The Zero Waste Ambassador
Meet the beautiful green warrior of Kuala Lumpur, an advocate and practitioner of sustainability. Melissa Tan is a model, TV host, an animal lover and more importantly, an ambassador of the zero waste lifestyle. In conjunction with Earth Day, we sit with Melissa to learn about her local environmental concerns and the simple steps of sustainability we can practise at home.
As a former financial analyst, I made my debut in the entertainment industry representing Malaysia on the reality TV show, Asia’s Next Top Model and more recently, The Apartment. Over the years, I’ve expanded my repertoire to wear many hats; as a TV host, producer, emcee, actress, and have since worked in Malaysia, Singapore and Jakarta. I use the skills that I’ve gained through my work and my following as a model to bring the environmental message to the mainstream. I’m a passionate eco-warrior advocating for sustainable living and zero-waste habits for everyone. As a personality, I believe in using my platform to encourage individuals to live more consciously and create change in their social circles and environment.
I write about zero-waste living and other areas of sustainability that are close to my heart on heymelissatan. com and my Instagram @melissatanlh. In this sphere, I’m also a speaker for topics like zero- waste living, the climate crisis, global plastic pollution and fast fashion industry in public talks, and have gone on to producing events that engage the public in sustainable living. Environment- related work though has come to the forefront in my focus. I’m happy to dedicate more hours to the cause that is closest to my heart.
I was always extremely passionate about the environment as a child and would would always do my best to recycle whatever I could. I connected my love for nature to my love for animals, the two intertwined. What affects the environment, affects countless animals. So growing up, I evolved with the knowledge and access to sustainable living that became available. I started paper recycling with the “old newspaper man”. When I became aware of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in my teens, I reduced my plastic use. When I learnt about the impacts of animal agriculture in my uni days, I stopped eating meat.
I continuously learned to be a more responsible steward of the environment and it felt like there was more that I could be doing. When I learnt about zero waste living, a whole new level of sustainability was unlocked for me. Now as an adult, I can intentionally use the way I live to make a positive impact to the world around me. The climate crisis is a global emergency, and every part of our life is connected to it. While we are part of the problem, we must also be part of the solution.
WHAT LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES ARE OF MOST CONCERN TO YOU?
I feel the loss of biodiversity is a very concerning issue for us locally. Malaysia is a country rich in biodiversity, but we have lost so much of it at such alarming rates and its irreplaceable. Mass extinction goes undiscovered, and often when it is discovered, it is too late. There aren’t enough hands on deck; conservationists, academics are fighting an uphill battle against capitalism.
The destruction of our rainforests have been going on for decades, and we need to do more to conserve our natural heritage. We can vote for more affirmative action on conservation, we can vote to put people in power who have the environment’s best interests in heart. But the reality is, that takes time. On an individual level, we can introduce biodiversity into our urban areas, by planting more native plants to support local flora and fauna. There is a wealth of information ready for any Malaysians through the Free Tree Society, Kebun Kebun Bangsar, and The Rimba Project connected to Rimba Ilmu and the local permaculture gardens that can teach you how to be able to use your living space, whether it’s a condo or landed house, to be able to foster life in the natural world in our urban areas.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES OR CHALLENGES FACED IN THIS ARENA?
For biodiversity, I would say we need affirmative action by the government to protect our natural resources. The most recent issues brought to public knowledge through active petitions generated fierce support amongst the public; i.e. the clearing of the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve for development and the destruction of the Rainforest Tree Nursery (the largest living gene bank of rainforest trees in Asia) in Tanjung Malim. The greater good of the environment and the people (especially Orang Asli who will be most directly impacted by this) to be prioritised over short term economic gains of a few. As for the global plastic pollution problem, through collaborations from my advocacy locally, I’m learning how complicated an issue this is. So many different moving parts, the multitude of gaps throughout the chain, and the different stakeholders that need to move towards the same direction to solve plastic pollution. Collaboration is key here, but we need affirmative action to drive the thing forward as a whole.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES IN MALAYSIA? IS IT THE LACK OF AWARENESS? COMMERCIAL NEEDS OVER NATURE?
People often associate it with lack of awareness, but I would say it is not connecting awareness to action. First, the lines between our actions and consequences may not be immediately obvious. People know the impact of climate crisis is real, but don’t immediately associate it with the everyday things they do. And when the dots do connect, often there is a lack of follow through.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE EASIEST SUSTAINABLE PRACTISES PEOPLE CAN IMPLEMENT?
