Circular economy: Towards zero

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 9, 2019 - September 15, 2019.
-A +A

It all started when a video of a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose went viral. In the video — which is quite upsetting to watch — you can see scientists removing the straw from the injured turtle, whose eyes are closed in pain,  blood streaming down its face.

That 2015 incident sparked a plastic straw ban around the world, including in Malaysia, which saw the grassroots-driven Tak Nak Straw and Zero Waste movement grow. Over the years, this movement has opened up a new market for businesses that want to serve the growing number of environmentally conscious consumers.

Zero Waste Malaysia (ZWM) is one organisation that has fuelled this growth. From a Facebook group started by enthusiasts in 2016, it had grown into a non-profit organisation with more than 20,000 members last year, according to its 2018 annual report.

“We started the group to share resources among those interested in sustainable living. It then came to a point where some people wanted to start package-free stores. By 2017, there were six or seven package-free zero-waste stores in the Klang Valley,” co-founder Khor Sue Yee told Enterprise on the sidelines of the  Zero Waste Festival. Now, there are more than 500 zero-waste-

related stores in the country.

ZWM’s goal is to increase awareness of sustainable living. One of its founders, Aurora Tin, is known for blogging about her experience practising the zero-waste lifestyle. In two years, the amount of trash produced by her family could fit into a 500ml glass jar and weighed less than 100g.

Going zero waste means rejecting the disposable culture and practising environmentally responsible habits. The world is already buckling under the amount of waste produced. According to a 2018 report by The World Bank, global waste could grow 70% by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. Plastic is one of the key culprits and as recent reports have shown, we do not have sufficient resources to deal with it.

To provide guidance, ZWM has produced a Zero Waste Event Handbook to advise event organisers on how they can avoid generating waste. It has also published a list of vendors who have worked with the organisation.

Last year, ZWM produced the online Zero Waste Map, which lists all the zero-waste-related stores — such as package-free stores, repair services and community composting sites — in Malaysia.

At its recent festival, ZWM announced its intention to start offering zero waste certifications to businesses. This initiative was born out of inquiries on the quality of package-free stores.

“We were inspired by Zero Waste Saigon and Zero Waste France. Both non-profit organisations provide zero-waste certifications to businesses, schools and stakeholders who practise sustainability as a core part of their value to achieve a circular economy,” says Khor.

It is important to provide this level of transparency to ensure that the zero-waste stores are practising what they preach, she adds. “We are planning the launch in July. It will start by taking a pledge [to be zero waste] and we will do the audit later. Before that, our team members need to meet some criteria to be able to do the audit.”

 

 

A market for package-free businesses

The number of package-free bulk stores have rapidly increased in the Klang Valley in the last three years. These shops allow customers to purchase items such as dry food and personal care products without packaging.

Is this an emerging business opportunity? Perhaps, but it is still in its infancy and full of challenges, according to the entrepreneurs who spoke at a forum titled “A dialogue on local package-free business practices”.

For instance, Clytia Wong, founder of BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle) Damansara Kim, started the package-free detergent store in 2012 in collaboration with the late Wilson Lai,  who was a detergent manufacturer for two decades.

They had noticed that at recycling centres, detergent bottles were the most common plastic being disposed of. But that kind of plastic is very sturdy and can be reused multiple times. Also, if you send plastic for recycling there are additional carbon footprint and financial costs incurred in the process.

Reusing plastic bottles became the logical solution. So, Lai decided to sell detergent to customers who brought their own containers to the shop. He recruited Wong as one of the retailers. But this was before the zero waste movement began in Malaysia. They started with seven outlets but in less than two years, only two were left standing.

“Everyone had just learnt about recycling. So, when we told them to reuse, they did not understand. Initially, we had to give free bottles. But they still came back without the bottle. It was very tough for the first three years,” says Wong.

It was only when news on plastic waste became viral that awareness rose, she adds. Now, BYOB has four locations in Malaysia.

