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Can you imagine only having one bag of trash every month? Meet Ruth Yap, environmental activist and founder of Zero Waste Sabah. 

On Earth Day, we sit down with Ruth Yap, an environmental activist advocating for sustainable practices to combat climate change, plastic pollution and the recycling crisis. Ruth shares her journey towards zero waste, the growing community of zero-wasters in Sabah and where her faith fits in.

Hi, Ruth! Thank you for agreeing to speak with us. Let’s dive right in. What made you first start caring about the environment?

I first encountered the beauty of nature when my father brought me to the beach. It was love at first sight. He often brought my siblings and me to waterfalls and the rainforest too during the school holidays. And then there was my grandmother, who would watch National Geographic and I would watch it together with her. I remember the sense of wonder those documentaries created in me, especially scenes of animals and insects up close. My mother and her side of the family also have green fingers and love gardening; that has definitely enriched my life and exposed me to a love of plants and nature.

Ruth Yap advocates the zero waste lifestyle.

My love for the ocean led me to pursue marine science for my tertiary education. Upon graduation, I worked with a marine conservation NGO and it was there that I began to see firsthand the negative impact of human economic activities on the environment.

I guess when you love something and you know it is being destroyed, the natural and good thing to do would be to protect it. 

So true! You’re now a champion of the zero waste lifestyle. Could you share a little bit about what that means? 

Zero waste aims to divert waste from landfills and incinerators by using the 5R principles: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. By applying the 5R principles daily, one only needs to take out the trash once a month, or even less frequently. The zero waste lifestyle is one where we become more aware of how our consumption habits can impact the environment and become intentional in mitigating negative impacts. We become more responsible for our waste, and this helps us become responsible consumers.

Wow, taking out the trash only once a month? That’s incredible. How and when did you decide to go zero waste?

I spent some time in New Zealand and saw the efficiency of their waste management system. When I came back to Sabah to start a family, I brought my children to the beach. It broke my heart to see the littered beaches and just how terrible the state of our environment was. 

I felt helpless then and wondered whether I’d have to give up conservation work in the field now that I started my own family. It was then I chanced upon the Facebook group Zero Waste Malaysia and the members there shared their conservation efforts at the individual level which I thought was mind-blowing. Most of the actions shared were very doable and practical and it was then I felt empowered to continue my conservation efforts, albeit small yet impactful. That was in 2018.

“It broke my heart to see the littered beaches [in Sabah],” says Ruth.

What are some of the initial challenges you faced when you began?

An initial challenge I faced was overcoming the perception of others on my zero waste efforts, such as bringing my own containers to buy takeaway, refusing straws for drinks and refusing plastic bags. 

It was almost like swimming uphill as the dependence on disposable plastics has been so deeply ingrained in our culture and society. But these challenges were quickly overcome when I started the Facebook group Zero Waste Sabah and I met like-minded people. 

Ruth shares how simple changes can have meaningful impact.

Yes, that’s right. You started Zero Waste Sabah in 2019, a registered NGO that advocates for sustainable waste management practices. How’s that going?

Our goal is to spread awareness of sustainable practices that combat plastic pollution, climate change and the recycling crisis. We started on Facebook in December 2018, and the organisation was officially registered in August 2019.

Sustainability should not be a one-off event, so we capture our daily zero waste lifestyle and share it with our Facebook community to help spread awareness. We raise awareness talks on topics like the zero waste lifestyle, recycling and composting in schools, businesses and the public. We also support local councils (in Sabah) and try to steer them towards sustainability in their events and programmes. When COVID-19 hit, we continued our awareness programmes through webinars.

What has the impact been so far? Have you seen lifestyle changes or increased awareness? 

Definitely! In Sabah, and especially Kota Kinabalu, people are more aware of the waste they generate and the proper way of recycling. We know this because we get enquiries in our Facebook group on where to send recyclables. 

Ruth spreads awareness on environmental issues and teaches communities how to be more responsible consumers.

We’ve also learned that we don’t have a glass recycling factory in Sabah, nor do we have a facility to collect household scheduled waste such as light bulbs and household batteries. So this gives us an idea of what to propose to our state government. Our Facebook group is also growing in terms of reach and engagement, which is encouraging.

