I used to be a shopaholic, a hoarder, and a collector. Had a walk-in wardrobe filled with clothes but nothing to wear. Now, I have less but all of what I need. ‘If less is more, maybe nothing is everything.‘ ~ Rem Koolhaas
Before, having more stuff made me feel somewhat important, accomplished, successful. Now, having less, needing less gave me a deep sense of freedom. Free from the attachment to things and the never-ending desire of wanting more things. The more things I own, the more things own me. When I detach and dissociate myself from things, I am set free. I’m no longer defined by what I own and what I wear. I am who I am. I am the fruit of my spirit. I reap what I sow. I am enough.
Zero Waste is a journey of rediscovering your life, your self, at your own pace. Following the 5R principles in sequence with Rethink in front, this was my flow:
- Rethink my consumption habits, reassess my lifestyle, my true essentials. What can I do or do without? Is this really what I need or what the advertisers want me to need?
- Refused all things disposable as much as possible and replaced them with reusables.
- Refill instead of sending more waste to the landfill.
- Reduce my consumption, my needs, and my wants. Hence, reduce the amount of waste generated. I have also reduced my meat intake since 2020.
One of the radical things I did was to remove the bin in my bathroom. I set myself up to think before I throw something away. I think before I buy something too. I stop subscribing to the endless treadmill run of the linear economy. The constant need to buy, use, throw away, recycle, replenish, repeat – buy, use, throw away, recycle, replenish, repeat… I jumped out of it by reducing or removing the need to buy, use, throw away, recycle, and replenish the following items:
1) Toilet Paper
The beauty in Malaysia and some other countries like Thailand, Japan is… there’s a bidet or bidet spray hose in most toilets. Personally, I prefer using a bidet spray hose as there’s more flexibility for washing desired areas, be it the front or back, the toilet bowl, or the floor. Install a bidet spray at home if you don’t have one. Just spray to wash and dry with a towel. Refreshing! Although I must admit it can be daunting to use bidet spray in some public toilets. I do switch to toilet paper when the bidet is ‘untouchable’ or when there’s no bidet option.
2) Tissue Paper
I used to buy tissue paper in all sorts of shapes and sizes: mini pack, travel size, big box, small box. Mostly to blow my nose, wipe my mouth after each meal, catch my eyebrows after plucking, collect my nails after cutting, wipe the lipstick off my lips, etc etc etc. Now, I do my cleaning, trimming, and washing directly at the basin or during a shower. I use any piece of paper around me to collect my nails after cutting and composting them.
3) Wet Wipes
I loved wet wipes. Especially those lavender-scented ones. They were once my ‘must-have’ for traveling and outdoor activities like going to a music festival, picnic, and hiking. I even use wet wipes to clean my shoes and all my home’s surface areas, hoping to make it smell like a lavender field. Now, I wash with cloth and water or my homemade multipurpose cleaning solution made from citrus peels (Recipes coming soon). I’ve added eucalyptus essential oil for that refreshing scent.
At one music festival in England, I survived 4 days without any showers because it was just too cold to do it. Instead, I used wet wipes to clean myself, which generated so much waste. In the name of Zero Waste, I resorted to cleaning myself in the open, using just a tiny square towel to wipe with natural ice-cold water, during a hiking trip in Vietnam in September 2018. The trick is to be quick and be totally comfortable with the whole situation or catch a cold! I survived that incident, overcame the fear of cold, and reduced the need to use wet wipes and a water heater ever since.
4) Kitchen Towels, Napkins
I use a cloth to dry the dishes, one to wipe the general surface area, and one to deal with the nasties such as coffee spills and sauce splashes from cooking. I didn’t need to buy reusable kitchen towels or cloth napkins anymore. I’m fine using any cloth I can find at home. You can sterilize cleaning cloths by boiling them in a pot for 10 minutes. Cheap, effective, and chemical-free!
When I eat out, I refuse and return the napkin if possible. Sometimes, reusable cutlery is pre-wrapped with a napkin. I’ll use it as usual and use the other sides to clean the table or wipe my laptop screen. After each meal, I would rinse my mouth, wash my hands, flick the access water to a plant *if any, or dab the remaining fluid on my arms and tidy my hair. No napkins or paper towels are necessary.
