Maria Tan, 23, Zero-waste Advocate

CLEO Change Makers is a movement celebrating the grit, bravery, and tenacity of young women in Singapore. Do check back here for CLEO Change Makers 2019, which will kick off on Aug 1. 

CLEO Change Maker Maria only buys secondhand clothes and accessories – but not because she can’t afford brand new ones. As someone who strives to generate as little waste as possible, she makes it a point to be very careful of what she consumes.

“I don’t know if it’s because of my economics background, but to me, if I buy a new piece of clothing, I’m telling the supplier to go make more,” she says. “However, clothing in the secondhand market has been purchased before, so if I buy it, it doesn’t signal a willingness to pay to the firsthand supplier. I thought about this very deeply.”

And she doesn’t just reduce her waste footprint with secondhand clothes – she only uses bar soaps and shampoos and makes the most of her toiletries to avoid buying anything that doesn’t come in environmentally-friendly packaging. “When I buy a product, I’m also buying the packaging. I feel like my dollar is a vote, and that when I pay for something, I’m saying that I’m OK with the packaging,” she explains. “So it becomes about how much I value the product.”

Maria makes her own toothpaste and face mask, and when she buys products, only spends on those that are vegan, natural and/or compostable. She also uses a handkerchief in place of tissue paper. “Even though tissue is recyclable, I try to use something reusable because its impact on the environment is still less than that of a paper product,” she adds.

Maria has been leading a zero waste lifestyle for a couple of years now. “I became more exposed to the natural environment when I was doing my undergraduate studies in London. I was camping and hiking a lot and felt like I had to do something to protect it,” she says. “I felt as though I was drawing so much ‘energy’ from it, I was doing nothing to ‘give back’. I wanted to ensure that future generations would be able to enjoy it as well.”

And that was how she decided to take the first steps to going green. “I started with the low-hanging fruit, which was to bring my own reusable bags to the supermarket. However, it was only after I watched a video on Lauren Singer and read Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson that I realised that I couldn’t just stop there.”

Maria brought the lifestyle back with her to Singapore but it wasn’t easy. For one, there are fewer resources here that support environmentalism, like packaging-free grocery stores. There are also the people who belittle her efforts. “They will say things like, ‘Do you really think what you’re doing makes a difference?’ or ‘Environmentalism is only for the rich,” she shares. “It can be quite disheartening to hear because I probably spend less than them.”

She also struggled to convince her family to let her go her own way. “My parents weren’t very comfortable when I first set up a compost bin at home because they associated it with pests,” she says. “It was only after they realised that it actually has an earthy smell and is a pretty good way of getting rid of your own [organic waste] that they took to it.” In fact, her parents have become inspired by her efforts and now also bring their own reusable bags and containers to the market.

But that doesn’t mean Maria goes around preaching about her lifestyle. Happy as she is to share zero waste tips and tricks on her Instagram account (@mariaubergine) and co-organise relevant events, she makes sure to also respect other people’s choices. “I don’t show discontent when other people use plastics. I’d rather focus on the positive side of things and be a quiet advocate, which is more effective,” she says. “People will take notice when you do things. For example, I didn’t tell my colleagues about the importance of using reusable containers and cutlery. I just did it. But they gradually picked it up.”

And her purpose has also evolved – it’s no longer just about saving the environment. “The more I [tried going zero waste], the more I realised there’s more to it. This lifestyle actually also allows me to declutter my life,” she muses. “It reminds me to only spend on things I need, and to spend more on experiences, not things that I’ll use for two days and throw away after.”

Maria recommends that aspiring zero wasters start by changing the way they perceive things. “Most people view the lifestyle in literal form and think it’s just about generating zero waste. But it means different things to different people, and to me, it’s a mindset,” she explains. “It’s about rethinking every consumption and where I put my money.”

This story was first published in August 2018