Toilet rolls are collected and sold to a subcontractor, to be recycled into paper products. (PHOTO: TOILETROLLSG)
In this edition of Groundup Features: We had a lovely and insightful chat with Laura, founder of ToiletRollSG, a green initiative that aims to reduce our carbon footprint and supports a circular economy. While its peculiar name might draw a laugh from you, it also piqued your curiosity, didn’t it? Read on to find out more about the humble beginnings of ToiletRollSG as well as its aspirations.
Hello! Thank you for inviting me here today. I’ll start with a short self-introduction– I’m Laura, the founder of ToiletRollSG. I’ve been an environmentalist for three years now, since I was in Secondary Three.
I’m not surprised if you are amused by the name of my initiative and wonder ‘What is ToiletRollSG?’. I get this reaction a lot. ToiletRollSG started in 2018. It is a national environmental initiative that facilitates the collection and recycling of toilet rolls in Singapore. When we think of recycling, the first thought that comes to mind is paper or plastic. However, we often fail to take into consideration the items that we consume and produce as trash on a daily basis. In fact, I’m sure that everyone goes to the toilet every day, we use toilet paper every day. Can you imagine how many toilet rolls the whole of Singapore consumes on a daily basis?
In addition to the actions carried out under ToiletRollSG, the name itself is an emblem to show that things that we produce in the toilet, things that we may despise, actually have a huge potential to be turned into valuable products through recycling. To give you an example of what we do: During pre-COVID times, we collaborated with a subcontractor who collected the toilet rolls we have gathered. Subsequently, the subcontractor turns these cardboard toilet rolls into paper envelopes to be sold.
While the monetary gains we received in exchange is not much, I think it is a worthy cause to advocate for. This is because items, which were once considered waste, are now turned into functional products in a circular economy. Furthermore, the small sum of money we gained was in turn donated to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) to support quality, subsidized dialysis for patients suffering from chronic kidney diseases.
You are not the first to ask me this question because toilet rolls and anything that happens in the toilet seems like a taboo topic that nobody likes to talk about. I have always liked the idea of upcycling (also known as creative reuse) and toilet rolls are commonly used by people for upcycling.
Ang Zyn Yee, my senior in school and the founder of the Straw-Free Singapore movement, was the one who inspired me to start my own movement. I talked to her, learnt more about her journey and from our conversation, realized one startling fact. Singaporeans know that recycling is important, but most of us have yet to uncover the potential of recycling. As very pragmatic individuals, we don’t go out of our way to do something that is beyond the value of what we perceive it to be. So, it is only when we incorporate innovation, creativity and engagement will people be willing to listen to you. This realization sparked my interest in starting my own initiative —ToiletRollSG.
Sure, what we do is split into two parts: Advocacy and Action.
Pre-COVID-19, I held many talks across primary and secondary schools in Singapore. However, when the pandemic hit, most of my physical talks were cancelled. Many of these talks had to be held virtually. Furthermore, during COVID-19, I started a new initiative, called On the Roll, whereby I interviewed multiple activists for various social causes to share their heartfelt stories and reasons behind why they started these social causes with my followers on social media. I started this initiative because I felt that was when we really needed more love in our society during these trying times.
Many people are big on advocacy, however as someone who really wants to impact the world through concrete change, I believe that advocacy is insufficient. This brings me to my next part on Action.
During this pandemic, ToiletRollSG’s actions have definitely been hindered because we were in lockdown, schools had Home-Based Learning (HBL), and movements were restricted. Therefore, collections of the toilet rolls declined for a while. As time passed, the collections eventually picked up. The collections in Nanyang Girls’ High School (NYGH) are currently still ongoing. I have a group of juniors there who are handling the logistics and manpower. When the collection reaches a certain amount, I will then take over and arrange the transportation with a dedicated recycling company that I trust.
In addition, I also provide mentorship to students, in various schools, who are interested in pushing out similar initiatives in their school. By doing so, we also get to expand our collections and spread the idea of a circular economy.
Firstly, increasing our network of volunteers is definitely one of my ultimate goals. I wish to expand this community and the number of schools involved in ToiletRollSG.
Secondly, increasing the quantity and variety of recyclables that we are able to collect. However, the name will stay as ToiletRollSG is an emblem of a bigger message, and the name leaves a lasting impression on people.