5) Cotton Pads
I used to apply toner, remove makeup, and nail polish using cotton pads. Now, I refill rose buds water into a 50ml spray bottle which I reuse. Spray directly on the face as a toner, or a quick pick me up. It’s also a great way to keep my skin hydrated when traveling by plane. Before I switched, I used my palm to lightly dab or press liquid toner onto my face. I figured all the goodness in a toner is best absorbed by applying directly to my face, not a cotton pad.
I stop applying nail colors at home. It takes time, and it will chip within minutes after I apply with care and coat after coat of chemical, so what’s the point? Next!
Since 12, I decided not to wear so much makeup and embrace natural beauty. I have no clue where I got that wisdom from, but I know once you start putting too much stuff on your face, you will have to keep up by putting more.
Generally, I don’t put on much makeup. Lipstick is all I need. I can wear it stronger at night, lightly dab the color on my lips during the day, and smear some on my cheeks as blusher or eyelids as eyeshadow. I used to draw my eyelids with a dark eyeliner pencil and applied mascara but found them too stubborn to clean off properly. So I omitted using them entirely. Come to think of it, I have not purchased makeup for the longest time. What I have mainly were gifts from friends or door gifts from events. I use what’s available or just go without. It’ll take me 5 minutes to put my face on. I don’t believe in spending too much time to make myself look like, say, Angelina Jolie. I can never ever have her pouty lips, no matter how much lipsticks I slap on, or try to make it appear more prominent than usual by drawing it out of line. I might end up looking like Courtney Love or Joker. You know what, I’ll just be me.
7) Halloween Costume
Speaking of Joker, bring fond memories of Halloween parties at Zouk where my team and I double up as door bitch to spot and nominate the best dressed for the night. Our team rented costumes sponsored by the company. It’s not cheap to rent, so I understand why some people would rather buy those poorly made copies of certain characters they wished to ‘become’ on that unholy night.
After I left Zouk to focus on my retail business, I whipped up Halloween outfits from my walk-in wardrobe instead. One year, probably the last Halloween of my life, I dressed up as The Black Swan, put together from home. Yes, I do happen to have a massive black tutu skirt in my walk-in wardrobe. I bought it directly from a young local designer at a trade show, waiting for that day to come when I would finally wear it. Mini tiara, not visible from the photo below, was from another Halloween where I dressed up as Audrey Hepburn, also put together from home. Who doesn’t have a black dress and a chopstick pretending to be a cigarette holder? Put your creative hat on and use what you already have from home for your next theme party!
8) Makeup Remover Wipes
I must say, they were great for removing heavy makeup easily and quickly. Especially after Halloween parties and photo shoots. I never like the feeling of wearing heavy makeup. I just want to remove it immediately when I’m done. However, my face would turn red after all the wiping. I stopped partying like a rock star, so no more Halloween parties for me. Thankfully, the recent shoots I did require me to be me, which means, no thick or heavy makeup with layers and layers of products to cover this and that to make me look flawless. Light makeup can easily be removed as I wash my face—a truly 2-in-1 solution.
9) Nail Polish
I stopped applying nail color from home. Visit a nail parlor once in a while for pedicure only. Color lasts longer on my feet, and they keep my toes proper and thoroughly cleaned. I’m also a sucker for their massage chair. That’s my petite princess Jasmine moment right there. Otherwise, I kept my nails naked mostly.
I love scents! I used to buy and collect perfumes which I can never finish. 100ml can last a really long time. I still have heaps of perfumes and beauty products to finish. I’ve stopped buying them. Although last Christmas, I was so tempted to buy a limited edition room fragrance that could transform my home into a pine tree forest. I resisted. Besides, some chemicals used in perfumes and beauty products are not good for us. It gives people migraine or skin allergies. I wonder why most of us still choose to buy them.
Do you want to know what else I’ve stopped buying? There’s a lot more and it’s going make this post a really long one!
Oh, very well then!
11) Disposable Pads
Used cloth pads initially, basically square terry cloth hankies I found at home but found soaking and washing unsuitable for my lifestyle since I travel quite often. I was given a menstrual cup to experience in November 2019 and there was no turning back. What took me so long? All that silly fear of the unknown. In a Zero Waste journey, you got to explore and experience it yourself, at your own pace, to find out what works or doesn’t work for you. There’s no standard formula for all. No right or wrong. Everyone is different.
