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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  Choking Mother Nature with
Our Material 'Goodies' turned to Garbage!

Our spirits soared when we caught a glimpse of the herons atop the mangrove at Sungei Buloh ... but thrill turned to dismay and disgust when we saw the river at low tide, littered with our garbage. Betty L Khoo reflects on why cleanup campaigns and recycling are not working and says, we must stop creating waste that is choking nature to death.

It was a lovely cool morning at Sungei Buloh Nature Park over the Lunar New Year weekend. Our spirits soared as we caught a glimpse of the now famous herons atop the mangroves... but enchantment turned to dismay and disgust when we saw the river, its mudflats exposed at low tide. There, amid the scurrying crabs and mudskippers, was filth —the filth of plastic bags draped over mangrove roots, the filth of broken styrofoam boxes and other garbage.

Worse was to come. In that part of the nature park that borders on the Johor Straits, the high tide line, right up to the fence, was littered with even more garbage. And the stench was terrible. It was sickening...

Sickening to know that the beauty and purity of nature's wonders are continuously being sullied by man and his discarded material goodies. And even more sickening to realise how nature's helpless creatures are always under threat by glass that cuts, plastic that choke, fishing lines that tangle and oils that smother and kill.

I know that the Nature Society's members (usually led by Evelyn Eng-Lim), have, from time to time, done a thorough cleanup of other (thoughtless) people's rubbish on beaches and nature trails. But I also know that picking up the rubbish is one thing, disposing of it safely and permanently (especially non-biodegradable and toxic materials), is quite another.

I was deeply troubled by what we had seen. As I stood on the mudbank, these words by award-winning American businessman, environmentalist and author Paul Hawken, came to mind. "We know that every natural system on the Planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world."
Part of
a polluted beach
at Pulau Ubin

Photo by
Kate Thome

Litter becoming death traps
Photo courtesy of Marine Conservation, Washington

Water birds killed
by various discarded
fishing nets and lines

Photo courtesy of Marine Conservation, Washington

High tide rubbish dump

Photo by Kate Thome

Why are we continuing to create this monstrous mountain of waste? Weren't we supposed to practice recycling and help reduce, the waste that is choking Mother Earth and all who live on Earth? Why are we now being told by Paul Hawken in his latest book, The Ecology of Commerce that "recycling aluminium cans in the company cafeteria and ceremonial tree plantings are about as effective (in saving natural habitats) as balling out the Titanic with a teaspoon."

I was even more troubled when I read an article 'The Great Recycling Rip Off' (Readers Digest, Nov '96, Australian edition). This article, by Helen Chryssides, also stated that recycling as it is currently practised (despite all good intentions), is a waste of time, precious resources and burns even more fossil fuels. But I find the solutions proposed by the Australian author just as troubling and ineffective as recycling efforts to date because while we are convinced that recycling—as it has been practised—isn't the answer, to reducing Waste, we are also being told that we, as individual households, can't do much damage or much good. It's the big had boys of Industry that are creating the most Waste, Ms Chryssides says.

There is no denying the fact that the "big rubbish producers are Mining, high-tech Agriculture and Forestry"—but corporations are also right when they say that they are creating WASTE because the 'Market' wants it.

For, who comprises the Corporation and the 'Market?' Yes, it is Us, the people, you and I. Corporations are made up of people, from the humble cleaner to the chairman. And the 'Market' is of course you and I—also known as insatiable, unstoppable Consumers or Shoppers.

We keep on wanting more cars and flashier cars, upgraded HDBs, second condos and luxury mansions, more resort destinations, more golf courses, more clothes, more jewellery, more airflown food, etc. And it is in the feeding or servicing of this CONSUMER WANT or DESIRE (not REAL NEEDS), that sends businesses in to plunder paradise. Now even Lombok (that idyllic island next to Bali) has been threatened with a mine.

And while it is true that Domestic Waste forms only a fraction of the waste generated by Industry, we must not forget that Industry is generating this ENORMOUS WASTE and polluting not just our nature areas but our entire environment through the often highly toxic Processes (i.e. the extraction and the production mechanics) involved in producing these 'desirable' material goodies?

Then, more Waste of non-renewable resources (paper, fossil fuels) and toxic non-biodegradable materials (plastics), is generated in packaging and transporting these goodies to us, the Consumer.

And that's not all. Even More Waste is generated promoting—through advertisements— how desirable and necessary all these Products and Services are to our lives. Think of how many trees have to be destroyed to produce each weekend's newspapers with their pages and pages of ads (some coloured with toxic inks). Or to produce the flyers that are junked, often before they are read?

Finally, we come to getting rid of all this Waste. This Everest of Waste that is filling up all available land in developed and overpopulated developing countries. In cities that border the sea, what is not incinerated is pushed into the once pristine ocean. (I have scuba dived frequently in Singapore harbour, searching for corals amid the disgusting muck. How different to late 1950s when my family snorkelled off Jurong's Tanjong Kling and discovered live reefs in crystal clear waters.)

Unfortunately it is all too easy for the Consumer (i.e., the ordinary man/woman in the street) to be lulled into believing that when their garbage is dumped in the bin, that's the end of the problem. But it's really the start. Let's see how other developed countries deal with their waste.

In the Reader's Digest article, we are taken to visit a "prime example of a modern landfill." This landfill is at Sydney's infamous Lucas Heights. Infamous because in recent years it was revealed that this was the site of Australia's first nuclear power plant. For years the residents around this site never knew what they were living next door to. Here an area, the size of several football fields, has already been "capped" and landscaped into parkland.

