Why I got my school canteen to refuse plastic: an interview with Clarissa Song

Last year, Clarissa Song was a Secondary 2 student at Anderson Secondary School when she observed that her school canteen vendors used disposable plastic carriers, cutlery and straws for takeaway orders. Something she found to be unnecessary.

Clarissa is the Vice President of the Green Club at Anderson Secondary School.

With the help of her fellow Green Club members, she approached the vendors to convince them to stop using plastic disposables. Since then, plastic disposables are hardly used in the school canteen. More and more students and teachers who want to pack their food orders now bring their own lunch boxes. In that same year, the success of her Refuse Plastic Project made Clarissa the youngest-ever winner of the EcoFriend Awards. These awards are given out annually by the National Environment Agency (NEA) to individuals in Singapore who have contributed significantly to environmental sustainability.

Clarissa (1st from left) receiving the NEA EcoFriend award. (Photo credit: Clean & Green Singapore)

We got in touch with Clarissa recently after Guardians of the S.E.A.A. participated in a BYO event in her school, and she shared with us more about her experience.

1. How did you learn about marine animals choking to death on plastic objects?
In January 2017, I attended a school workshop on how marine animals were being harmed by plastic litter in the ocean. I was very disturbed to see photos of dead sea animals which had choked on plastic litter in the ocean. There was a video of a plastic fork being pulled out from a sea turtle’s nostril. The sea turtle was in great pain as the rescuers raced against time to remove the plastic fork. It is very cruel to put any living thing through such pain. In the first place, there should not be any littering in the ocean. It dawned upon me that if marine animals are not able to survive due to plastic pollution in the ocean, then one day, we may also be affected as we are all connected in this eco- system. What goes around, comes around.

2. You kickstarted the Refuse Plastic Project in March 2017. How did some of your non-Green Club friends react when they first heard about it?
Together with a few of my Green Club friends, I made an announcement during morning assembly that the canteen vendors will not be giving out disposable plastic ware and we conducted an assembly talk on refusing plastic. Most of my schoolmates were supportive of this Refuse Plastic Project. I did not hear any negative feedback from them. In fact, after the assembly talk, many of my classmates started to pass me recyclable items such as their correction tape empties and broken pen casings for recycling. I see more people carrying reusable bags in school. I am very encouraged to see them making an effort in recycling plastic and practising the 3Rs- Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.

3. What was the biggest hurdle you faced when implementing this project?
Some vendors voiced their concern about their business being affected. I eventually managed to persuade them to give it a try after showing them pictures of marine animals being harmed by plastic litter. Pictures paint a thousand words. In this case, the pictures made them empathise with the marine animals. As for my peers, many of them are interested to do their part for the environment but sometimes they need a bit of assistance. That’s where I play my role as a Green Ambassador, to encourage and share environmental messages with them.

Anderson Secondary School canteen vendors supporting Clarissa’s Refuse Plastic Project. Photo by Chew Seng Kim for the Straits Times. Source

4. Now that the Refuse Plastic Project has been implemented successfully for a year, what’s next?
The canteen vendors continue their effort to refuse and reduce usage of disposable plastic ware. The school population has gotten used to not using disposable plastic items in the canteen. In fact, this year, we launched the “Bring your Own” programme whereby the school students and staff bring their own containers for takeaways from the canteen. This is one way to refuse plastic.

5. How do you practise “Reduce Plastic” in your everyday life?
I buy pen refills so that I can continue to use the same pen casing and reduce wastage on plastic pen casing. I also refuse plastic disposables and use reusable bags in my daily life. At home, I will reuse plastic containers from liquid detergent by using the refill packs.

My schoolmates participate actively in my school’s bi-annual correction tape- holder recycling activity whereby plastic correction tape empties are collected for recycling. I help to collect the empties from my schoolmates.

Clarissa (1st from the right) on a boat patrol with her friends from the Green Club. Image credit: Waterways Watch Society

6. What would you say to someone who feels that using less plastic makes life inconvenient?
Make “using less plastic” a habit. That way, you will not feel that it is inconvenient. Nobody complains about carrying a mobile phone being inconvenient. So, carrying a foldable reusable bag should not be inconvenient too. Many people are very willing to do charity work. So think of using less plastic as helping the environment. That way, you will feel that it is worth all the effort.

7. For those who wish to start a “Reduce Plastic” lifestyle, what’s the easiest way to do it?
I suggest setting up a recycling corner at home or office whereby reusable containers, lunchboxes and reusable bags are kept. By having a designated place for these reusable items, it will be more convenient for people to find them when they need them, thus reducing the need for a new plastic bag or plastic container.

Another way is to bring along a foldable reusable bag when you go shopping. It doesn’t occupy a lot of space and it certainly helps to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags.

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