Monday, 21 January 2008

The White Coffin

Back in June 2007, I wrote in this blog that "we need to go the extra mile" to tackle rubbish, in particular, to stop the use of polystyrene foam containers. Fast forward to 1st January 2008 - yes, we finally managed to get rid of polystyrene foam containers on the USM Main Campus in Penang.

The journey has been a long one. I keep being asked who started this and when did we first try to get rid of polystyrene containers and why it has taken so long. And now that we have done it, how come we are successful this time around? And of course, any plans to go outside of USM?

My response is that this is a group effort, involving students, staff and the canteen operators. Even the Vice-Chancellor is personally involved giving moral support and going to the ground to mobilise and motivate students and canteen operators. The supplier of the eco-friendly substitute also play a key role. Now the mass media has taken particular interest by writing indepth features which will further inform and educate the general public.

From my personal viewpoint (and I am sure others may not agree), it all started when I was doing an photo-audit of the environmental impact of our annual graduation festivities (Pesta Konvo) in August 2005. I bummed into a group of students distributing leaflets calling for a ban on polystyrene containers citing among others the health hazards related to cancer. But when I started asking more questions, they actually ran away from me (Why, you ask? They must have taught I was from the that very special branch). Then I bummed (yes, all accidental) into a stall selling economy rice using a brownish container. The operators (enlightened USM students) explained to me that it was an eco-friendly packaging (Note : almost everyone else at the Pesta was using polystyrene containers). So, if you ask me, I think that was a key trigger. I asked the students for some samples, gave them my name card and several weeks later, they popped in at my office with the samples, apologising for the long delay. So, I passed the samples to the university authorities and since then we have been trying to replace the polystyrene foam containers with something safe for human use. In fact, when I had our first meeting with the canteen operators on 18th Dec 2007, one of them reminded me that they have had such a meeting before - but nothing happened. In fact, the operator was expressing scepticism about our latest round of effort to rid the campus of "The White Coffin". Yes, we acknowledge it has taken us quite a while - we have learnt. More details will be forthcoming but I want to say that many people played a role to make this a success. Special mention goes to the several student groups (Environmental Club, Community Welfare Programme, Tzu Chi Collegiate Youths and the Students Representative Council) involved with the campaign. In fact, it was the students who brought back the idea of creating "The White Coffin" poster from Taiwan and this has been an effective tool of communication.

The pictures on the left shows my "sustainable lunch", comprising three vegetable dishes, no meat, half portion of rice and not too much curry in an eco-friendly packaging made from empty fruit bunch (oil palm waste). Why "sustainable"? Well, according to some point of view, we should cutdown on the "middlemen", in this case the chickens, ducks, geese and cows because it is more efficient (less wasteful) if we just go to the source of nutrients, i.e. the plants and vegetables.

There have been some feedback (OK, "complaints" in other people's lingo) that the rice sticks to the containers and the liquid tends to soak through. After letting it sit for one hour and taking some 15 to 20 minutes to finish the lunch, the container seems as solid as new (see lower picture on left).

Some customers have the habit of pouring several large scoops of oily curry on their rice and some may even keep the package of food for several hours (up to 4 hours, I have heard). Cooked food should be kept warm at 60 degrees Celsius or higher. Otherwise it should be refigerated after 2 hours. And all those delicious oily curry is not very healthy for you - you should cut down on those.

The Vice-Chancellor of USM on the ground mobilising support to go green.