12) Gifts, Souvenirs
I stopped buying gifts for the sake of buying. I am still working on refusing gifts, but most of the gifts I got, I do like them and would use them. I also practice re-gift—no taboo about it. Gifts I didn’t end up using, I placed them in a box and re-gift to others during Christmas. I didn’t even wrap them. I let others choose what they want as a token of my appreciation. No bias or favoritism at all. Only love.
13) Note Pads, Note Books
I write notes on my mobile phone. Sometimes, in the TextEdit app on my desktop. I repurposed one-sided printed letters to make a notepad using a black clip or clipboard. On a side note, I used to print bank statements on these one-sided printed letters to track my monthly spendings with the receipts collected. When I stopped shopping, my bank statements looked pretty straightforward on screen—no need to print. I refuse receipts too, as they are primarily thermal with harmful BPA. I still have a lot of brand new notebooks at home too. Most of them were gifts from friends or events. More reasons to journal!
I use what I already have at home, which is plenty. I still have a collection of Copic markers from design school days. Once in a while, I would scribble on my black clip note pad, repurposed from one-sided printed letters, with every pen, marker, highlighter I got to see if they were still working. I also refrain from taking cheap pens at conventions and IKEA pencils because they are free. I bring a pen with me now everywhere I go.
15) Fast Fashion
I made a commitment in 2018—zero shopping on new fashion items, especially fast fashion. I am aware of The True Cost behind those cheap, trendy, mass-produced fashion-forward pieces that are not made to last, to our planet but also to the people making them. Moreover, I have way too many clothes, and it’s time to wear them! If you must buy, buy local, buy ethical, buy well made, buy quality, buy secondhand, or buy nothing. The most sustainable brand is already in your wardrobe. Wear it or pass it on. Swap instead of shop! Say bye-bye to Fast Fashion. Join the Fashion Revolution.
16) Costume Jewelry
Before, I couldn’t leave home without accessories. They were bits and pieces I bought for myself during travels or gifts from good friends. Each piece came with a story, a part of me. When I downsized, I separated which ones to rid at the flea market and which ones to keep. Most costume jewelry ended up at the flea market pile; they often made my skin itch anyway! Only a few unique, well-made, timeless pieces were kept, as I could see myself wearing them even when I turned 50. These days, I wear a lot less accessories, at most a pair of earrings, when I head out. Less is more.
After downsizing and getting some good shoes fixed, I still own 40 pairs! Repairing shoes in Malaysia is way cheaper than in Singapore. Most of them are shoes I used to wear regularly but later kept in a bag as they were worn out and needed to be fixed ‘one day.’ That day finally came as I lugged them all to Malaysia and brought them before a street cobbler I frequent. The last time he glued and hand sewed the soles of my 3yo hiking boots, he charged me RM10. It saved me at least RM600 to get a new pair! I have no desire to buy any more shoes. I wear what I got and keep some excellent quality, classic, comfy shoes that will not chip away over time. Stop buying ‘chip’ shoes! They are the worst!
Before going cold turkey on shopping, my final purchase was a homegrown brand from Malaysia whose whimsical prints I adore. It’s a reversible weekend bag, perfect for a digital nomad like me. Big enough to hold a 15″ laptop, laptop charger, water bottle, notepad, scarf, brolly, mobile phone, phone charger, pen, earpiece, iPad, etc. As its name suggests, the bag is excellent for short trips, especially if you travel light. I still have a suitcase full of all sorts of bags after downsizing, which I am still working on to let go, one by one at the Blackmarket Preloved Store (now defunct). Come visit!
Thankfully, I’m not overly busty. At times, I can choose to go braless. When I go to bed, I go braless. When I’m at home, I go braless. Only when I’m out and about do I have to be more mindful, especially in conservative countries where I have to be liberal. Having said that, I will wear the same few pieces that I owned or go without.
