When Your Trash Saves Lives

Buddhist Tzu-Chi Recycling Centre at Taman Lumba Kuda, Penang
Buddhist Tzu-Chi Recycling Centre at Taman Lumba Kuda, Penang

While I try to have a variety of topics in our business blog, I am also that anal sort (yes, slap me) who wants a blog post that is befitting of a business blog, one that’s thoughtful and not written just because I have to spit something out on the blog.
That is certainly not my style.
Which is why sometimes, just sometimes, I have too many things and topics to write about but not enough time to do so. Ah… the bane of 21st century living!
Buddhist Tzu-Chi Recycling Centre at Taman Lumba Kuda, Penang
A separate kitchen/pantry for volunteers to take a rest and have a snack or tea

But this blog allows me to ramble along – knowing that friends like you will forgive me if I ramble too much and get too “cheong hei”.
A few months ago, our  Taman Sri Nibong Residents’ Association hosted a short briefing by at the clubhouse for the volunteers of The Buddhist Tzu-Chi Merits Society.
Buddhist Tzu-Chi Recycling Centre at Taman Lumba Kuda, Penang
A bunch of us from Taman Sri Nibong visited to get a better idea what the centre does

To cut a long story short, the Tzu-Chi folks are proposing to convert an old, abandoned food court in our taman into a recycling waste sorting centre. It is by no means an easy or cheap endeavour.
It means taking up the entire food court area of 10,000 square feet and doing what’s needed to make it into a place where residents can come, drop off their recyclables and get an education about reducing the wastefulness of our daily lives.
Buddhist Tzu-Chi Recycling Centre at Taman Lumba Kuda, Penang
Different categories of recyclables waiting for manual processing

And they need to pay a fee to MPPP to use this abandoned food court.
Now what’s interesting is this – the money generated from recycling will be used to fund the Tzu-Chi Dialysis Centres (they have one in Gottlieb Road and another in Butterworth and they have plans to build another centre by next year). Tzu-Chi Dialysis centres are free for kidney patients. Yes, that’s right. Free.
Recycling areas clearly labelled
Recycling areas clearly labelled

Like all communities, you will get people who are downright rude and negative about change. Any change.
Anything is to be feared even before they hear why it’s needed.
The thing that plays in their heads is that tune they choose to hear.
Volunteers comprising elderly folks sorting out the different papers
Volunteers comprising elderly folks sorting out the different papers

And funnily, even another well-known social organization started joining the fray, saying that THEY should be given the priority to manage and turn the the abandoned food court into a library and community centre.
This organization which shall be unnamed (because it will certainly shame some people who’ve always associated this organization with good community work) had the cheek to say that they want to give back to the community here. They had 2 years to raise the funds to do something but never did. Not until Tzu-Chi came along and said they wanted to do something. All of a sudden, this other group felt threatened!
The recycling centre brings senior citizens together to contribute to their community
The recycling centre brings senior citizens together to contribute to their community

Anyway, I think many of them felt afraid that a Buddhist a.k.a religious group was coming into Taman Sri Nibong. All the silly comments from some residents just makes me feel that religion makes us all suspicious of each other.
Donated computers and monitors to be refurbished and shipped to Myanmar for a second lease of life
Donated computers and monitors to be refurbished and shipped to Myanmar for a second lease of life

That aside, Nic and I had to go see for ourselves a real working Tzu-Chi recycling centre in Taman Lumba Kuda. A bunch of us residents turned up on a Saturday afternoon to listen and understand how the recycling centre handles its waste as well as re-educate the people about recycling.
A thriving garden in the Tzu Chi recycling centre
A thriving garden in the Tzu Chi recycling centre

We saw a pleasant, quiet and green environment where volunteers silently sorted out the different piles of recyclables. Even with the paper category, there’s white paper and coloured paper. Above all, it was clean.
Tzu Chi recycling centre penang
Another angle of the garden

They even grew a garden around the recycling centre. It resembled quiet, restive area for communities to mingle, talk to each other and help sort and re-bundle trash.
Tzu Chi recycling centre penang
Here's a water garden!

