Monday, April 30, 2007

Live without plastic bags? Here's how it can be done

This is my letter published in the Singapore Straits Times Forum page on 28th April 2007.

'Rubbish chutes' are hollow columns in high-rise flats in Singapore. Each flat has a 'flap-door' in the kitchen wall through which rubbish is disposed. The rubbish falls through these columns/chutes into a bin at ground level and these bins are emptied (usually by foreign workers) every morning.

With the advent of plastic bags in the 1970s, Singaporeans have been asked to put their rubbish in plastic bags to reduce the amount of cleaning required in these chutes.

Live without plastic bags? Here's how it can be done

FROM some letters on the use of plastic bags, it appears that some Singaporeans think the world would end if they didn't get their 'free' plastic bags.

And we take our rubbish chutes for granted.

Here, in the United Kingdom, where we pay more than £2,000 (S$6,060) in annual council tax (for refuse disposal, etc), I have to sort rubbish into three different types (plastic/paper/metal/glass which can be recycled, organic rubbish which can be composted, and the rest which goes into landfill).

We also have to wheel the correct bins onto the boundary of the property the evening before 'bin day' once a week. Different bins are collected in different weeks. Wheel the wrong bin out on the wrong day or put the wrong rubbish in the wrong bin and it won't be emptied until the offending 'contamination' is removed, or suffer a fine.

What we need is a sea-change in our attitude towards plastic.

It is not difficult to fold up a plastic/cloth bag to leave in one's handbag. Or why not try alternatives like a string bag? Where we once used six to eight plastic bags for our weekly food shopping, we now put everything into four reusable, washable and biodegradable string bags.

When I plan to buy food home, I go with my tiffin carrier or other reusable containers - just like our parents used to do.

We must stop thinking in terms of the price of a plastic bag. Think instead of how much you value the earth that your children and grandchildren must live in. There is a cost to our profligate reliance on plastic usage. When our children have to pay for it in another way, is the plastic bag really that 'cheap'?

Rubbish chutes are not an inalienable right. I am sure we can come up with an alternative. Meanwhile, if we are concerned about dirty chutes, why not buy some biodegradable plastic bags?

If we look carefully there are all sorts of containers we can reuse for the chute: used, thick plastic-padded envelopes, empty cereal boxes, plasticised juice cartons (tear open the top and fill with rubbish, roll top back down and secure with rubber bands), plastic bags that come with loaves of bread, deliveries, junk mail, tissue-paper rolls, etc. If all else fails, use several layers of newspaper and secure with rubber bands.

We can live without plastic bags.

Dr Lee Siew Peng
Middlesex, UK

Back to Organic-Ally.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

To stay or not to stay -- at home

It's the long-ish Easter break and of course there was no time to blog.

But I do know that lots of working mothers have taken advantage of the long Easter weekend to go away with the family. Those who have not been able to take time off, well, their children have been organized to go to Easter camps.

Me? I had son about, "Please may I play PSP?" every five minutes or so. He knows the answer is "no, unless ...." but he still tries.

Then I have orders to fill, new exciting products to be launched (hopefully), etc. But that is another story.

Recent news reports started me thinking -- again -- about the 'to stay or not to stay at home' question.

First, an economist EQ in Singapore tried to analyze the cost of mothers staying at home. I found most of his arguments as holey as fishnet tights. But they wouldn't publish my response to his "essay".

Then Leslie Bennetts in The Times noted that should a mother decide to stay at home and then face the misfortune of splitting up with her husband/partner, she would have lost out a lot, or the lot.

So basically what EQ in Singapore argued about the cost of staying at home actually only comes to bear in the situation of divorce as The Times writer pointed out.

Then we have to juxtapose these two points of view against another report: that children who have spent more than 35 hours a week in day nursery are more anti-social.

Or that 'sixty boys aged four were expelled — three times as many as in 2003-04' (read report here).

One wonders: how can an under-five learn bad and/or violent behaviour?

To me it is very simple, be firm with your children before they are three. Give them love, but teach them boundaries. When they feel secure in your love, you can punish and withdraw privileges in order to demarcate boundaries, and they will be fine.

When we can do this, or entrust others to do this, whether others are grandparents, au pairs or nursery workers, then children will thrive.

The problem is when grandparents dote on grandchildren and disregard your strict instructions to forbid certain types of behaviour.

Or au pairs are too frightened to stand firm on your instructions not to give way.

Or nursery staff find it easier to give in rather than insist on your child behaving in a certain manner.

The point is: why bother to have a child when he/she has to be 'farmed out' to 'professionals' for more than 35 hours a week Mondays to Fridays?

That is seven hours a week. If children of that age spend 12 hours or more asleep, take away travel times, etc, one has less than fours hours a day with one's child.

And most of this time will be harried, either getting them to eat, dress, undress, get into the car, get out of the car, get to sleep, wake up from sleep. The adult might convince himself/herself that this is 'quality time', but from the child's perspective 'home' is more like a B&B. He/She lives the real life in the nursery.

Therefore nursery is where these children must stake their claim, mark their territory, learn to be bossy -- which is not a bad thing in itself -- to the point of being anti-social, manipulating adults as well if necessary to ensure that they know who's the boss.

I have seen how children cannot be controlled by adults when they are three, and I suspect it would be difficult to control these children when they are five, seven and thirteen. I think the government is barking up the wrong tree by trying to get (single) mothers off benefits and back to work.

These are probably the very women who need to stay at home, learn a proper skill, or at least learn basic parenting skills, and educate themselves further so that they can be of help to their children when they get older.

There ought to be many more facilities where children can learn alongside their mothers. Children all over the world do that, on farms, in their cottage industries, etc. Sending children of such mothers to nursery will only exacerbate the insecurity that these children might feel.

Bad behaviour learned at a young age will disadvantage them at school. Exclusions, expulsions, lack of purpose will lead to poor qualifications and low job prospects. Some might to crime, yes, or remain in a 'cycle of poverty'.

I suspect the government has a hidden agenda here. It is no more politically correct say, give your babies up for adoption if they are 'illegitimate'. Short of removing such babies by force and giving them a chance to do better in a probably middle-class home, the government are urging mothers to leave their babies to middle-class professionals in the hope that this would make a positive influence on the child by the time they are three.

Unfortunately, babies are babies and they are not to be manipulated this way. They have a special need for and trust in mothers. Break this trust and you break something else in the meanwhile.

For me, the greater challenge is to make it easier for mothers to return to work when their children are older. Stay home when children are young, establish boundaries, build strong bonds, learn to trust each other, then when mother returns to meaningful work that enhances their living standards, children can feel the pride of having a mother who brings home enough/more money to make them live more/comfortable lives.

That is empowerment. It is empowerment that lifts women and their children out of the cycle of poverty.

It is not that leaving children in nurseries in itself is bad. I often say that had I known the difficulties that my child now faces as an only child looked after solely by his mother, then I would have paid for the privilege of letting him learn to interact with other children before he started pre-school.

As a social anthropologist who is often very sensitive to 'divides', I see the British government as tending to have 'one size fits all' policies because it is politically incorrect to do otherwise. (Compare this to the 'family planning' policies in Singapore where children born into familes of the 'wrong size' used to be discriminated against when it came to choice of primary school.) The result is the policy fits no one at all and does not achieve the purpose for which it was designed.

Yes, I do think they need more social anthropologists in government.

Back to Organic-Ally.