Editor’s Note: This piece has been edited for grammatical accuracy and clarity.
Global warming – two words that we throw around like we know them. But how many of us everyday people actually bother to find out how it works and what we can do to help? Wagh-bakri chai in hand and a voice recorder in the other, I joined CEO and Founder of Gone Adventurin, Ashwin Subramaniam on a Saturday morning at their community garden. Clad in a khaki-toned t-shirt, he dug into the soil while I stumbled around pestering him with my questions…
What is it that you do at Gone Adventurin’?
The day to day job is doing a lot of research and projects around waste management. It falls under the area of a circular economy: which is how we maximise the use of resources that we have in our world today as much as possible. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality today. For instance, if we take plastic or packaging, there is an abundance of single use packaging out there in the world today. We throw away about 80-100 billion dollars worth of plastics and the value from it is not being extracted – and only 14-15 percent is actually getting recycled. A big percentage of it either ends up in the landfills or in the oceans. So, a big part of what we’re doing right now is working with a lot of packaging and consumer goods companies, to collect all of those plastics and find a way to reduce them in packaging, especially here in Asia. About 8 million tonnes of plastics end up in the ocean each year and about 82 percent of that comes from Asia.
Do you think there’s a reason why it’s coming from Asia more than any other part of the world?
There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, in developing countries in Asia, there’s very poor infrastructure when it comes to waste management. You grew up in India and so did I, so you’ll know that there’s hardly a proper system of waste collection. Typically, people will dispose the waste just right outside and behind the houses. But, they keep their own houses clean.
It’s like …”Get outta my house…!”
Yeah exactly. Another thing is that growing up, we became immune to it. But over the last few years, it’s kind of gotten to a point where you have cities literally running out of landfill space. So in places like Bangalore, Delhi, Jakarta, Manila, we’re consistently seeing very similar patterns emerge, where landfills are running out of space. You then, have the local villages in and around the landfills (because landfills are usually located just outside the city areas), protesting against the existing landfills and their expansion. All these landfills were supposed to have been well-managed, where any sort of bad chemicals should have been put through the right processes before being released. But instead, they’ve become huge dumping sites – sometimes up to 30 metres high. Eventually, it enters the groundwater, and affects the crops in the area. So the local farmers don’t want these landfills to increase. Plus, on the other hand, there’s the urban sprawl which leaves no space to grow anymore. So what happens is companies come and collect the waste from in and around societies and dump it into the ocean illegally. That’s one of the reasons you see a lot of plastics entering the oceans.
Because it’s convenient to just throw it all in the water …
Yeah, and what happens in the ocean is that it disintegrates and they often enter into the food stream. So a lot of fish have found to be ingesting these small micro plastics because they eat it thinking its plankton.
Wait… don’t we eat fish? Or are we eating plastic fish..!
Yes! It’s been found through research that plastics are now present in fish in various parts of the world. So it’s beginning to get into the food stream. And if you’re vegetarian, it’s actually found in table salt as well!
What did you study and how did you get into this?
My background is in business and finance but I have been interested in environmental issues since I was a kid. When I was in my banking corporate job, I realised that there was a very big disconnect between the environmental issues in Asia today and what businesses were doing. I found that businesses were operating in some sort of a vacuum where they were not acknowledging a lot of the risks that are polluting the environment, and were simply disregarding it and carrying on with their business as usual. So both from a personal point of view and a business point of view, I felt that this would come back and bite them.
Coming from an Indian household, was your family supportive of you leaving banking and picking a non-traditional profession? Or was there resistance?
I come from an entrepreneurial family myself, and my dad and mom both work in the same company. My dad started the company almost 40 years ago, and it’s still going strong. So he understands the business, what it’s like and the ins and outs of running a company. A lot of his advice initially was about things to keep in mind, and ensuring I have enough finances and savings if I was going to quit my job. He also offered to put some money in the company and back me up for the first few months. And that ended up being quite helpful because, for the first one year or so, we struggled a lot financially! I think it’s very helpful when you come from that kind of a family which understands what it’s like to run a business. In general, my mom and dad have given us a lot of freedom to do whatever we wanted. They’ve never forced us to go in a specific direction.
So what would you say to parents who want their kids to go into traditional roles, instead of doing what they want or following their dreams?