But the best thing of all would be the community that has and continues to form through this initiative. We see members helping to answer questions on the 5R or giving tips and ideas on how to live a more sustainable life. We also see the efforts of local environmental heroes who do beach clean-ups regularly at the individual level, think of ways to reduce plastic waste by up-cycling them into useful items, plant trees and practise composting with the most basic tools in their backyard.

All of these are very inspiring and would have gone unnoticed had they not been posted and shared in the group. We would have missed the opportunity to learn from one another. But with this online community, all of us can draw knowledge, strength and courage from one another to keep doing the good and right thing, and to cheer each other on. 

Going zero waste often seems like an inconvenient choice. Is your family also part of this journey? 

It is an ongoing challenge. I try to make zero waste as convenient as possible for them. For example, I prepare a compost bin next to the sink to contain all the organic waste, and containers for food takeaway, and I also write and share my zero waste effort on Facebook so they can read and understand the reason behind my efforts. Slowly, they began to understand more and it has been encouraging to see some zero waste efforts from them such as refusing plastic bags and bringing their own plastic container when they buy takeaway. So I guess it takes patience and perseverance, and lots of LOVE.

Bring your own containers for takeaway instead of using single-use disposable containers.

Along that vein, environmental conservation work can be discouraging at times. Have you ever felt disillusioned and what makes you press on? 

When I was in my early 20s working in the conservation field, someone told me that we are fighting a losing battle in conservation. But I guess my question to that statement is this: would it be better for us to do nothing then and watch everything go downhill without lifting a finger to make a change? 

Helen Keller, an American author, disability rights advocate and political activist said, “ I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still, I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”  And paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, an influential English language philosopher of the 19th century, he said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And so I will continue to do what I can while managing my expectations of witnessing change in our culture and society.

Indeed, nothing will happen if we do nothing. We’ll pivot now to your faith. As a Christian, do you think your faith plays a part in your love for the environment? 

From a young age, I would often find myself giving thanks to God for His beautiful creation. Looking at the beautiful landscapes of oceans, rainforest and waterfalls make me want to praise God for all His work.

Creation reveals the creativity of God and also His amazing design which is based on a circular model: when a living organism dies, it doesn’t pollute the earth, instead, it nourishes the soil, which in turn helps the growth of plants and fruits, which then nourish other living organisms. It’s a closed-loop system. 

If only we understand the intricacies of God’s creation, we will perhaps revere and love it even more, and it is natural to want to protect something when you love and respect it.

God has given us all we need in nature to survive and thrive. We need to take care of it.

So how can the Church and Christians in Malaysia begin to live out their faith through creation care? What are some ‘easy’ ways to get started? 

Churches can begin by being aware of global and local environmental issues. Understand that we are to be good stewards of God’s creation and that includes the environment, then search for small actions that we can do at the individual and community level. The 5R of the zero waste lifestyle is a good place to start as it allows one to see the problems and the immediate solutions that can be taken. 

A practical example would be; When there are church gatherings involving meals, refuse to use disposables and use reusables. Either bring your own containers/cutlery or set up duty rosters to wash the dishes after the meal and fellowship. It’s a good place to carry out acts of service as taught by Jesus Himself. This builds community and allows the younger ones to watch and learn. 

At the individual level, refuse disposable plastics when buying groceries, bring your own bags and takeaway containers, start segregating your waste at home and learn to make compost with your kitchen waste.

Those are super practical and helpful ways to get started! Our last question, any favourite Scripture and why?

In the context of zero waste and caring for the environment, it will have to be this verse, “The Lord God put the man in the Garden of Eden. He put him there to work its ground and to take care of it.” Genesis 2:15. We are to take care of God’s creation. Have we been doing that?

This Earth Day, let’s make a conscious effort to consider the impact of our waste on the environment. We honour God by taking care of His creation, not just today, but every day. To learn about Ruth’s work and how to become a more responsible consumer, head over to Zero Waste Sabah — let’s all do our part!

All images provided by Ruth Yap.

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