Malaysia is incredibly versatile – which was one of the reasons for me to come back here for travel during my internship in Singapore. However, I already wrote this article in June when I was travelling in Malaysia and Thailand for five months on my route from Bangkok to Singapore. Malaysia has surprisingly much to offer, not only in terms of travel, but also in terms of zero waste.
To experience how easy sustainable travelling & living is in Malaysia, read the following paragraphs. I will also highlight some differences to Thailand as I have been there last year.
This article refers to that part of Malaysia which is on the mainland – maybe there are some more peculiarities in eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo.
Zero Waste in Malaysia
Food & drink
Eating and drinking Zero Waste in Malaysia is not complicated. There are many restaurants where you can sit down and eat. As in Thailand, food is often served on reusable plastic plates.
However, I enjoyed eating at markets even more because of the greater choice and flair. As I was in Malaysia during the fasting month of Ramadan, I often visited the Ramadan markets, which are set up every evening before the breaking of the fast. Every city offers different local specialties: In Kuala Terengganu, for example, there was mild Jackfruit Curry and a really delicious Roti Tempayam, baked in the oven. Throughout the year, you will find various night markets and street food stalls with all kinds of goodies in many cities.
As in Thailand, even hot food is simply filled into plastic bags, which in my opinion is also a health hazard. I was especially shocked by the fact that some stalls pack normal plates into plastic bags and put the food on them for example in Penang. Probably in order to save washing up. At such a stall I ask for a normal plate, bring my own or go straight to another stand or restaurant. Without waste everything looks much nicer and you help to avoid situations like this one down here.
If you also go to a food market, always remember the 6 Zero Waste Utensils for eating & drinking on the go. A snack box, fork/knife/spoon or chopsticks, cloth napkin and a reusable to-go cup don’t take up much space and save a lot of waste. It is nowhere a problem to buy food & drink without waste. People often find it interesting or amusing. You can explain that you eat without disposable items for the environment (malay: alam sekitar). Since many people speak English very well, I could tell them more about Zero Waste. Many reacted with understanding and openness when I revealed the background of my plastic bag refusal.
This way we can simply create more awareness of the problem, which is very important in South East Asia! Zero here is not as popular as in Europe yet – but our community is growing here, too!
Speaking of awareness: Many cities in Malaysia are already launching „Go-Green“ initiatives and are also trying to promote waste separation. In Kuala Terengganu, for example, there was a waste station in the park for separate disposal of plastics, paper and metal. Unfortunately, however, most of the cities still do not collect and recycle their waste appropriately. Therefore, Zero Waste is even more crucial.
I have not seen Zero Waste Stores during my trip last May and June, only recently I visited a Zero Waste store in Malaysia (see below). If you do your own shopping, you can stock up on fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and fresh coconut milk at the market just like in Thailand. My hot tip for all dry goods and spices are Indian shops. Here you will find a large selection of rice, lentils, nuts and curry powder as well as many other exotic spices at very low prices. You can fill everything into your own container. It’s actually a pity that 99% of the people there still pack their purchases in plastic bags there!
These are unfortunately very popular, as in Thailand, and so you have to quickly refuse the plastic bag when shopping (no plastic bag, please!)
A few days ago in Malaysia I also visited „The Hive“ a Zero Waste Store in Kuala Lumpur. The selection of goods there is big and good: I bought dental floss, cashew nuts, coconut flour, chickpeas, vinegar and conditioner there. You can also find various oils and vinegars, seeds, lentils, rice and body care products and cleaners. The price level here is quite high compared to Indian shops – but at least there are some organic products to buy. Unfortunately the things often had long transportation routes – like the rice flour from the USA, which I left on the shelf for this reason.
As in Thailand, I had great concerns about drinking water before my trip to Malaysia. These turned out to be unnecessary. At least half of the guesthouses and hotels where I stayed have drinking water dispensers. Otherwise you can find drinking water dispensers outside. Just use 20 or 50 Sen to fill up your water bottle! Also mosques often have drinking water dispensers, where I was allowed to fill up my bottle for free when I visited them.
Photo: The vending machines look different here, but like in Thailand you can get clean water here for little money, which you can drink without hesitation. „Coways“ are also often used in private households for water purification.
Malaysia is one of the largest palm oil producers in the world. When I was driving with my friends through the country, I often saw oil palm hills as far as the eye could see. For these plantations a lot of rainforest was cut down. The oilpalm is from an ecological standpoint of view completely worthless. As a result, palm oil has already been a subject of intense media attention and emotional charge in Europe. In my opinion, no new plantations should be created to stop the destruction of the rainforest! This is important not only to preserve animal species such as tigers and orangutans in the region, but also to counteract climate change.
The use of palm oil is not only widespread in the cuisine of Malaysia. It is also used in detergents, personal care products, as an additive to petrol and as animal feed worldwide. To minimise my palm oil use, I bring my own personal care products as mentioned above and leave any sample products in hotels untouched. In addition, I avoid deep-fried food and ask the cook to use very little or no oil when preparing fresh food. Avoid convenience or ready-made products, especially pastries and sweets in any country you go to.
