into one long recycling chain: a genuine environmental movement. And the system seems to work. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
200 years to dissolve a plastic bottle…
This may have very different connotations in the restaurant trade but in this case, we are talking cleaning products. B YOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) was born in KL in 2011 with the specific aim of promoting the 3R concept. It does exactly what it says on the tin: you bring your own bottle and they will fill it with cleaning products; environmentally friendly ones. Actually, you don’t even need to bring your own bottle: they will supply one for you but, of course, recycled!
Lillian Lee started the Kuching branch on the advice of her daughter, currently living in the environmentally-right-on USA. Interestingly, in this case, her drive to recycle started from a spiritual place. She was part of Tzu Chi, a Buddhist movement with one of its goals as promoting environmental protection. When BYOB came into her life, she started by sourcing the plastic bottles from Tzu Chi, though eventually her customers were properly trained and this became unnecessary. She told us that most of her customers were women and generally older – so the youth of Kuching need to get on the recycling train. They come to her for all reasons – environmental, product oriented and of course, price. As one of her customers said: “I come mostly because it is cheaper and easy to reach; and the people are friendly.” But no matterthe motive, Lillian is spreading the word. She thinks more and more people in Kuching are starting to be educated on environmentalism. And she does her part. “Did you know,” she confided earnestly, “it takes over 200 years to dissolve one of those bottles.”