Khee Shihui, also known as @tabaogirl on Instagram is aspiring to a zero waste lifestyle. She makes a conscious choice to forgo disposables where possible. Each month, she tallies the number of disposables saved by refusing them.
The numbers are frankly staggering.
Shihui’s decision to reduce plastic use came about after reading about the irreparable damage done to the Great Barrier Reef. An avid recreational diver, it was the last straw when she experienced ocean degradation while diving.
Since switching to a more environmentally conscious lifestyle in June 2017, she started by bringing along a personal cutlery set and declining plastic straws wherever she goes.
Her daily kit now includes a cotton tote bag, a mesh produce bag, a metal straw, two sets of cutlery (in case a lunch buddy might want a set), a lunch box, a take away cup for hot drinks, a larger cup for cold drinks that also doubles up as a food container, a water bottle, and a handkerchief.
However, it has not always been easy for Shihui – using her own lunch boxes at food stalls may result in a slightly longer time taken to prepare her order. Some patrons would express their unhappiness vocally.
While she used to be really nervous, Shihui has since become more ready to engage in conversations with other patrons about being environmentally friendly.
The Tabao Movement
To reduce waste, Shihui tries to spot if eating establishments serve their food in single-use disposables – whether for eat-in or takeaway. She presents her lunch box and cups while ordering to avoid having the food served in disposables.
To date, she has not met much resistance.
Some stall owners are puzzled and will tell her that a plastic box, disposable utensils and their plastic bags are free and more convenient. However, this becomes a chance to explain that using her own items are less wasteful compared to single-use disposables.
Overall, she faces more difficulty with big-name chain stores as they tend to be extremely concerned about food safety and hygiene, and customers getting ill if their own containers are unclean, as well as the resultant backlash.
When faced with staff who insist that she uses disposables, Shihui will politely apologise and decline to buy the food.
Sometimes, differences in dietary habits pose a challenge for her.
While many stall owners who serve Halal food happily fulfil Shihui’s request, not all are comfortable with their serving utensils coming into contact with her non-Halal container.
If food has not been served yet, Shihui will politely decline and go elsewhere. However, if the food has already been scooped into a disposable box, she does her best to find ways to reuse it after eating.
Advocating Conscious Living
Since documenting her #tabaotales journey on Instagram, Shihui has influenced others to also reduce their waste or to be more mindful of the waste created from single-use items. People have tagged her on Instagram or Facebook when they decline single-use disposables by bringing their own containers or utensils. Some have even sent her messages to let her know how her lifestyle has impacted them.
Shihui shares that being more environmentally conscious is something everyone can do, simply by starting small.
“It might be deciding to decline straws in your drinks, committing to bring a water bottle around, starting out with your own utensils or takeaway mug.”
“After taking the first step, you might find that it is not as difficult as you imagined, and it can be really rewarding! The feeling of achievement might even spur you on to make bigger changes!’
Using A Macro Lens
While personal efforts are laudable, Shihui also thinks that government legislation plays a big role in supporting sustainability. Some countries are already taking steps to ban plastic straws, single-use disposables and styrofoam packaging, or require shoppers to pay for plastic bags in supermarkets.
Businesses should be aware that consumers are increasingly environmentally conscious, and may patronise only environmentally sustainable organisations.
The tension between personal convenience and the corresponding impacts of environmental degradation is something for all of us to grapple with. Single-use disposables might only serve us for 10 minutes, but may pollute the environment for eternity.
Even if environmental protection is not a concern, troubling reports about micro-plastics and synthetic fibres finding their way into seafood are. In the long haul, easing dependence on single-use disposables could have more far-reaching and greater benefits as compared to the personal inconveniences that ensue.