They even accept old PCs and clothes. The PCs will be refurbished and sent to Myanmar. Many internal parts of the PC can be reused.
Tzu Chi recycling centre penang
Vegetable garden within the Tzu Chi recycling centre

The key to Tzu-Chi is education. They start with cultivating that spirit in all that they do. And unlike most Chinese organizations, theirs is done with style. Have you noticed how beautifully elegant Tzu Chi books and packaging are?  I am often delighted at their products because they do pay attention to design.
[Update: Here’s something to cheer about. After all the hullabaloo, Tzu-Chi managed to get approval from MPPP and the relevant authorities to rent and convert the old Medan Selera into its recycling centre. They fenced it up  and by 18 November (yes, this Sunday), the Tzu-Chi Recycling Centre in Taman Sri Nibong will be operational. Please support this centre with your recyclables.]

Tzu Chi recycling centre penang
What you cannot recycle!

The Hip Way To Being Green

I count myself lucky to know Don and Mylene.

Mylene Ooi and Don Theseira of Green Crusaders
Mylene Ooi and Don Theseira of Green Crusaders

It started with someone giving me their phone number a few years ago because I wanted to contact them to give a talk at Mensa Penang.
They invited us to listen to their environment talk at the Pulau Tikus church one morning.
I was totally in awe of the tireless work they do.
They could have been enjoying a happy retirement in their home in Bukit Mertajam but they felt compelled to help the environment by teaching people a cleaner, easier method of recycling household wastes. The method also produces enough money for the local community to donate to their favourite causes or charity homes.
In fact over the past 12 years, they have helped raise over RM50,000 for their local charities. All these from two people who believed that they could. This does not take into account that their method is also helping many companies and hospitals and households in Penang go green easily. (Their method is clever and easy. The usual recycle bin method brings a lot of problems – dirty, smelly and who cleans the bins anyway? Their method makes recycling an accountable and effortless habit.)
Besides going all over Malaysia to give talks, they also teach people how to compost household scraps. Don’s method is the method I am using right now.
And I can vouch that there are no flies, no smells and no stink. What I get is rich compost – so rich that sometimes little seeds start growing right in the compost pots!
Over the past year and a half, Nic and I have thrown out very little rubbish because we recycle anything that can be recycled and we compost our organic food scraps. (I say this before prior to this, we lived high up and didn’t have the space to do all the green and eco-friendly things we wanted to do. Now that we’ve moved to a ground floor apartment with a scrap of backyard, I am now greener!). I save up used cooking oil to give to Mylene each time I see her. She passes it to a contractor who uses this cooking oil to make soap.
Whenever we meet up, we have many stories to exchange, primarily because Don and Mylene give a talk once every two weeks upon invitation from factories, NGOs, hospitals, schools and corporate bodies. They are also a couple who have enough energy to put younger people to shame. It is not easy for a couple in their 60s and 70s going all over Penang and sometimes all the way down to Johor to give free talks.
It is a tireless and oftentimes, a thankless role as environmental ambassadors and green crusaders. I hope I have their enthusiasm and energy when I get to my 60s.
What is not strange is that we love visiting them and each time we do, we have a feast!
Most elderly people will cringe at eating unhealthy stuff but not them. Oh not this feisty Eurasian couple!
Mylene, Don and me at Look Yuen Restaurant, Bukit Mertajam
Mylene, Don and me at Look Yuen Restaurant, Bukit Mertajam

Don loves his ‘too kar’ and so do I. So when we meet up, we go for ‘too kar’ (pig’s trotters) in Nibong Tebal which has a totally sinful version. This time around, we went to Look Yuen Restaurant in Bukit Mertajam for braised pig’s trotters. It was still unbelievably sinful and like chocolate, the gelatinous bits melted right in my mouth!
Besides the main star of the lunch (the trotters), other dishes which were heaven included Nyonya-style prawn sambal with a kick, springy fish ball soup (normally I don’t like fish balls but this was an exception) and stirfried sawi or mustard greens. Before we tucked into our main meal, we ordered 2 rounds of fruit rojak from the stall located just outside the restaurant. Pure yumminess!
Plus Don never says no to chocolate ice cream or chocolate while watching golf on TV.
Now how many senior citizens you know who are so darn cool?

