Claire Sancelot is something of a local eco-conscious legend in Hong Kong where she lived before moving to Kuala Lumpur. She practises the zero waste lifestyle, which is exactly what it sounds like. When she lived in Hong Kong, her household of six people only put out half a bucket of waste each week. Now in KL, the family aims to lessen that amount to just one bag a month.
Since moving to KL, she has hit the ground running and her way of living should be an inspiration to us all if we are to leave this planet we call home intact for our children and future generations to have a sustainable life. It sounds dire, and it really is, but it’s never too late to become conscious and change our habits and, most importantly, to pass the knowledge on to our children.
Tell us how you became interested or wanted to know about recycling and the environment. Your parents must have been ‘green’ too so how did they influence you?
I was raised in France in the ’80s by already very environmentally conscious parents who always recycled. At that time, we didn’t really care where products came from and food wasn’t processed as it is now, although fertilisers and pesticides were already being used abundantly. I decided to move towards the zero waste movement in 2010, when my oldest child was born. The amount of trash this tiny human was creating really opened my eyes to the problem our planet is facing. Considering we are seven billion on Earth, it was inconceivable to have everyone consuming like my daughter, husband and myself. Studies have shown we’ll need about three planet Earths if we continue like this. So in 2010, we decided to remove all disposables and replace them with washable diapers and baby wipes, water filters, paper wrapped (or better unwrapped) solid soap and even solid shampoo. It became a game really – reduce waste, recycle, save money, and life got easier as we didn’t need to shop for those items anymore.
As a parent, how important do you think it is that our children are educated at an early age about the 5Rs?
It’s extremely important as part of any child’s education is about respect, compassion and responsibility. I have three daughters and every time we go to the beach, they think about the marine life and start picking up the trash on the beach. They refused balloons at birthday parties when we lived in Hong Kong as they knew [the latex from] balloons are harmful to turtles and dolphins. This is part of parenting to me. We’ve taught them to cherish experiences rather than things. We also teach them where things come from, like the gorgeous eggplant from our local organic farmer whom they know personally; that their clothes and toys are mainly manufactured in factories where labour and environmental laws are non-existent, which is why we prefer secondhand, and in turn we respect these items so we can pass them on. So the 5Rs – Refuse-Reduce-Reuse-Recycle-Rot, and in this order – are extremely important if we want to create a future generation who aren’t just passive consumers, but are happier and healthier in mind and body.
What tips would you give parents about how to encourage their children to be aware of the environment and sustainable living?
It’s never too late! Obviously it’s easier if your child is 12 as opposed to two, but reminding them that our lives depend on the well-being of the planet should start as early as possible. Sadly Malaysia, like the rest of the developed world, is all about consumerism even though we’re surrounded by lush nature. In Malaysia we have rivers, beaches, jungles and it’s our responsibility to protect, respect and appreciate our land. Even as adults we forget, but what is important in life is family, health, friendship and our relationship with nature. Simplify, which is my motto, and explain why. A good place to start is a birthday party – how can we expect a five-year-old who receives countless gifts to appreciate anything later on in life? Invite a few close friends, ask for either one shared gift, or no gift at all but request that a donation be made to an animal shelter, kids actually appreciate this. Children these days have so many toys and studies have shown that on average a kid plays with about 10 toys, and are more prone to tantrums if they have too many options.
What are the easiest ways to live sustainably for families in a big city like KL where everyone is concerned about everything except the environment?
Start a small herb garden, kids love gardening, plus they’ll appreciate eating food they grow. Composting is the next step, it may seem scary but once you get a knack for it, it’s so rewarding. Composting gives me so much more peace, plus I give my compost to my farmer who delivers my weekly organic produce, so the cycle is complete. Buy local, organic and unpackaged as much as possible. Live by the ‘less is more’ formula by buying secondhand as much as possible, sell or donate what you don’t use or need so precious resources are reused constantly, and be minimalistic with your home and workplace.
Malaysia has only recently acknowledged it has a problem with waste management and the environment. How would you encourage people to take up your cause?
It all starts with us parents as we have the power of purchasing. If we buy a packaged snack (empty calories) with ingredients or chemicals we don’t understand rather than a local organic banana, then we’ve made a choice. School is the same, we pay fees and we have a voice. We can tell the administration we want local organic food, and want the kids to grow food at the school, which should be as important as learning Math. Let’s not forget that one third of the Malaysian population is overweight and there’s an increasing level of diabetes and related illnesses in kids. By learning food gardening and composting at school, kids become more grounded and balanced. As parents we have a voice, it’s up to us to make a change for the better by leading by example and asking institutions to change.
Tell us about The Hive [Claire’s venture located in Bangsar] – its philosophy and the products.
We sell healthy, unprocessed, unpackaged food like organic grains, seeds and legumes. It’s good for our body, the planet and our wallet (an average 15 percent of product cost goes into packaging). Bring your own containers, pay for the amount you want so there’s no food waste. You can also buy locally made, organic compostable bamboo toothbrushes, solid unpackaged soaps and shampoo. The store is all about respect towards the planet that nourishes and protects us.
Claire's tips to start living sustainably
1. Cut down on meat consumption especially beef. ‘Cowspiracy’ is an eye-opening documentary to watch and shows how cows release a deadly amount of methane (25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide). Substitute meat with vegetarian options like legumes and nuts.
2. Buy local and get to know your local farmer. They feed and keep us healthy, and I’m a strong believer in pay the farmer now rather than the doctor later.
3. Teach your child less is more – have a few quality toys and clothes instead of countless cheap, non-educational ones.
4. Teach them to buy less and to respect human labour and the environment.
5. Learn how to refuse (very politely) single-use products; even accepting a plastic pen is saying drill more oil to manufacture more plastic.