Thirdly, increasing our engagement by perhaps collaborating with more influencers on social media. I wish to talk to them and explore how they can spread this message to their followers.
I first publicly announced my plans to start ToiletRollSG at the end of Secondary 3 but because I had to take my O Level Higher Chinese examination the following year, not everyone reacted positively. Some of my teachers found it ludicrous and tried to persuade me out of it. Some of my peers were sceptical that I would actually follow through with my plan. I understand their point of view because my school is indeed very academically driven, but it did hurt me a little and made me doubt myself.
On the flip side, I did receive genuine support from many others. I am actually very grateful to the Vice Principal of my former school because she was one of my first few supporters. She even went as far as to collect toilet rolls from her family members to hand them to me. Her support and belief in me meant a lot.
I am grateful that my friends are inspired to make changes of their own because they are influenced by me. For example, I bring a small cup to school for my coffee every day. Upon seeing this extra effort I put in, it encouraged my friends to also go out of their way to bring their own reusable cups instead of using disposable plastic cups.
Moreover, I have received many requests from juniors asking me how they can actively contribute to the community as well. So, I do my best to help and mentor them in their journey. Knowing that I am making a positive impact and encouraging others to change keeps me going.
I admit that I have faced multiple challenges along the way, but the end results are well worth it.
The biggest problem I had when I first started, was finding the right recycling company. I sent over 30 emails but only received one reply after two months. Even then, the company which was willing to help us out had a stipulation of a minimum of one tonne of toilet rolls per collection. Would I really be able to collect one tonne ( which equates to 1000kg ) of toilet rolls? If you do the math ( I did ), that is about 140,000 toilet rolls which is a huge number! I really thought that was a sign that I should just give up before even truly starting.
In addition, I received a lot of scepticism from people whom I trusted. I was feeling the pressure and self-doubt from the lack of support. However, I strongly believe in trying to do something before giving up. I quote Steve Jobs, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”.
The third challenge is the current ongoing pandemic. My physical talks were cancelled. Hence, I had to look for alternative solutions. I needed to find new ways to gain support and I did so by hosting virtual talks, which works favourably because I can reach out to more people online than I do offline.
Of course, for those who are interested in starting their own ground ups, this is my advice for you.
1. Be willing to seek help from your peers. I am sure your circle of friends includes various individuals who are skilled at something they can help you with. For instance, one friend may be a skilled web designer and they can help you to create your website while another friend may be good at digital marketing and can help you to promote your social media account. Tap on your network of friends and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised!
2. Start small. Start from your own community and make positive changes there. Starting small allows you to build your confidence and support network which will help you when you want to expand your groundup.
3. Know where your competitive edge lies. Is it your passion? Creativity? Determination? You need to have a unique selling point.
4. Be humble and willing to seek new opportunities in different ways.
5. Know your own limits. You must know how to juggle your academics or work with your groundup or else you might burn out easily.
Well, you can take simple steps to support the environment in your own way. For instance, use your own reusable straws, cups, and containers when you are out buying food. Encourage your family members and friends to make these changes too, if they have not already. This way, you are helping our cause as well by reducing the carbon emissions we emit.
I would say that a City of Good can be defined in two ways. Firstly, I shall talk about the concrete actions we can take to make our city cleaner, greener and more sustainable. This can happen if the residents in our city embrace the 4Rs – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
Secondly, a City of Good is made up of individuals who are willing to take actions and willing to seek opportunities to make our city a better place. To me, a City of Good has a very strong support system whereby people are always ready to help one another out with various social causes. I hope my initiative is moving our country in this direction, one small step at a time.
This is tough to answer, give me a moment to think about it…
If I really have to choose one option, I would go for Kopitiam-style Kopi. Since I’ve been surviving on Kopi thus far, I think I can survive with this for the rest of my life. Also, I really like the connection that I have with the auntie from the drinks stall which I frequent. I love to listen to the stories that she shares with me.
* This feature has been edited for clarity
About the authors:
Alexis is a volunteer writer from Skills For Good, and a lover of all things chocolate. She currently serves in the Red Cross Youth Chapter of her school.
Jannelle is Content Producer at Groundup Central. Armed with her camera, she looks forward to meeting & documenting the everyday heroes of our lives.
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