“I think the turtle did a good job. That image is stuck in everyone’s mind. From then on, we felt like the market has really become more acceptable and we have more bulk stores coming up,” says Wong.

The same goes for Claire Sancelot, founder of The Hive Bulk Foods. She sells more than 300 whole foods and household products in bulk without packaging. She started in 2015 and lost money in the first two years of business. But things turned around last year. Now, she has four outlets in the Klang Valley and recently opened the fifth in Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur.

“In those two years, I did not know if I would be able to manage. It was so hard explaining to each customer how the business works and why we were doing it. I still do not draw a salary now, although every employee is paid. But I am very optimistic that we will get there,” says Sancelot.

It may be odd, but these entrepreneurs have a vision that in 10 years, package-free stores like theirs will not exist anymore, that the concept will have become mainstream. Imagine a Tesco or NSK with a package-free section. This is already available in some supermarkets in France.

“When there is more demand for package-free stores, I hope people in the retail industry will do something about it so it becomes a norm. Right now, we are here to create awareness and demand,” says Wong.

Some may complain that package-free stores, most of which are currently located in more affluent areas, are expensive. It is still a conscious choice made by discerning customers who can afford it. But this is merely a matter of economies of scale, say the panellists at the forum. The greater the demand, the lower the cost.

“It is really about getting support from the community. Without them, the business cannot sustain. For the big corporates to adopt this strategy, it needs to make a profit,” says Law Hong Mei, founder of The Olive Tree, a natural skincare product store. It has a package-free outlet in Kota Damansara.

“When there is demand, there will be supply. When there are more consumers requesting it from big manufacturers, they will look into it,” she points out.

While the zero waste movement has been grassroots-driven so far, policies can provide scale to these businesses and make a difference. Already, several state governments have policies on plastic bags and straws.

What else can the governments do? The panellists suggested providing loans to small businesses or giving tax allowances to those in the sustainable business space.

 

How to transform into a zero-waste shop

Law is different from the other panellists in that her business started as a normal store selling natural skincare products. A year after founding the company, she began her personal zero waste journey and sought to implement that in the company.

The Olive Tree’s products are manufactured in Australia. When shipped to Malaysia, they tend to come with a lot of packaging. The company also delivers to customers, which results in another round of plastic and cardboard waste.

Law decided to make a difference. She set up a package-free concept store at Sunway Nexis for customers to refill their liquid products and buy soaps without packaging. Customers can also refill their products at package-free stores such as The Hive and Frangipani.

“We are responsible for all the bottles as well. That is why we ask people to bring back their [The Olive Tree] bottles and we will reward them with RM1 this year. We have done it for a year and the number is growing. Up to 30% of our bottles come back. We also clean these and send them to The Hive or Frangipani. That is the amazing part about our zero waste community. All of us accept each other’s trash because we have use for it,” says Law.

The delivery service took a bit of a change in strategy. “I went to look at how people were sending their parcels. Although 90% were using plastic mailers, I could still see some boxes around. I became determined to send out all our parcels in boxes,” she says.

The Olive Tree custom-makes its boxes using recycled paper and excludes plastic from the packaging. It works with suppliers to find non-plastic or foam alternatives. Some of Law’s colleagues were worried that the shampoo bottles would break or get wet without a plastic wrapper around the box. But she insisted.

“We were also worried that our parcels would get wet. Well, the postman’s job is to keep your parcel safe. When they see that your boxes are made of paper, they will put it somewhere under the roof. If they see that it is wrapped in plastic, they will put it outside. It is all about mentality,” says Law.

 

How to keep a store zero waste

One challenge package-free stores face is finding suppliers that are willing to provide goods without packaging. This is easier to achieve when the suppliers are local or if the businesses manufacture the products themselves.

