(Post : 2015/5/11, KISOK )
Meet Betty Lam, a.k.a. Green Mama, who dedicates her life to a zero-kitchen waste household, as well as myriad other initiatives in contribution to a sustainable future.
Text: Betty Lam/TC Li
Contrary to what she would describe herself, Betty Lam (Lai-shan) is no ordinary housewife. From maintaining a zero-kitchen waste household, initiating the manufacture of local organic tofu to becoming Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden’s Organic Farm Ambassador, founding Green Map Hong Kong, and promoting a cooperative culture that connects sellers and buyers directly, Betty has her hands full on the advocacy for a sustainable way of life.
- How and when did you start living in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner?
Now that I come to think of it, sustainability has always been a way of life since my childhood, thanks to the values my mother instilled in me. Growing up, we rarely dined out because my mother placed high emphasis on home-cooked meals for their nutritional value, we refrained from unnecessary consumption, and we were taught to repair whatever that’s broken or torn; I guess that’s how I became interested in cooking, sewing and general DIY. When I was working my nine-to-ten job I would host eco-friendly handicraft workshops for children too.
After I gave birth to my son, I started taking courses on nutrition and learnt of the unhealthiness of our daily diet. At the time when my children were around four to five years old, my elder sister told me about the organic vegetables she ordered from Mapopo Community Farm, which, incidentally, also organised a co-op to sell organic vegetables with Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden (KFBG). Unfortunately, the co-op was forced to close just as organic vegetables became an integral part of my life. So out of frustration, I started looking around for groups and individuals that could help provide organic food to the community, and was told by a staff at the community centre of Yan Oi Tong (one of the city’s leading charitable organisation) that they had a space for KFBG and Mapopo to continue their organic food market. That’s how I became a volunteer of the market and KFBG’s Organic Farm Ambassador.
As I learnt more about organic living, I also started reading books about organic household items that you can make by yourself, such as making cleaning detergents with camellia seeds powder or orange peel. A friend, Ophelia, of organic cosmetic brand Herbal Bliss, asked if I was interested in hosting talks on DIY, eco-friendly and organic skincare and cleaning products, and I thought, why not, if I can help other people live a healthier life?
When HK Green Co-op shuttered, it had quite a considerable amount of soybean to give away, which prompted me to wonder why didn’t Hong Kong grow its own organic food, why were we always having to import organic food from overseas? And then a friend working at Eat and Travel Weekly told me about the number of tofu factories and restaurants in Hong Kong, and I started visiting them to see if they were interested in producing organic tofu. I realised that most of the tofu-makers were elderly, and they needed someone younger and visionary to bring organic tofu to the mainstream consumer market in Hong Kong. Some friends and I then created an organic tofu pre-order scheme, which allowed consumers to redeem organic tofu with tickets they have bought in advance; we also encouraged customers to bring their own containers to save the need for plastic bags. From a healthy food store inside a wet market, we were able to expand this organic tofu co-op to various community centres, to which organic tofu was delivered from the manufacturer. Later, we also convinced the manufacturer into producing organic soy milk using cane sugar instead; the soy milk was also sold in the bottles or containers brought by the customers themselves.
- Why did you initiate the idea of Green Map Hong Kong?
Green Map Hong Kong is a platform that encourages and accepts voluntary input of services and facilities that help enable a green, organic and sustainable lifestyle, as well as enabling fair trading of products and goods directly between sellers and consumers.
Recently, I’ve helped sell the rice grown by a farmer, Brother Cheung, who grows rice in mainland China but can’t afford the rent of a retail space, and the consignment spaces he talked to all seemed to try to shortchange him. So I posted on Green Map’s Facebook group to let interested parties know that they could bulk-order from there.
By Ting Kok Road, near where I live, is often where people discard unwanted items. When I saw a toilet plus washing basin set that was meant to be disposed at the landfill, I asked the cleaning lady if she could let the toilet set sit for a bit longer while I asked around to see if anyone wanted it – all I had to do was to put up a post with a photo of the toilet set and specifications. The ‘problem’ with me is I find it difficult to throw things away.
- How did the idea of publishing a book on giving children a green and toxic-free home (給孩子一個綠色無毒家) come about?
When Crown Publishing approached me about a book idea on my DIY organic living tips, I thought it was a great idea as it saves all the hassle of organising workshops specifically for tips on making organic washing or cleaning detergents, for instance, and the workshops invariably involved so much preparation in advance, and were attended by just a few anyway; with the books, people interested in a green and organic lifestyle can get all the tips directly from the book. I’d still organise workshops, but only when time allows.