Don's Way of Living Green

I’m pretty pleased with myself ever since we moved to this new place.
The first thing that struck me was that I could have my own organic composting area. In my previous apartment, we didn’t have space at all so putting 10 pots on the balcony was simply out of the question.
Now that I have a bit of garden space, we’ve reduced the amount of rubbish we throw away each day.
We do this because we compost our organic materials.
I first learnt this technique from Don who teaches people how to recycle easily and successfully without much hassle.
When I think of traditional composting, I think of smell! It would stink to high heaven, right? And attract flies and ants. And maybe even birds!
Don rubbished my fears. He showed me his 10-pot system, a system that’s so simple yet works so beautifully it’s hard to believe! (See below for the link to the method).
So I am trying it out.
First you need a container to store your food scraps of the day. You only compost it at the end of the day so you ‘collect’ them first. I bought my clay container from a crockery shop in Carnavon Street for RM13. It is usually used to store salt (or in some hawker stalls, to store sauces for cooking) but I use mine to store food scraps (veggie peel, fruit peel, fish bones, chicken bones, anything you’ve eaten etc). Here’s how mine looks like:

A traditional Chinese salt container made of clay is used as a food scrap container
A traditional Chinese salt container made of clay is used as a food scrap container

As it has a heavy clay lid, I don’t have to worry about Margaret getting her fat paws into it or the scraps stinking all day.
This clay pot is also glazed on the inside so you can easily wash off oil and grease with soap and water. This pot is about 9 inches tall and sits next to my sink.
I toss all sorts of stuff into this – garlic skin, vegetable peel, fruit peel, stale bread, cooked leftovers, fish bones, chicken bones, lala shells, leftover rice.
Basically anything that you can eat, you can compost.
Next you need 10 pots of about 12 to 14 inches in diameter. Any cheap clay pots would do. We bought these for RM5 apiece in the local nursery as they were a bit chipped and cracked.
10 pots for composting
My 10 blue pots for composting...sue me, I

And then go here for the full instructions on how to compost. We usually compost the scraps at night, once dinner is done. So 1 pot should last you 3 days before you move on to pot #2.
In case you have a large family, go get bigger pots. (It’s only Nic and me but then again sometimes we eat a lot so we have a mountain of food scraps!)
I’m now filling up the 5th pot already. By the time I’ve filled the 10th pot, I should be able to go and dig the 1st pot and find all the food scraps disintegrated into fresh, rich soil.
Which I can use to grow the plethora of herbs I’ve been meaning to.
Which also means, my regular rubbish bin isn’t overflowing with stinky rubbish. It’s just mostly plastic wrappers which cannot be recycled.
Underneath my sink, I’ve put a collection container for recyclables such as glass bottles, plastic bottles, newspaper, cardboard and tins. These go to the nearest recycling centre every once a month. The nearest centre I go to is the SIMA Handicapped Centre just off the Jalan Tengku Kudin roundabout. Our ‘junk’ actually helps the disabled earn their living.
I always like dropping off my recyclables (they also take in usable household items like clothes and furniture) because the disabled are always so appreciative of the things you give. They light up with their innocent and generous smiles and never fail to thank you with a friendly wave.
If you have a small plot of garden, do try this system of composting. I assure you, if you follow Don’s method to the book, you won’t be smelling your food scraps.
Imagine if all of us who can do this are doing this – how much we can save in terms of landfill space and how much less leachate will seep into our rivers and seas. That’s why I say I am proud to be creating so little rubbish for the rubbish truck!