The easiest is to Refuse — refuse single use plastic, switch to reusables. We must also Reduce buying ‘stuff’ – fast fashion, random things from the RM5 shop, or things that catch our excitement for a moment. They become material for the landfill soon enough. Buy things you really need and more often than not, it can be sourced secondhand or free. It’s great for your wallet, and the Earth.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST PART IN IMPLEMENTING A ZERO WASTE LIFESTYLE?
The biggest challenge for me in implementing a zero waste lifestyle is my own feelings about the world. It’s also my tenacity and determination about reducing the world’s carbon footprint is what I have to slow down. I need to learn to be more patient with people, business and be there for them so that we can grow together, in tandem. Funnily enough, implementation wasn’t a challenge for me.
THE ZERO WASTE MOVEMENT IS GAINING MORE PROMINENCE. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BRANDS THAT HAVE CHANGED IN THEIR PRACTISES TO A SUSTAINABLE ONE?
I don’t want to name any names. A lot of brands have already changed to a more sustainable practise, but its matter of the degree of implementation. Malaysia is seeing more B corporation and that gives better options to consumers so that they can choose brands that works tirelessly on sustainability. It also sets the standard for local brands to emulate.
MELISSA, YOU ARE A MODEL AND TV HOST. SOME OF THE MAKEUP AND GARMENTS AREN’T EXACTLY ZERO-WASTE FRIENDLY. HOW DO YOU OVERCOME THIS BEING A ZERO WASTE ADVOCATE?
I don’t really believe in asking everyone to follow my way and my rules – first of all that will alienate people, and I will jeopardise my own rice bowl. I believe in building bridges. So, while makeup and garments used on jobs may not be zero waste friendly, I stick to my own principles and choose the products I use personally. I can encourage better practices and introduce them to better solutions because I’m part of their community. It can’t be a “Us vs. Them”. It has to be a conversation so that we can all move towards more sustainable practices.
YOU HAVE WORKED TOGETHER IN PROMOTING THE ZERO WASTE MOVEMENT. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MILESTONES THUS FAR?
I started sharing on social media (@melissatanlh) and starting my blog (https://heymelissatan.com/) two years ago about my zero waste journey and all the tips on practicing sustainable living. It always strikes a chord with me when someone reaches out to me and lets me know that they were inspired by my posts to begin their own zero waste journey, or to try it out and practice it themselves. Since then, I’ve been very lucky to to collaborate with many other passionate local environmental organisations from Greenpeace, WWF, Zero Waste Malaysia, Tak Nak Straw, and many others. I also produced The Conscious Market last year with the goal of developing a generation of conscious consumers to a new audience. I also host clothes swaps and I’ve been thrilled to see a wider audience responding well to it. The Green Guerrilla and I (@ thegreenguerilla.asia) have had the opportunity to contribute as consultants to solve plastic pollution with UN Environment and MESTECC with various other stakeholders and this is an ongoing project for the next couple of years.
WHAT IS YOUR CAREER PLAN FOR THE FUTURE? DO YOU PLAN TO GET BACK INTO MODELLING?
I love what I do and will continue to pursue my personal goals in the entertainment industry. Modelling was my creative outlet-turned-career, and it has opened many doors. I’ve since gone down other paths (like hosting and producing, emceeing, acting, brand collaborations, and film making), and I’ve really enjoyed all those learning curves. So although modelling may not be my main focus again, it will still remain a creative outlet I can occasionally enjoy.
I believe there’s a lot more we can do in educating Malaysians to live more sustainably. I’m looking to initiate more sustainable projects and more speaking opportunities, and continue to develop more community events and collaborations until a greener Malaysia is realised. My overall goal is to play a role in the movement towards a more sustainable world – whether it’s speaking to individuals and communities, or working with businesses and being a part of the conversation with policymakers.
IN LIGHT OF EARTH DAY, WHAT MESSAGE WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONVEY TO OUR READERS?
Let it not stop at Earth Day; I would really like to encourage everyone to look beyond slogans and celebration and to really put heart into sustainable living. When you think about all the people that are being affected by climate change and all the animals that we’re losing because we’re ignoring the issue, there needs to be action. Your impact as an individual can stretch further than you think you can. If you were to start practising more mindful living, it will have a ripple effect. You can be the voice of change and the executor of change. It starts with you.
Words by Hiranmayii Awli Mohanan
Photographer: Barathan Amuthan@FramesbyBarathanAmuthan
Hairstylist: Derek Tan@Anagen_Hairstudio
Venue: Perdana Botanical Garden