“Our favourite is [sourcing] from local makers because it is easier for us to deal with them. For example, we produce very good vegetarian pasta and soy sauce in Malaysia. We can ask the manufacturers to send the goods to our stores, which will go directly into containers. Or we can do an exchange of containers with them. After using the containers, we wash and return them. They will fill these containers and send them to us again,” says Oh Kai Siang, founder of A Bit Less package-free store.

Some suppliers are reluctant to work with these businesses because of the small order sizes. This was especially true in the beginning, says Sancelot. “I only had two suppliers then and no one else wanted to do it. But now, new suppliers are coming to us. We have more options.”

Sometimes, the stores have to educate buyers who ask for delivery. For example, to be zero waste, The Hive wraps its items with reused materials. “It does not look pretty. And clients want pretty things. So, there is a lot of education to be done here. When you order from The Hive, the product will arrive looking a bit strange,” says Sancelot.

But what about food that cannot be grown in Malaysia, such as nuts and grains? For those, Oh opts to exchange containers with the suppliers or buy in bulk so that it only uses one huge plastic bag. It either reuses the plastic or puts it in Ecobricks, which are reusable bricks made of plastic.

 

How to keep zero-waste stores affordable

Goods sold in package-free stores should be cheaper since they do not have an extra layer of packaging. That may be a logical conclusion that some may draw. But in reality, the prices are often on a par with the market. That is because these stores have to deal with higher labour and transport costs. They are also small and can only work with a limited number of suppliers.

For BYOB, being the manufacturer of goods keeps prices low. But it incurs the cost of sending the reusable containers to the factory and the shop, among other expenses. To make it sustainable, customers must buy at least a litre of detergent.

“I had people who brought a Vitagen-sized bottle to refill. It will cost us more and waste manpower to do that, so we said no. Your usual detergent bottle is one litre anyway. We practise this so we can maintain the price for everyone in the long run,” says Wong.

Maintaining a package-free store actually requires a huge amount of manpower, the panellists point out. To ensure the freshness of food products, the staff have to keep the products in glass jars, cold rooms or air-tight containers.

“Everything comes in bulk, so you need someone to carry the huge package into the storage area. You need to transfer a small amount into the glass jar on the shelf to keep everything fresh. You also have to hire someone who can educate customers. It is tricky when we determine prices. We usually get retail prices from suppliers and scale it down to make it more competitive,” says Oh.

Sancelot tries to match her prices with those of supermarkets that sell similar products, which are usually the likes of Village Grocer or Jasons Food Hall. “We are trying to make it cheaper, but our margins are scarily low,” she says.

One issue to consider is whether the stores should sell only organic products because these tend to be more expensive. Oh says it has decided to do so because non-organic products are already available in bulk elsewhere.

Cheryl Anne Low, founder of Nude the Zero Waste Store, has chosen to offer a mixture of both because she wants to ensure the affordability of the products. “We think zero waste should not only be for those who can afford it. In the future, we will carry more organic items so long as they are affordable,” she says.

 

 

Pushing for zero waste in the mainstream

When Vietnamese restaurant n Viet stopped providing straws a few years ago, a few of the staff quit because they could not handle the backlash. “They were constantly scolded by customers: ‘Why are you being cheap?’ But we persevered. Today, it is becoming more acceptable,” says Valerie Tan, brand manager of Real Food People Sdn Bhd, which owns the restaurant.

Ong Ning Geng, founder of Chocolate Concierge, who uses Malaysian cacao beans to produce single-origin chocolate products, faced a similar pushback when he tried to get rid of paper bags. “Two months ago, I stopped giving shopping bags, not even paper ones. I got a lot of flak. They asked, ‘Why aren’t you providing me with a bag?’ No amount of explanation could save that situation and I was forced to provide paper bags made of the thinnest material. I had to do that because I rank customer satisfaction very highly,” he says.

These experiences reflect that mentality is one of the biggest challenges companies face when trying to promote sustainability practices. Tan and Ong were among the panellists at the Zero Waste Festival event titled “Sustainable Business Forum”.