Nibong Tebal's Deepfried Secret

Don and Mylene took us to this corner coffee shop last Sunday for a scrumptious lunch. They both are past retirement age but boy, do they have the energy to shame twentysomethings and thirtysomethings! As Green Crusaders for the environment, they go all over Malaysia to give free talks on recycling and composting. Yes, free. And they’re in their 60s!
Anyway, we often catch up whenever they come over to Penang island or when we go to Bukit Mertajam. And lunch or dinner always feature in our plans.
This place they took us to last Sunday was in Nibong Tebal. Called Swee Garden, it’s located just behind Maybank and when we reached about 1pm, the place was buzzing with busy lunching folks.
The specialty, says Don, is the deepfried pig’s trotters. (Don is a retired engineer. He used to work on the Hong Kong MTR project back in the late 1970s. Over lunch, we chatted about the state of traffic in Penang and he proposes that it is POSSIBLE to build an undersea subway system connecting Penang island to Seberang Jaya and beyond. He has the expertise and experience honed from his Hong Kong days. Unfortunately the powers-that-be aren’t listening. More Malaysia Bolehness, I suppose.)
When we were there, he ordered the front leg which is supposedly LESS fatty than the back leg. I suppose this is true as my aunt usually buys the front leg (or what we Chinese call pig’s hand) as it is less fatty and less oily and hence, not so cholesterol-laden.

deep-fried pig's trotter
deep-fried pig's trotter

If you like crispy fatty siew yoke, you would die for this tender, melt-in-the-mouth pig trotters. The skin was to the right touch of crisp while the inside meat was soft, tasty and oily. It still makes me hungry thinking of this dish.
The other dishes we had were boiled octopus with a sprinkling of garlic oil, to be eaten with a vinegary chili sauce. I know. Cholesterol again! But hey, I don’t eat octopus everyday so it was such a treat. Sometimes the simplest things are the most yummy, in this case, fresh boiled octopus.
Boiled octopus with garlic oil
Boiled octopus with garlic oil

Another dish that went really well with our plain white rice was steamed stingray, Teochew-style which meant lots of salted vegetables with sour plums and chili padi. The dish was everything you wanted a dish to be – salty, spicy, tangy, with exceptionally fresh stingray fin. It was another winner as we kept scooping up the gravy.
steamed stingray fin teochew style
steamed stingray fin teochew style

Of course, we couldn’t do justice to ourselves if we didn’t order some greens. We opted for something with a kick of sambal – stirfried sweet potato leaves.
And to round it all up, we had our fill of vitamins with extra thick ambula juice. Imagine freshly squeezed ambula (buah kedondong) mixed with sour plums. It was a concoction made in heaven. We called for a jug of this and each of us had about 2 glasses of this vitamin-rich, green drink. It was rather apt to wash down all the fat and oil from the dishes we’d ordered.
freshly squeezed ambula juice, a local favourite
freshly squeezed ambula juice, a local favourite

I suppose Swee Garden is not a secret for most Nibong Tebal people. But I relished discovering this coffee shop (thanks to Don and Mylene) because it showed why rural Malaysia is still pretty damn good when it comes to food. It was simple fare, absolutely no frills but every morsel was incredibly hearty and filling.
A must-stop if you ever pass through Nibong Tebal town!

I'm a Moderate Greenie. You?