What has been "capped?" What is the Hidden Truth? One wonders... but the article assures its readers that at this site, methane (a natural gas) is being produced "as organic materials in the landfill break down". I question the word "organic" (i.e., without chemicals). If our foods are well over 90 percent (and this goes for Singapore too), not organically grown/produced, then how can kitchen scraps be referred to as organic? But even more troubling is the knowledge that domestic waste at landfills (and this applies to landfills whether they are in Singapore, Australia or America), comprise more toxic plastic and even more toxic batteries as well as bottles, cans and paper packaging than food scraps.

I thought perhaps my fears are groundless. After all methane is being described as a "combustible gas that will generate electricity"; and surely a gas produced naturally from landfills is better than power produced by the burning of atmosphere polluting and non-renewable coal and oil?

Sorry, but once again, we are deceiving ourselves. Let me again quote Paul Hawken who states that "methane is ten times as efficient as carbon dioxide as an agent of global warming".

Hawken goes on to explain why we cannot leave it to Industry to clean it all up. Industry can try, he writes, "But how can you throw away a toxic molecule?". A good point that gives us much to reflect on. Hawken continues "the concept of 'environmentally sound' landfills and toxic waste incineration is attractive to industry (governments and consumers, i.e., you and I) because it requires the least amount of change and preserves the status quo with respect to industries' goals and ambitions (i.e., to feed our growing demands), while boosting the waste disposal industry."

Businessman Hawken hit the nail on the head when he asserted that, "By focusing on the immediate problems involving the disposal of waste, industry is able to say that it is responsive to rising public concern". What it is actually doing is avoiding the fundamental issue which is the 'Creation of Waste'. And the creation of waste is certainly something that is within our control—yours and mine.

Here we can surely learn from what has been happening in the United States. Hawken writes, "the folly of the present approach to pollution is best exemplified by the 1,200 (of an estimated 90,000 hazardous waste sites in all) toxic sites in the US that have been designated as priority cleanup areas under the Superfund law. Organochlorines are part or all of the problem... and the remedies that do exist merely 'cap' (same word used to describe Sydney's Lucas Heights landfill), enclose and label the poisons, guarding (supposedly) against future leakage and contamination."

At this point you may think, why should we worry, we don't have nuclear power here or in Malaysia. True, but toxic molecules released into the atmosphere from nuclear facilities elsewhere certainly do not respect national boundaries! Yes, let's not kid ourselves that deadly radioactive waste discharged into the South Pacific or toxic waste incinerated in a country half way round the world will not eventually drift, seep, wash, flow, fall as acid rain, onto our cities and countryside. According to Hawken, efforts to limit toxins and emissions in the USA did control many pollutants, but those efforts have been subsumed by an overall increase in the manufacture and distribution of waste by industry due to rising (Consumer) demand for products that create toxic and hazardous waste, i.e., Pesticides, Plastics and Cars/Trucks.

So, once again, the responsibility falls squarely back onto us—the Consumer. We cannot shrug it off by blaming the rising demand for consumer goods on overall and out-of-control population growth. We know very well that the enormous waste is generated by a fraction of the world's billions—and some of that 'fraction' happens to be living in 'developed' countries like Singapore.

So where does the BUCK Stop? I believe that we (You and I) must take Responsibility. We must be Accountable for our Actions. We must be Conscious of the way we are living and impacting on this fragile precious Planet. This is the only really effective way, to reduce WASTE.

Here are some Suggestions
Before we even step out of the house, think of where we are going.
The best things in life are Free, Natural and create no waste.

Why not take a brisk (weight reducing/ fitness building) walk to the Beach or Park instead of jumping in the air-con car, burning fossil fuel, to go to the shopping centre where you will be tempted by all the nonessential material things. Remember, the best things in life are Free and create no waste: the Sea, the sand, the moon, the stars, the breeze, the trees and flowers... seeing animals in the wild, the birds, the bees, the butterflies.

Before you go out to buy anything, ask yourself: "Do I really need it?" Example: Plain water is so much better (healthwise) for you and the environment than a soft drink.

When shopping for household/personal items, choose products that are genuinely environmentally friendly. Did you know that Bi-Carb Soda (good old fashioned baking soda) is also the "Clean, Green Alternative" for removing kitchen, upholstery and clothing stains, cleaning toilets, removing fridge/ room odours and clearing blocked drains, etc., besides being used for cooking? With one single product you have a cheap, efficient and eco-friendly substitute for more than a dozen other household products.
  Be discerning. But only products that are genuinely environmentally friendly (or, are at least neutral). Don't buy products in aerosol cans or in fancy unnecessary packaging or ones that won't last. By your discerning choice, you send strong signals to Industry. They must change or perish.

Grow your own fruit, veg and herbs, organically of course. (Note: Hydroponics is not organics, it's chemical). Use backyards, balconies, roof gardens for growing edibles.

If you are shopping for food, look for organically grown (biodynamic) rice, fruit and vegetables. They are grown without agricultural chemicals (i.e., chemical fertilisers and pesticides/weedicides that are by-products of the fossil fuel industries and destroy our health and our natural environment)

And bring your own shopping bag, try not to use plastic bags.

Buying a present? Buy a potted plant, pot your own or give a gift subscription from Nature Society.

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