Doris Chin, general manager of Element by Westin Kuala Lumpur, had that experience when her team made the two-year-old hotel sustainable. One of their initiatives was ridding the rooms of drinking water in plastic bottles. Instead, it installed a good-quality filter on the water tap.

“We had a lot of resistance in the year we opened the hotel. TripAdvisor pushed my hotel ranking down to No 85. People put us down there because they could not accept it,” says Chin.

“It took a lot of education. When you turn on the television, the second slide tells you why we do not have plastic bottles and why we have installed the water filter. We also talked to guests in the lobby. Today, our ranking is back up to No 17.”

You should not give up because customers will eventually be glad to participate in your conservation efforts, she adds.

 

How to tackle food waste

Tan introduced the Zero Food Waste Hero concept at n Viet a year ago. Under the initiative, customers can choose their portion size and top up at no extra cost. For every meal that is finished, the restaurant will donate 10 sen to the Food Aid Foundation, which distributes food to those in need.

“We focus on three waste reduction methods. One is that we will observe what is being wasted on the table. For example, we used to serve fermented shrimp paste, but 95% of it got thrown away. So, we just removed it. Second, basil is very important for pho but some people cannot take the strong taste. It is wasted when served. That is why we decided to do an experiment at our Sunway Pyramid outlet,” says Tan.

n Viet put a basil plant on each table, with a sign that tells customers to take what they need. “This really reduces food waste and it is as fresh as it gets,” she says.

Food delivery — which is all the rage now — is another practice that produces a lot of packaging waste. “But I have seen that some restaurants have the option to exclude cutlery or sauces. From the restaurants’ end, they can look at biodegradable packaging options rather than plastic. Delivery has a higher carbon footprint than dining at the outlet. So, consumers must make that choice,” says Tan.

The same goes for the bubble tea trend, which is creating a lot of plastic waste. “We will not be able to stop that trend, but we can bring our own bottles. Or [companies] can be like Starbucks, which gives you a rebate when you bring your tumbler,” he says.

 

How to bring zero waste to tourism

Chin, a two-decade veteran of the hospitality industry, was struck by the practicality of sustainability in tourism when she was assigned to convert a resort by the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. She followed a guide into the park.

“Before we left, he told us that we had to bring out whatever we take into the park. Do not leave any trash in the national park. The guides are trained to protect the national park, landfills and ecosystem. Education is important. Eventually, they removed all the bins in Gunung Mulu. I was so impressed. If people could do it in a remote location in Sarawak, why not in the big city?” says Chin.

Now, Element recycles leftover soap bars from rooms for other cleaning purposes. Shampoo and body wash are filled in dispensers instead of bottles. Body lotion is put in biodegradable bottles.

Unfortunately, the cap of the body lotion bottle is still plastic. “We are in discussions with plants in China about creating a biodegradable cap and even a biodegradable plastic wrapper around the soap,” says Chin.

 

How to introduce local chocolates to Malaysians

The distance most chocolate bars travel before making their way to tropical countries is peculiar. Cacao beans can only be planted in the tropical belt, but it is shipped thousands of miles to somewhere in Europe, for instance, where it is turned into chocolate bars, then flown back to be sold in tropical countries.

“The last leg of the journey is quite painful. It is air-flown back under refrigerated conditions. The carbon footprint for chocolate is beyond what you pay for it in dollars,” says Ong.

Part of his interest in this came from his desire to try single-origin chocolate from Malaysia. The country has its own cacao farmers, but why aren’t there more locally produced chocolate brands?

“We have consumers in Malaysia and we have cacao farmers. Why isn’t anyone connecting the dots? That is why I started Chocolate Concierge,” says Ong.

The company provides chocolates to fine dining restaurants in Malaysia and Singapore. Ong wants to put his products in packaging-free stores so customers can purchase using their own containers. This is already available at its outlet in Bangsar Shopping Centre, where he encourages customers to bring their own boxes.