I feel the world is changing around us pretty quickly, and the kind of traditional jobs that we thought were secure and stable are actually not so secure and stable anymore. If you look at typical professions like law or even medicine, there is technology that is completely disrupting the industries. For example, in our company, we hardly ever sit down face to face with our legal advisor. It’s all done through the internet and we just use legal templates. The firm that we work with, we’ve just met the people about twice, but we use the services 8 or 9 times a year. So if you think about it that way, there is no such thing as a secure or stable job. And the kind of jobs that are needed is what’s going to make the difference in this world. For example, we’ve seen people with degrees from MIT and Stanford, who are now running a little shed in the middle of a waste dump in Pune, trying to turn HDP (high-density polyethene plastic) into filament for 3D printing. They’re increasing the value of that plastic 20-30 times by using their engineering and technical skills, and thereby, helping to uplift thousands of people from poverty. I think there is a huge shift fundamentally in the way the world works and I think what’s needed is a very open mindset to embrace the opportunities and to give kids the full freedom to pursue them.
There are some people who believe that global warming is not an issue. So why should they be concerned?
I think it’s just a matter of time before many of the daily products that we consume get contaminated with all sorts of chemicals. Plastics are just one example, like what we discussed earlier about how plastics are getting into our food stream. There are lots of studies and research about intensive agriculture and the impact of that on human health. So, while we can put aside the news that we see every day, where it hits home is in the day to day activities; the food that we eat or our everyday health. And those are the kind of issues that when people face them, is when issues like global warming, climate change become a lot more personal.
What are the 3 things that an everyday person could start with to make the environment better?
One thing which is very easy and which you could do every day at home is waste segregation. Almost 5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from waste in landfills. For example, before you go out to buy your groceries, check your fridge before you go and make sure you’re not buying stuff which is already there. Then you don’t end up wasting it. Second, if you’re buying a lot of grocery items, make sure you’re carrying your own grocery bag. So you don’t throw away unnecessary plastic which you would only use for 5 minutes. If that plastic ends up in nature, it’s going to last for about 200-300 years. Imagine 5 minutes compared to 300 years! Lastly, food that we consume is another area. Although I’m a vegetarian, I don’t necessarily advocate for being a vegetarian. I think what I would advocate for is consuming less meat. In Netherlands, where they are big consumers of meat, they’ve made a recommendation nationwide that Wednesdays should be vegetarian days. They’re basically encouraging citizens across the country to be vegetarian one day a week.
Since we are doing this interview at the community garden, can you share where this idea came from?
Well, the idea of community gardens has been around in Singapore for quite some time and we are certainly not the first ones. A big part of us starting it was to get to know our neighbours a little better, because we felt that we were living such busy lives. And food is a great way to unite people – bring people together of different races, religions and backgrounds. The second reason was to learn how to grow the food that we eat everyday and to appreciate it. I think every member of the community contributes to the garden in some way or the other. Even though we may have helped put the initial seed in the ground, the only reason we were able to bring it up to here was because everyone played a part.
So can anyone come in and help out at the community garden? Is it open everyday?
So we do the community event every Saturday, where we invite neighbours, friends and family members to come and join us – like an open house. People get the chance to get their hands dirty without any prior knowledge of gardening. As for sharing the harvest, typically we distribute it to the neighbourhood and share the produce among those who have been active in the community garden. Even if some people are not able to come for the past few weeks because they’ve been very busy, we still try and see if we can distribute some of the produce to them. It works on a trust-system. There’s no such thing where if you spend 5 minutes, you only get x amount of the produce. Even if you look at the garden, we make sure that we keep the gates open, so really anyone can walk in anytime they want to.
Alright, some fun questions! Favourite Indian food?
Although my family is Tamil, I was born and brought up in Gujarat and my favourite has got to be the methi thepla. What I like about it is that it’s very versatile, and it can go with many different dishes – with yogurt, with achar and it can also last very long.
Given that Gujaratis make a lot of lovely sweet dishes, do you have a sweet tooth?
Yes, very much! I still find it very hard to eat any sort of sabzi (vegetable) without any gur (brown sugar) in it. I like my daal with some gur in it. Though, I think I’ve become a lot more conscious about the amount of sugar in my diet so that’s kind of reducing a little bit.
Any favourite Indian actors/actresses?
I’m not a guy that catches a lot of Indian movies, but I think what I look out for are stories that are inspiring. There are quite a few movies coming our lately which focus on the human aspect – where it’s not just about entertainment. Those are the kind of films and characters that I enjoy watching.
Any closing remarks or message to the readers?
Well, grow your own food – that’s the best way to get connected and it’s also very therapeutic. It gives you a whole new appreciation for food and the environment. Interested to know more about the circular economy and how to work with Gone Adventurin’? Check out their website at http://www.goneadventurin.com Interested to know more about community gardening and the Cactus Sunrise Community Farm? Check out their facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/cactussunrisefarm/