The amount of trash and wastage Singaporeans create is astounding.
According to statistics from the NEA, we generated 7.7 million tonnes of solid waste last year.
Even though overall recycling rate stayed the same at 61% from 2016, the amount of waste recycled dropped by 50,000 tonnes from 4.77 million tonnes in 2016 to 4.72 million tonnes in 2017.
When it comes to the everyday things that we could have recycled easily like food, plastic, clothes, and glass, the rates are abysmally low.
Only 16% of our food and 17% of glass were recycled, and clothes and plastic were recycled at a rate of 6% each.
Despite the government’s efforts to encourage reducing, reusing, and recycling, Singaporeans still can’t get used to consuming and disposing their trash consciously.
The road to becoming ‘zero waste’ is a long and difficult one, especially when we live in a city of convenience.
But maybe now that Singapore’s first zero waste grocery store has opened earlier this month, going green will become easier and simpler.
We asked co-founders of UnPackt, Florence Tay (36) and Jeff Lam (38), on how they started, how becoming zero waste is not as daunting as it sounds, and their plans for the store.
Embarking On A Zero Waste Journey
Florence was a marketing manager at the Singapore Heart Foundation for the past four years until she decided to become an entrepreneur.
In an interview last month with Channel NewsAsia (CNA), she said she stumbled upon a Facebook video of a zero waste store in Europe last year, and it showed the self-service food dispensers and the bring-your-own-bag (BYOB) concept.
The video ended with a call-to-action: “Share the video if you like one in your neighbourhood,” and she liked the idea so much she even bookmarked it.
Jeff, her co-founder, has been in the cat accessory business for the past two years, and is still running it currently according to this interview. He wanted to keep food waste to a minimum by buying in small quantities.
She told me that Jeff shared her aspiration to “start up a social enterprise and happened to agree on a zero waste grocery store” which would aid them in reducing their packaging and food waste.
Florence revealed that prior to starting UnPackt, they had little knowledge and experience in becoming ‘zero wasters’ – they didn’t know about the ‘zero waste’ movement.
“We thought of setting up a grocery store without unnecessary packaging and in small amounts to reduce food and packaging waste,” she iterated to me.
“While I was searching for the video that inspired me, I chanced upon the term ‘zero waste store’ and realised that we were aiming to set up a zero waste grocery store.”
In fact, in the interview with CNA she said she had “debated with Jeff several times” on whether if they can call themselves “owners of a zero waste store” if they “haven’t fully achieved a zero waste lifestyle”.
But despite not having plenty of knowledge and experience in going green, the two earnest entrepreneurs researched online and joined the local zero waste Facebook group to learn and slowly make that lifestyle switch.
Going Green Doesn’t Have To Be Costly
There’s this common misconception that purchasing organic food or living minimally is a High SES kind of lifestyle.
“As consumers are purchasing more then they need, they [think] consuming organic foodstuff is expensive. Since initial investment cost is expensive, people [then] assume eco-living is an expensive lifestyle,” Florence explained.
“In fact it is the opposite. For example, if you only need 100g of pasta for a meal, you’re only paying $0.67 for organic pasta versus paying $3 or $4 for a prepackaged 500g (of pasta) which [may not be] fully consumed.”
She encouraged people to make their first package-free purchase with UnPackt to get the mindful shopping experience and benefit from the savings firsthand.
Like this interaction she had with an unexpected customer whom she described was a “window-shopper”.
“[She decided] to buy an ingredient needed for that night’s dinner and she picked up some dried chilli which cost her 10 cents,” Florence recounted.
“Upon hearing the price, she was surprised and said: ‘I would have spent $1.50 on a packet of dried chilli in the supermarket and have most of it unused.'”
Florence added, “The beauty of shopping package-free allows you to pay for what you really need, and not the packaging. On the other hand, we generate less trash that is damaging to the environment.”
Like any other industry disruptor, Florence said that getting suppliers to sell them in bulk was a challenge. But they managed to “persuade them [to come] on board as it will be the new consumer trend”.
They shelled out about S$100,000 out of their own pockets to start up, with the majority of the funds used to renovate and pay the rent for the shophouse space.
This is because, as Florence shared with CNA, despite getting pre-loved furniture, their food containers like the self-service gravity bins are new and most of their zero-waste organic products had to be sourced from overseas.
So how does one shop at UnPackt?
“Customers have to weigh their (own) containers, fill (the containers) with the amount they need, and pay at the counter where we will weigh and offset the weight of their container,” she explained.
Items such as bar soaps and stainless steel straws do not need to be weighed as they have a set price.
The store provides recycled paper bags and plastic containers donated by the public if customers need them, in the case they forget to bring their own.
But what if someone tries to steal or cheat the weighing system, I asked.
“Currently, there are no measures in place (to penalise offenders); we trust our shoppers. However, we do have CCTV installed in our shop for security measures,” she replied.
At the moment, UnPackt stocks dry organic food and cold-pressed soap bars and an eco-enzyme detergent made by another local social enterprise, MINDS.
Shopping for groceries at UnPackt is approximately 5% cheaper than at the supermarkets, she told me.
“For [now] we can only use the rental savings to pass down to consumers. We hope in future, with higher demand, we can [give better prices] and pass down (those savings) to consumers.”
Education Is Key To Achieving A Greener Future
Another frequently asked question they encountered was, why not open UnPackt at a more convenient place that is close to the MRT?
She replied, “We wanted the luxury of space to conduct community awareness programs as well.”
“We will be reaching out to schools to conduct excursion trips for the kids to learn how to shop package-free and reduce packaging waste. Currently, we have some schools who have written in to arrange for trips.”
As they say, habits developed at a young age tend to last longer.
Florence’s change of lifestyle and making good of her word to work towards a zero waste lifestyle is a great example of being a role model.
“As a single mum, juggling work and child-rearing is an uphill task as we require more work flexibility compared to dual-parents families,” she told me.
“We have a room for the mums to bring their kids to work and will have a buddy system in place to facilitate work flexibility for the single parents,” she shared.
Florence and Jeff’s vision to achieve a zero waste lifestyle manifests in the brand itself.
The definition of UnPackt: “It means to unpack and make a pact with us towards sustainable living.”
UnPackt is looking at providing delivery services in the third quarter of the year.
As we conclude our chat, I asked Florence for some simple tips to kickstart an achievable eco-friendly lifestyle.
For example, cut down on cold beverages so you don’t have to use straws.
Florence said she brings a foldable reusable bag everyday because she shops for groceries everyday.
If you plan your daily activities mindfully, the impulse to buy unnecessary things will lessen, and that in turn creates lesser waste.
Her advice, “Find the first and most effective replacement choice that will motivate you to move to the next zero waste replacement. A step forward at a time is better than remaining at the same spot.”
Featured Image Credit: UnPackt Singapore