Lessons from my travels


TRAVELLING abroad broadens the mind. That is true. My trips to distance lands gave me valuable insights into the way of life in these countries.

Surprisingly, it was the handling of garbage at household and consumer levels that left a deep impression on me.

I spent two weeks attending a training session in Tokyo, Japan. The first thing I noticed was that the pavements and streets were clean. It was almost impossible to find indiscriminately strewn litter anywhere. No cigarette butt or used tissue paper was in sight.

As someone who needs to spend a little more time in the toilet, I was naturally amazed at how immaculately dry the public toilets were. I would not have felt disgusted like I would in the toilets here if I had to lie down on the floor. That was how clean the toilets were.

The Japanese penchant for hygiene is reflected in the nation’s serious attitude towards managing waste disposal. The host at the residential apartment where I lived took pains to explain the workings of the system.

Household waste cannot just be packed together and left outside for the municipal garbage collectors. They must be sorted and placed in coloured plastic bags, one colour for each category of waste: combustible and non-combustible waste, and recyclable items like plastic, metal cans and used paper. Recyclable bottles and cans must be cleaned before going into the respective coloured garbage bags.

A calendar in the kitchen indicated the days each type of waste would be collected. Waste other than those specified would be left behind.

There is even a guidebook outlining the lists of items for each category and policies for waste management for the particular area.

I did not know that disposing of garbage could be so complicated yet so systematic at the same time.

My second experience with responsible waste disposal was in Incheon, South Korea where I attended a conference some years back.

Autumn had just arrived. Mornings were chilly. I woke up earlier than usual to get ready and catch the bus for the 50-minute ride to the convention centre from the hotel.

Although I am not a breakfast person, the effort in getting up coupled with the long journey and the cold weather worked up my appetite.

Only a few food outlets were open for breakfast in the sprawling complex. My strict low-protein diet further restricted the already limited choices. I settled for a sandwich and orange juice from a

I parked myself at a table in a snug little corner and slowly savoured the very expensive sandwich. The hallway was a hive of activity as participants mingled while waiting for the programmes of the day to begin.

What I saw next was fascinating. The couple beside me, having finished their meal, cleared the table and wiped it clean. I peeked at them out of the corner of my eyes in order not to appear rude.

They methodically sorted the used packaging according to materials at a recycling counter, which had separate receptacles for used plastic cups, drinking straws and paper wrappers.

No wonder the tables were always clean even though the cafe was very busy with a long queue of customers waiting to order their food at the counter.

Like they say, “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” When I was done, I did the same. It felt awkward. Until then, I had never cleaned up when I went to self-service restaurants back home.

As I thought about it afterwards, it was not such a bad idea after all. If I played my part, it would translate to a clean table being immediately available for the next customer. It works both ways. I could be the next customer being greeted by a clean table at another time.

In Malaysia, Ikea’s restaurant has signs encouraging customers to clear their own tables before leaving, explaining that it is one of the reasons they are paying less for the food.

Tray stations are strategically located around the restaurant for this purpose. I later discovered this practice is promoted at Ikea restaurants worldwide.

When I last went there, many customers just walked away after their meals and left behind plates, cutlery and cups on the table either out of ignorance or indolence.

In the end, those who wanted a table had to clear it themselves or wait for the cleaning crew, which took a while because of the number of table that had to be cleared. This apathy is also prevalent at popular fast food restaurants.

The culture of clearing tables after meals at self-service restaurants and recycling our household waste is a practice worth emulating.

It is not about paying less for the food but about being considerate to others who come after us. It is about caring for the environment by reducing waste and ensuring that the environment is sustainable for future generations.

This is what I like about travelling. There is always something new and something good to be learnt from each journey.

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