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Trash as Small Solution to Poverty and Marginalisation

In just a blink of an eye, someone, somewhere in this world is buying a single-use plastic product and will dispose it afterward.

According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), around the world one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year.

‘While plastic has valuable uses, we have become addicted to single-use plastic products – with severe environmental consequences,’ writes the organization.

In an article dated February this year, it called on the world to be united in a war against plastic.

But single-use plastic wastes can be used as a solution to other problems. Just ask 38-year-old Sabahan, Gregory Tan who has been using this man’s number one trash to help the poor and marginalized. He particularly reaches out to help single mothers in need who are nursing a child. 

I had been curious about what got him to be doing what he does and during our first meeting for an interview, I posed the question right away. And his answer was not what I had expected.

“Once I saw a mother feeding her child with condensed milk,” he told me. “She said she could not afford to buy any milk formula.”

A tin of condensed milk costs about RM4. 

Being a father to a two-year-old daughter, Gregory could relate to the woman’s experience, knowing well that every parent wants to give the best to their children. But poverty prevents her from having that choice and being stateless makes her situation a lot worse and more complicated.

The chance meeting with her and learning about her difficult life inspired him to act.

Gregory is actually no stranger to charity work. 

When the government enforced the lockdowns for the first time about two years ago, he felt called to volunteer in helping to collect and deliver food items to members of the public in need. 

“I did it together with some friends. We passed the hat around among ourselves to raise the money we could afford to set up a food bank. We did this because we wanted to ensure no one would go hungry during the lockdown,” he said.

After realizing that some people who came for help actually were not in desperate need, he and his time decided to focus only on those who were considered very poor and marginalized.

That was when he started to reach out to people who were classified as stateless only to realise soon after that this was too big a group to lend their assistance to.

“At around this time I came across the woman who fed her toddler with condensed milk.”

“My daughter was still about a year old at the time and I thought how lucky she was. I could imagine how a mother, what more a single mother, would feel when being unable to feed her child with healthy food because of poverty,” said Gregory.

From then on, he focused on supporting single mothers in need as well as individuals who are marginalized and poor.

Gregory’s charity work in support of single mothers who are poor is contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals otherwise known as Agenda 2030 that emphasises on the principle of ‘leaving no one behind.’

According to UN Women, a global champion for women and girls, there are more than 100 million mothers globally who single-handedly raise their children. And many of them in their prime working years aged 25-54.

A smaller number of lone/single mothers are younger than 25 which translated into 3.8 million extremely vulnerable young women – 127,000 of whom are estimated to be under the age of 18 and living alone with their young children. Often these adolescent mothers face multiple and intersecting inequalities.

The entity further reports that these women whose reality and possible vulnerability, income and /or care needs are invisible to policymakers because they are not counted by official statistics.

As Gregory’s work to ensure that no one is left hungry attracted more funding support among friends, he ran into trouble with the taxmen. I thought it was unfair for he was doing something good to the society. 

But as the saying goes, the universe will bring the right people at the right time to make things come together so long one has pure intentions.

Not long after his ordeal, a lady approached him to rent his truck, apparently to collect single-use plastic trash for a social enterprise.

“I never thought that plastic trash could be a good fund raising activity. From that moment on, I stopped asking for donations and start collecting myself to raise money to help the single mothers,” he said.

Despite his busy daily schedule running his family and personal business, Gregory makes time to go around collecting plastic wastes, sells them and spends whatever profit he makes, no matter how small, to buy milk powder.

But doing this selfless work presents its own challenges.

“Some people have asked why I’m doing this at all. Some of them said why help the stateless people as the locals are in need too. I told them that I help any single mothers regardless their status. If they are not desperate, they wouldn’t come to me to ask for help.

“Besides, I don’t want to worry too much about people taking advantage on me. If I can help, I will help,” he said.

But he is aware that many have abused his kindness. “Some of them were very demanding. They told me that I must give them a certain milk powder brand because that’s what their child feeds on. I just ignore them. After all, I’m not a big charity organization. I’m alone. So, I’ll help however I can afford to help,” he said.

According to Gregory, his list of single mothers who need help has grown exponentially. “It’s now in the thousands,” he said.

It is a huge number considering that he could only help a small number of women at the time from his sale of single-use plastic wastes.

Sometimes, he has to top up from his own pocket when he is short of milk powder to donate. 

As we reached the end of the interview, I asked him if all is worth it.

“Doing all this gives me peace,” he answered.

I cannot agree more. While running a quick check on messages in my phone, I read stories shared in the chat groups about the Russian-Ukraine war, the pandemic and about greedy politicians being ridiculed by the people. 

It is a depressing world. But what people like Gregory does gives some hope for more peaceful world, only if people care for others selflessly.

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