It All Started with a Toilet Roll: One Student’s Environmental Efforts

Writer LIANG YING spoke to LAURA LEE, the founder and speaker behind Toilet Roll Singapore (Toilet Roll SG). Currently in junior college, Laura’s sharp insight and relentless pursuit of what she believes in is so admirable and valuable – we’d love to share it with all of you.

Change is anything but a constant, and climate change is a force we should be aware of. 

In recent years, the world has witnessed the horrors of climate change, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping. Catastrophic news of the wildfires in Australia, Sweden’s highest peak losing its crown, and flooding in Indonesia just underscore the deadly impacts of our climate’s crisis, pressing the need for change immediately. Singapore has come up with moves to combat climate change such as increasing its use of solar energy to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Not only that, 2019 has seen it’s first Climate Change Rally at Hong Lim Park with a whopping attendance of more than 1700 people. Activist and environmentalist groups are also sprouting up, calling for zero waste and recycling efforts to help our planet. One such sprout is youth environmentalist Laura Lee, founder of nationwide initiative ToiletRollSG, and she is ready to do whatever she can to make a change, starting with the smallest, and probably what most of us perceive as insignificant: toilet rolls.

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A picture with Ms Low Yen Ling

Before launching the initiative, the then sixteen-year-old already began pushing for environmental change by kick-starting and spearheading ZeroWasteNanyang in her Secondary School Nanyang Girls’ High, and the success of the project motivated her to reach out to an audience other than just the school population. With an ambitious and zealous heart, Laura eyed for the nation as she came up with the idea to start a recycling drive for toilet paper rolls – which she collected as a child – and thus sowed the seed for change to what we know as it is today: her very own recycling initiative, ToiletRollSG.

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At this point I have a burning question: why toilet rolls in particular? In an insightful and knowledgeable manner, she launches enthusiastically into an extremely detailed explanation:

“Toilet rolls are one of the purest forms of waste you can find, because they are made of one material – cardboard, making them a good candidate for recycling. However, the misconception that many have is that all toilet rolls will be recycled upon being thrown into the blue recycling bins. The harsh truth is that toilet rolls are so easily contaminated, that most end up being burnt in the incinerator. What’s more, this form of waste is being generated unknowingly on a daily basis.”

Without a doubt, it was the alarming generation of toilet roll waste and the lack of attention given that spurred her to take action. “More so, I wanted to prove the idea of turning trash into treasure in the circular economy, such that even the most despised form of trash generated in the toilet can be turned into more valuable products, such as envelopes or notebooks,” she adds. Already I am awed by her creativity to tackle recycling via such a unique way, putting a potential, and often overlooked candidate into good use.

The beginning of it all was an arduous one. On a personal level, her peers expressed skepticism, but also shock at her ambition. Getting the entire family to start recycling was difficult as well – everyone led their own lives, and it was challenging to convince them to translate thought into action. However, after a few days, her family readily adapted to recycling toilet paper rolls, and were more conscious of their choices, such as rejecting plastic bags and straws whenever they could.

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Receiving the Green Living Awards (Silver) from Dr Teo Ho Pin by the National Environment Agency NEA

 “Fortunately, my parents were very supportive of whatever I did. They tell me that as long as I was doing something that can serve the greater community and did not give up along the way, they would give me their utmost support,” Laura grins.

But this was incompatible with the formidable challenge that loomed over her. Since recycling or environmentalism tend to be rather unpopular topics in Singapore, Laura had to step up her game to spark the interests of the masses in face of the skepticism she’s received. This was especially so when she had to work with and speak to adults for advocacy. “The greatest challenge I say would be convincing adults to listen to what I have to say as a youth, because it cannot be denied that I have yet to step into the workforce and some adults might feel that youths lack the maturity and the right to advocate for important issues,” Laura shares. “This is especially so when I needed to approach organisations for recycling or simply to give a speech.”

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Giving a speech at PlasticLessJuly event

As a youth without solid credentials, Laura found herself lacking a more supportive environment for her initiative, and it was a hard battle for her to convince the adults that her story was worthy of listening. This meant that the twenty over emails she’s put her heart to write to schools and recycling companies were probably skimmed through before being dumped into the trash bin. And even after gaining the recognition from a recycling company, Laura’s war was far from over: VEOLIA, Singapore’s largest recycling company, gave a grim reply stating that she had to collect a minimum of 1 tonne (around 150,000 rolls!) of toilet rolls, an intimidating task she had to get by.

“At that time, this seemed to be an unattainable goal to me, and many, including my closest peers and teachers expressed their skepticism. I think it was also because I was embarking on my Secondary 4 journey, and the ‘fear of failure and taking risks’ during such an important academic year was something they did not concur with,” she reflects. 

But through it all, Laura refused to give up, gritting her teeth and stepping out of her comfort zone to advocate for what she believed in, channeling the setbacks she’s faced into fuel for her passion. “Whenever I give my speeches, the first reaction I receive from my audience is definitely a bout of laughter. But I treat it as a compliment, rather than a form of  humiliation, because it means it is likely they will remember me even when I get off the stage,” she says.

“Ironically, it was the very challenges along the way that spurred me to continue, because I didn’t want to let myself and the people around me down. There were many people who were rooting for me, and giving up did not seem like an option then.

“I was brought up with the mindset and quote from Steve Jobs – the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. But my parents add on another dimension to this – you can think big, but never forget to stay grounded and down-to-earth, start small and be humble and kind.”

And in a stunning and victorious way, in four months her passion and drive indeed reaped what she sowed: Laura managed to not only influence her friends and family, but extend it to the international audience, even gaining recognition as the “toilet roll girl” on the streets! The youth has since attended multiple events, giving speeches along the way and spreading message on her cause. Opportunity arrived at the most unexpected moments and she never failed to seize it. For instance, she was given the opportunity to present her project to Ms Low Yen Ling, provided with the chance to explore the International K Trade Fair in Düsseldorf, Germany last year! 

With regard to this, Laura shares a deeply inspiring message: “I truly learnt that sometimes, there are no returns, but when there are, they come at the most unexpected times. So I tell myself, regardless of the consequences, just do your best. Cause if it’s not the ‘thing’, it’ll be the thing that leads to the ‘thing’.”

Follow Toilet Roll SG on Instagram

What she says definitely resonates with us – the pursuit of a cause if often an exhausting one. On our way it’s easy to forget the passion once we’re overwhelmed by the failures and rejection, and the idea of giving up is most tempting. Yet in the darkest of times, it is crucial for one to remember the very spark that ignited the flame for our cause, for that is when we can shine brighter than before.

We end the interview with a question: what’s a message you hope that Singaporeans can take home on doing our part against climate change, and just taking care of our earth, really?

Laura’s reply is simple, but deep with meaning. “Nothing is too insignificant – even a toilet roll can go a long way. You might be a student, but it doesn’t matter much.”

As we end, I am filled with pride at the youths today who are playing their part and initiating a change. The quote “age is just a number” is proven as we witness youths in their capacity rising to their chances. It is motivating to see youths rising to their chances and fighting for it. Their readiness and determination blows my mind away as it proves we are so much more capable than we give ourselves credit for.

Support Laura by checking out ToiletRollSg on Instagram!


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