By eating more vegetarian and vegan food you can make an effective contribution to a reduction of the demand for palm oil not only when travelling but also in Europe. It is also valuable for the overall ecological footprint to reduce your own consumption of animal products. Also make sure that personal care products are palm oil-free! This is not always so easy, because palm oil is hidden under many different names in these products. Look carefully and, if in doubt, research on the Internet to see if any of the product’s ingredients are made from palm oil. Often, it hides behind expressions such as Stearyl, Capric Triglyceride or Cetearyl Alcohol.
When I crossed the border late in the afternoon and took the train to Butterworth, it not only left on time, but arrived on time too. It was also as clean and modern as a normal train in Switzerland! However, this train is only available on the west coast, from Kota Bharu to Singapore I mainly travelled by coach. These were also safe and modernly equipped throughout, sometimes just used way too much aircon. It was surprising for me that also cities have a bus system that works well and is understandable for foreigners. So, the public transport is better developed than in Thailand.
However, almost every city has an airport and not only tourists often use domestic flights to get from A to B one hour faster. Prefer Bus & Train, this is one of the easiest and most effective ways to travel more sustainably!
Coertified organic farming
The awareness of the importance of organic farming is rather low here: During my travels I found only few shops selling products with organic labels. From time to time I saw a few „Green/Eco Stores“ along the road, which were mostly closed during the month of fasting due to my travel time. Also on the market, there are no seals which inform about the cultivation. Nevertheless I hope that sooner or later more organic products will end up on the shelves in Malaysia. Until then, unfortunately, as a tourist you can’t do more than ask and prefer regional products from smaller producers when buying.
Vegetarian & vegan
It is not difficult to eat vegetarian food in Malaysia. With „Saya tidak makan daging/Saya tidak makan ikan“ you can declare that you only eat vegetarian. Daging stands for meat and ikan for fish. Ideally you should say both sentences or explain in English that you would like to eat vegetarian or vegan.
So you can always find something to eat at markets or restaurants. But it depends on how strict you take it. My own experience was that some dishes contained traces of fish sauce or small salted fish. By asking exactly, preferably in English, this can be minimized but not completely excluded. Be careful with tofu, which is often offered on skewers. The round balls or sticks are usually mixed with fish. Here you should definitely ask.
But don’t let this spoil your dinner in Malaysia! If you do your best, ask for it and take advantage of the large offer, you can easily eat 95% vegetarian/vegan food. Fortunately, Malaysia hardly uses any dairy products except for sweets. Also, you can easily cancel eggs if you order freshly fried noodle dishes for example.
There are also Chinese buffet restaurants in most cities that serve purely vegetarian or vegan food. You pick food at a buffet and then pay. I had the feeling that the prices are often a little bit arbitrary – I recommend to ask for each dish in advance how much it costs. Those food stalls sell many mock-meat dishes that are prepared with tofu and oftenly too much fat and flavor enhancers. Not everyone likes this style of cooking. Anyway, I already tasted some delicious dishes in these restaurants. Unlike the Malay 24-hour restaurants, you can be sure that these Chinese Vegetarian restaurants are completely plant-based. Nevertheless I also liked to go to the „Mamas“ – the name of the 24-hours buffet restaurants you can find everywhere also in rural towns in Malaysia.Embed from Getty Images
Photo: A vegetarian Thali – always delicious!
Moreover, I can truly recommend Indian-vegetarian restaurants! The food is really tasty, there are usually vegan options and you’re full afterwards. Some kinds of foods might seem spice for a European – just ask beforehand if you are unsure.
At the Pasar malam (night market) you can get everything: shirts from Gucci, Louis V and Lacoste hang in a row together with small bottles of various fake noble perfumes. There are also many fake bags.
My tip here: Before you buy, think if you really need this product and if you would buy it tooif it was more expensive. Often, cheap prices make it too easy to be tempted to buy a piece of clothing or a cheap perfume, which then simply ends up at the waste disposal only a few months later.
Personal care products, cosmetics & sun cream
There are many beautiful beaches in Malaysia, especially on islands on the east coast. For this reason I tell you about a rather unknown problem: Sunscreen. It is washed off in sea water and damages the coral reefs. To avoid this, I use textile sun protection as far as possible e.g. T-shirt or wetsuit for snorkeling and use sun cream only on my face and neck. I also use organic (unfortunately not zero waste) sunscreen. You should take it with you from home – as well as other cosmetics and body care products. Except for Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, it is hard to buy organic, zero waste and palm oil free cosmetic and bodycare products in Malaysia.
I experienced Malaysia as an incredibly diverse country with helpful, open-minded and warm people. Living Zero Waste here is not more difficult than in Thailand.Both countries also present you with similar challenges in terms of sustainability. Environmental awareness amongst people here is not as pronounced as in Europe. However, I am sure that this will develop even more in the coming years starting from the capital and from young people.
I am convinced that Thailand and Malaysia will follow a path towards more sustainability and less waste in order to preserve the attractiveness of their country for future generations & tourism.