20) Books and Magazines
I switched to reading ebooks from Kindle or iPad as I could travel with various titles without the extra weight. I still enjoy holding a book to read from time to time, usually picked up from the most random places during travels, as the title caught my eyes. Now, I have the habit of passing the book on after reading instead of keeping or adding it to my shelf. I believe knowledge should be shared and not just for display. I used to be a semi ‘Tsundoku’ as I bought books to collect and never actually read them.
Bookstores used to be one of my favorite hangout places for browsing interesting titles and zines. I used to spend a lot of money on design books and international magazines for creative inspiration too. Now, I go online.
Should I go on?
Alrighty! Just 5 more okay!
21) Furniture and Appliances
I used to buy almost everything for home and office from IKEA and MUJI. Now, I’ll buy secondhand first or adopt unwanted furniture and appliances from friends. I was blessed with a sofa, queen size bed, reading chair with leg rest, painting, solid wood work desk, 2 side tables, microwave oven, and so on. I’ve salvaged a few abandoned items around my neighborhood too – a retro armchair, a brand new shelf, a brand new basket for bicycle, and a snake plant nicely packed in a plastic bag! We are one big happy family now.
22) Home Decor
As you can see from the above photo, my home is too eclectic to embrace any theme. During Christmas, the only decor I’ll put up is a wooden accessories holder, shaped like a 3D Christmas tree when twisted. It’s been religiously reused for decades!
It has always been a strange idea for me to buy animals. My father used to bring home different dogs he found wandering on the street. The dachshund was the first, followed by a big white dog called ‘Rocky,’ I believed was a Dogo Argentino. It was as big as me, but I would gladly take it out for a walk. Okay, more like it dragged me out for a walk. My mother didn’t like having animals in the house very much, so my father would have to send them away to the temple from time to time. The last dog my father brought home was a Shih Tzu. It was trembling so much, we call it ‘Trembi.’ Following suit, I adopted a sweet black kitten and a big fat cat named ‘Poh’ from its owner after she developed an allergy.
I used to buy plants like sweet basil, dill, cactus, and they would wither and die in my hands. So I volunteer with a community garden in the hope of turning my fingers green! Killed more plants along the way, sweet basil and chocolate mint, given to me as thank you token for the volunteer work. Finally, one of the two types of Indian Borage I adopted from a conscious market survived. That gave me hope. During the lockdown, I started regrowing edibles like tomatoes, chilies, pumpkins, papayas, limes, oranges, and sweet potatoes. They are growing so well, which made me so emotional and proud. Adopted some money plant cuttings too, and the roots are forming. I hope to grow and bring more green friends home! Welcome to the jungle!
25) Plastic Bottled Water
Since I now carry my water bottle almost everywhere I go, there’s no need to buy water packed in a plastic bottle which will take 450 years to break down after that one-time use. Only 9% of global plastic waste is recycled. Can we really count on recycling? Refuse single-use plastic packaging and disposables as much as possible, replace them with reusables. Water can be refilled at home or any F&B outlet for very little or no cost.
Running the fashion retail business for 5 years, I would buy two 1.5 liters of mineral water before heading to the store each time. This was my way to make sure I drank enough water for the day. IF I had switched to refilling water from home with a reusable water bottle, I would have saved 3,650 plastic bottles from the incinerator and nearly 3,000 SGD in 5 years!
Many people find Zero Waste products costly and therefore conclude such lifestyles are only catered to those who can afford them. It is not what we have to buy to be Zero Waste but what we choose not to buy and use what we already have; that’s a true Zero Waste spirit.
Can you see how much money I’ve saved by reducing the need to buy the above items since 2018 or earlier? I have also reduced so much unnecessary waste as a result.
I am aware as a single person, it may seem way easier for me to sacrifice or change certain habits in my life. Not quite a fairy tale for a family of 2, 3, or 4. It’s actually the other way around. I got inspired and encouraged by Bea Johnson, writer of Zero Waste Home, which happened to be the last book I purchased at Zero Waste Malaysia’s first Zero Waste Fest, December 2017. I read her book and thought: If she and her family of 4, plus a dog, manage to reduce and generate just a glass jar of trash in a year, then it would be way easier for me to do it as a single person. If you have a family of 2, 3, or 4, always start with yourself. Be the change you want to see and let the ripple effect do the rest.
What can you reduce or remove in your life? Leave a reply below!