Doing away with disposables

21 May 2018 | Community
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Pamela (right) with the owners of the fruit juice stall at The Deck, Mr Henry Chua (centre) and Mrs Chua

Year 4 NUS Arts and Social Sciences student Pamela Low is on a mission to minimise the use of disposables across NUS canteens, halls and residential colleges.

Her green journey began in secondary school when the family participated in a recycling exercise. “As I was dismantling a toy car, putting plastic with plastic and metal with metal, I realised everything I had been mindlessly tossing into the general bin could have a second life. My family went home and started sorting our trash and we still do it today,” Pamela recalled.

The “a-ha” moment for Pamela came when she spent five months in Germany as an exchange student. On her first day in Germany, when Pamela and her friends were told to pay for plastic bags for their groceries, they immediately demurred and decided to carry their groceries in their hands and bags. “That made me appreciate the effectiveness of a plastic bag charge,” she said, adding that Europe is ahead of Singapore in the usage of plastic bags, recycling efforts and energy policy.

One day in October 2017, Pamela reached the “peak of my frustration and powerlessness” regarding the rampant use of disposable cups and straws at the fruit juice stall at The Deck canteen in NUS. That same night, she sent an email to the university administration on working with NUS to become disposables-lite or better yet, disposables-free. She proposed implementing “no plastic straws / disposable cutlery days” regularly in NUS with the long-term aim of eliminating these disposable plastic items across campus — in hall canteens, buffet spreads, faculty canteens as well as other food and beverage businesses.

The experience has made me appreciate that there’s a lot to be done in educating people and raising awareness, but at the same time, systemic changes like explicitly charging for resources is very effective in nudging people in the right direction. It makes them think twice and they often make the better choice.

Working with NUS Campus Amenities, Pamela organised the University’s inaugural Zero Waste Roadshow. Launched on 31 January, the two-week campaign saw the conversion of the fruit juice stall at The Deck from a 100 per cent disposable model to a semi-disposable one, where people who were having their drinks at the canteen would be served in reusable cups. Pamela admitted that implementing the initiative was challenging, saying, “I learnt that incentives don’t work as well as ‘charges’. When the fruit juice store charged $0.10 more for each takeaway, more people decided to have their drink in a reusable cup instead. When the charge was removed, people reverted to having their drinks in disposable cups. The experience has made me appreciate that there’s a lot to be done in educating people and raising awareness, but at the same time, systemic changes like explicitly charging for resources is very effective in nudging people in the right direction. It makes them think twice and they often make the better choice,” said Pamela.

She is also working with NUS Housing Services to discontinue the use of disposables for takeaway meals in halls, adding that this will become a permanent feature in Academic Year 2018/19.

Pamela’s diligence has been recognised, most recently by OCBC. As a recipient of #OCBCCares Fund of the Environment, she was awarded $9,000 to halt the use of disposables at NUS halls; to develop an eco-curriculum at her alma mater, Tanjong Katong Girls’ School; and to make a subset of the eco-curriculum available to green staff and student leaders at NUS halls, residential colleges and student residences. Mr N Sivasothi, Senior Lecturer at NUS Biological Sciences as well as Director of Studies and Fellow at Ridge View Residential College chaired the evaluation panel, which included representatives from OCBC and government agencies.