Saturday, May 05, 2007

Another letter in The Straits Times

Someone responded to my last letter in the press and my response was published on 5th May 2007.

Spread the 3R message - reduce, reuse, recycle

MR CHIA Hern Keng raised a very good question to my letter, 'Live without plastic bags? Here's how it can be done' (ST, April 28) about whether biodegradable bags are any better.

I, too, have my doubts. Older versions of degradable bags require light to degrade. So putting these in landfill is no good. Newer bags made from corn starch are touted as a greener alternative.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea, however, the biodegradable bag is 'better' than the conventional.

But I think it woeful that food that can be grown to feed the starving millions is used instead to feed our insatiable habits for convenience.

By the same token, I think it is undesirable that bio-fuels are promoted as the alternative to fossil fuels. It is not ethical that even more (subsistence farmers on little family plots) will starve as their lands are acquired by big corporations to grow food to turn into fuel.

Typically the cash the farmer get runs out quickly, they have nothing to feed themselves, one or more members of the family migrate to the city, often landing up in the sordid criminal margins of society there.

If we are happy that our desired lifestyle has those effects on other parts of humanity, then yes, choose bio-fuel.

The real alternative is 'drive less', or use more public transport, or cycle. Walk.

Using less is the 'reduce' part of the '3R' strategy.

I never suggested that 'thick plastic-padded envelopes, empty cereal boxes, plasticised juice cartons, plastic bags that come with loaves of bread, deliveries, junk mail, tissue-paper rolls' were 'free' in any way.

However, if they are already in existence then instead of throwing these away empty into landfill sites it is far better to 'reuse' them a second or even third time. My point was: There is no need to fret over not having plastic bags for our rubbish as we already have alternatives.

My late mother, like others in her generation who went through the Japanese Occupation and experienced deprivation, taught me how to reuse everything. (Yaat mutt yee yung in Cantonese.) She didn't throw away a single jute string, rubber band, newspaper, plastic bag, et cetera, that came into the flat.

She also taught me how to 'recycle'. We did not use the flush mechanism in our toilet as Mum kept bath water and washing machine water in buckets for flushing the toilet.

Even food was recycled. Leftovers were cooked up again, slightly differently and any real waste was put in a 'swill bin' to be collected by the swill collector.

I grew up rebelling against the clutter she was making in our small flat. Now I realise the wisdom of her ways.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Dr Lee Siew Peng

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