Don and Mylene had invited us to their ‘filming’ on Sunday afternoon.
I say ‘filming’ because they were going to be the stars of an eco short film to be made by Ong of PenangWatch with a grant from USM. The venue was at a three-storey building along Weld Quay.
When we arrived, the filming was in process so we quietly slipped into the audience, most of which, according to Ong are friends and ‘cast’ from his other short films. (Ong’s film on the Chew Jetty was one of the winners at last year’s Freedom Film Festival organised by KOMAS.)
Don and Mylene are firm friends of ours, despite the age gap. I enjoy their no-nonsense approach to greening the environment and their philosophy is, start with yourself and your home.
A good idea because far too many people want to hug trees, wear eco t-shirts and plant trees once a year but it’s actually simpler and easier to do it slowly, do it consistently and do it proudly in your home.
This couple got our attention so much so that we decided to sponsor them a website so they could do their eco-work and activities more efficiently.
After all, their premise is simple: they can teach you and your taman how to recycle and how to raise funds for charity at the same time. You turn trash into cash for charity.
A delightful 2-in-1 approach. You help Mother Nature, you help the underprivileged.
Anyway, they’ve been doing this for 12 years now. They give free talks if you invite them (although they don’t say it outright, it’s nice if your taman or group or factory can reimburse their petrol or toll lah, after all they don’t charge a single sen for teaching you their method which saves space, saves headache and won’t turn your garden into a dumpster!).
The filming will be edited down into a 15-minute segment and submitted to an eco film festival, according to Ong.
While we have listened to Don and Mylene’s passionate talks for a while now (and now that we’ve become more green and eco-friendly), it’s always great as a refresher!
But what really spoiled my day was meeting an overzealous lady who was part of the audience. She just came up to us without as much as a hello (because I didn’t know who she was!) and started unzipping a little black pouch to show us her steel chopsticks, her cutlery, her plastic packs, etc.
She completely bulldozed her way into the conversation (we were having a break between filming) telling us what SHE does in Japanese restaurants (“I don’t use the disposable chopsticks” – excuse me lady, I didn’t ask!) and that she does this and that.
She asked Nic, “So what do you use when you go to Japanese restaurants?”
Nic’s retort was priceless. “We don’t go to Japanese restaurants… we eat at home.”
That shut her up completely. I bet you she was waiting to pounce on us once we said we ate Japanese.
I spot a wannabe martyr immediately.
There’s persuasion and then there’s stubbornness. For her, it was the latter trait which I dislike completely. Oh and add lots of high and mightiness.
Sometimes, the message is clearer if we don’t push too hard. Push too hard and people go ‘bleah’ and refuse to budge.
That’s what I often see. When people start getting their socks in a knot about their newfound passion in life, they get overzealous and start being preachy to everyone. Like they’re the only ones who’ve seen the light. Like if they don’t keep bugging us, they’ll get no brownie points.
I mean, come on. Did she ask if we’re recycling? (That afternoon, we lugged a bunch of recyclables to the recycling centre in Tmn Sri Nibong.) Did she ask what sort of lifestyle we led BEFORE dumping her philosophy on us?
This very LOUD woman stood up to declare she rummages through the rubbish in her apartment complex to separate out trash and recyclables. Good for you, I say, but that’s how you choose to be a martyr. (I kind of suspected she wanted her 5 minutes of fame during the filming too! She complimented the speakers, Don and Mylene for their eco efforts but I dare say much of the rhetoric that afternoon was purely about her and how she’s helping save the world.)
I help spread the awareness by doing other things – sponsoring a website, saying Tak Nak to plastic bags offered at cashier counters, bringing my own bag when shopping and buying less consumer products.
What would you do if you met such people in your life?
OK, besides sighing with exasperation!

What would you do? What would you say?

Aim for Zero Waste

I’ve been very much into recycling ever since I was 15 and picked up a magazine on how to reduce and recycle waste. But I never got into the whole act properly until I stayed on my own, and bought my own groceries and stuff. I ended up with glass bottles, plastic containers, tin cans, junk paper, oil canisters and lots more.
Do I throw them away? Do I keep them and turn my storeroom into a junkyard of sorts?
What about used cooking oil? Can I just pour them down the drain and hope it won’t pollute the waterways?
And so, with more questions than answers, I joined an online recycling group. But the group is relatively silent on most days, and I sometimes feel as if the moderator and I are the only living creatures there.
Until I met Don Theseira and Mylene Ooi who are both not only passionate recyclers but famous as well (they’ve been profiled in the December 2002 issue of Reader’s Digest and invited all over the country to give talks on recycling and composting). I mean, really passionate. It resonates in their talk. I met them for the first time yesterday when they presented a talk on recycling at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Pulau Tikus, Penang.

Read moreAim for Zero Waste