- And the CareLender? How did it come about?
In 2009, when I did a talk for Oxfam on fairtrade and green living, I met Clorie Ng, now a friend, who suggested collaborating on a daily calendar with tear-off tips on step-by-step sustainable living – we didn’t mean to preach or expect people to transform their lifestyle in an instant, we only wanted to help them achieve a more sustainable way of living by making small changes, one at a time. Together with graphic designer friend Benny Lau, the tips written by me, and the CareLender bound by recovering mentally ill patients, we were able to publish the calendars, and for more years to come, with the support of The Conservancy Association. By 2014, we decided to publish weekly tips instead of daily tips, and this year, I have convinced my team to produce the weekly tips based on Green Map’s content instead: where to go for discarded eggshells, used lemon slices and sawdust, for instance, and the green schools in Hong Kong.
- What are the guiding elements of sustainable living, in your opinion?
I’m fortunate to have been inspired by many great mentors, such as those I met while learning about and practising permaculture. The basics of sustainable living is care for the self, other people and the earth, as well as the fair sharing of knowledge, skills and resources.
- How do you get inspiration on your myriad ways of green and sustainable living, from composting to upcycling and making your own natural skincare products? How difficult is it to put sustainable living into practice in Hong Kong?
They come naturally, to be honest. All you need to do is to keep your eyes and mind open, and devise different ways to reuse things whenever you can. One of my proudest creations is a hanger that was made by combining the hook of a broken hanger, and another hanger without the hook. I also made sure to keep the head of a broken ceramic duck, and it came in handy when I later had to make a scarecrow – the duck head fit perfectly!
Living in a fast-paced modern city like Hong Kong, we need to understand that we simply can’t go back in time and live 100% organically, but we can make certain compromises. One of the realisations I gained from Dr Satish Kuma’s workshop in December last year is to focus on what I can do for the environment and community, and have high expectations on whether other people can do the same.
- How do you maintain a zero-waste household and instill your values in your children?
Our household is currently only zero-kitchen waste, not entirely zero-waste as some packaging materials and batteries just can’t be recycled. But we try to recycle paper, aluminium, inkjet cartridge, light bulb and the likes wherever possible; I’m trying to locate places that recycle Styrofoam.
Children are more susceptible to new ideas than adults are, so instilling my values to my children is relatively easy. My children would do things the way I do, and that gives them a robust foundation of knowledge to live sustainably. They have been told about and exposed to healthy eating since a young age, because most of the food I buy is healthy and organic. Although growing up they have learnt about McDonald’s and every now and then, they would want to have a bit of fast food with their friends, I believe the value of having a great time with friends is higher than the quality of food. I also believe that you can’t cut your children off from all unhealthy food once and for all, or else they would end up wanting even more. And as my children have shown, despite their exposure to fast food, the knowledge and sense they have developed for healthier food options means that even if they snack, they do it with moderation. Come adolescence my children may turn their back on the values I’ve instilled in them, but at least they have been educated on the differences between healthy and unhealthy food, so they would still prefer home-cooked meals over junk food.
- So you have joined Dr Satish Kumar’s five-day residential workshop ‘Free from Fear’ in December last year. How has that inspired you?
The workshop was a fascinating and inspirational experience to say the least! Basically, Dr Kumar combined Buddhist elements with environmental conservation, and placed emphasis on the actual, inner value rather than the superficiality of things. Take government policies, for example. Most of the time the effectiveness of policies are measured on statistical data, while little attention is paid to the actual intangible benefits of certain policies or initiatives, which is why it’s difficult to devise and implement policies that will truly benefit stakeholders and the community as a whole.
- What needs to be done, by the individual, community and government, to help create a sustainable future for Hong Kong?
At an agricultural symposium that explored the different ways to help revive the local farming industry, I suggested using grasslands and parks in residential areas to grow fruits. The idea is for the community to cooperate together to grow fruit tress within their neighbourhood, with clear guidelines on seedling and watering, and reap the fruits together. So it’s really greening public space while fostering rapport inside the community.
A sustainable lifestyle needs to start from oneself; don’t count on the government to make things happen! It is something that should be understood and practised from the heart: the belief itself needs to be sustainable too. It is also important for people who hold workshops on organic living to explain the rationale behind too: why do we need to live in a green, organic and sustainable manner for a better future? People need to be well-informed to spread the message and influence others accordingly.