In a world grappling with ecological challenges today, Khor Sue Yee stands as a beacon of inspiration for her pursuit of a zero-waste future. Since 2016, Khor has tirelessly championed initiatives that foster responsible consumption, waste reduction, and eco-conscious communities through the non-profit organisation she co-founded, Zero Waste Malaysia. This year, she initiated its next step with the launch of the Green Wira Programme to instill sustainability in students—embodying BURO’s Sustainability Hero of the Year while building up like-minded heroes of tomorrow.
A nature lover at heart
Khor walks into the studio where we are having our awards photo shoot, quietly taking in her surroundings. Though seemingly timid at first, her eyes light up and the enthusiasm is evident in her voice the moment we dive into her passion for the planet. A self-professed nature lover, Khor fondly recalls travelling to various destinations around Malaysia such as Redang Island, Cherating and Port Dickson with her family growing up. “I would say from a young age, nature has always been close to my heart,” she muses.
Given her affinity for the environment and her aptitude for chemistry during her secondary school days, she decided to pursue a degree in chemical environmental engineering. However, the tragedy of losing her younger brother to cancer right before she graduated left her in search of a greater purpose that would create a meaningful, tangible impact in the world.
“After he passed away, I started watching a series of motivational videos to keep myself up as I was mentally and emotionally exhausted,” she confides. Recycling had already been a common practice in the Khor household then, but the zero-waste lifestyle was still a novel concept.
“One day, I stumbled across a TED Talk presented by Lauren Singer, a zero-waste advocate living in America,” she says, recounting how her role model is known for collecting her own waste in a 16oz mason jar. “The idea of not creating any unnecessary trash in her daily life sparked my interest and I wanted to challenge myself [to do the same] too. So I started my zero-waste journey when I got my first job in Beijing, China—where I could start a new life with a fresh perspective on my lifestyle.”
From then on, she started documenting her zero-waste journey on social media. That’s how she got connected with fellow advocate and journalist, Aurora Tin, who invited her to join a zero-waste community page on Facebook. Together, they co-founded Zero Waste Malaysia (ZWM) in 2016 to spread awareness on how Malaysians can live more sustainably.
Reducing waste, one piece of trash at a time
Of course, Khor’s transition into her newly adopted lifestyle wasn’t seamless. Like any other unfamiliar habit, the biggest challenge for her was mustering the courage to make the first move. “I remember, once, I was shy to ask the food vendor to put noodle soup in my takeaway container,” she starts, “I was afraid of how people would look at me, a foreigner, trying to order a bowl of noodle soup with my own container at a hawker stall in Beijing.”
“But once I took the first step, everything became second nature for me later on as I began to understand that I was just trying to live in line with my values of mindful consumption, and that I am responsible for the trash that I create,” she affirms.
Khor maintains that it’s not easy—perhaps even impossible—to truly live a life without producing waste. Besides, we still live in an ecosystem that doesn’t have the right infrastructure to support this yet.
As a matter of fact, Malaysia produces roughly 38 million kg of waste daily, which is enough to fill up the Petronas Twin Towers every seven days! More pressingly, a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2020 showed that Malaysia ranked second in Asia when it comes to generating the most plastic waste, with general waste being the second biggest contributor to global warming in the country.
Further, ZWM conducted a public survey in April 2022 which revealed that 50 per cent of close to 7,000 local respondents were confused about the recyclability of common household items. Concerned by this shocking statistic, the team developed the Trash Encylopedia to educate consumers on how to properly separate household waste, as well as provide alternatives to help reduce waste, lower carbon footprint and avoid landfill pollution.
With that said, practising the zero-waste lifestyle on your own is one thing; influencing others to join you is another. Khor believes the key to this is patience and persistence. “I once heard my Chinese colleague questioning why was I being redundant by bringing my own takeaway container when I have to wash it later,” she recalls. It was instances like this that gave her the opportunity to share about the trash generated from our daily lives, including takeaway culture, and how she feels the need to make a difference.
“Eventually, [that colleague] showed me how he started to reduce waste by refusing the lid of the container. He couldn’t fully practise zero-waste takeaway, but at least he took a small step,” she goes on. “From that moment, I learned that it’s important for every one of us to lead by example and do it consistently. Then, one day, you will see changes around you.”
Building a sustainable future together
Indeed, ZWM has grown into a 49,000-strong community today since it started seven years ago. Khor credits her fellow eco-warriors and volunteers for their support in helping to spread awareness about the zero-waste lifestyle by setting an example for their peers. “What I like the most about working at Zero Waste Malaysia is listening to the inspiring stories from our community on how they have transformed their lifestyles with more zero-waste habits, which actually motivates us to do whatever we are doing right now,” she says, beaming.
Over the years, the ZWM has also organised zero-waste festivals, corporate and community engagement programmes and outreach activities to strive towards a circular economy in Malaysia. The 31-year-old’s proudest milestone in 2023 is the launch of the Green Wira Programme, a teach the teachers programme targeting primary and secondary school teachers on how to instill a sustainability mindset in their students.
On her future plans for the organisation, she explains, “For the past few years, we have been focusing on reducing the gap of environmental-related resources in the local context as a resource platform. In the coming years, we hope to integrate our resources to influence the local council level, and, eventually, the policy level.”
“To improve zero waste adoption in Malaysia, it has to come from all levels as every aspect is interrelated. Inclusivity is one of the most important aspects to look into. A lot of the time, we miss out that social issues are also contributing factors that lead to environmental issues,” she asserts.
To that end, Khor’s current schedule as ZWM’s director involves strategic planning for its 2024 goals, in between replying corporate inquiries, brainstorming community projects, and delegating tasks among her small team of four full-time members and one part-timer. The road ahead is long, but it’s one that is “fulfilling” and aligned with the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
As for her advice to individuals who are keen to hop on the zero-waste bandwagon, she offers: “Start somewhere and take it one step at a time. No matter how small the action, we believe that sikit sikit, lama lama jadi zero-waste habit!”
Editor-In-Chief / SARAH HANI JAMIL. Creative Direction / SARAH TAI. Text and Interview / NATALIE KHOO. Styling / SARAH HANI JAMIL AND SARAH TAI. Photography / HERRY CHIA EE | HERRY STUDIO. Assisted by / EURI ERFE AND BIRDY LEE. Videography / KEVIN LOW FOR STUDIO KARYAWAN. Video Editor / DENNIS KHO. Makeup / FIONA TAN FOR SHU UEMURA. Hair / LEONARD YAP FOR GHD.
Check out the 2023 BURO Impact Award winners here.
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