by Cheryl Leong on

“You make me feel so bad, leh” is a common refrain that a good friend of mine gets from some of her colleagues whenever she whips out her KeepCup, a popular brand of reusable coffee cups, during a coffee run.

Unlike her, most of them do not tote around a KeepCup (or any to-go item that promotes sustainable living). And because of that, they inadvertently feel judged for their wasteful ways – even though my friend insists that she has never once raised a judgmental eyebrow, or tsk-tsked anyone over their use of takeaway cups.

“I don’t know why they feel like I’m personally attacking them for not doing their bit for the environment. Sure, I do think that it’s not great for the planet, but I’ve never imposed my thinking on them, and I also respect that it’s their right to choose convenience as well.

“But when they say things like that, it makes me feel bad for ‘making’ them feel bad – which is not my intention at all! ” she said, with a hint of frustration.

She continued to share other bumps on her road to a greener life, such as: Being called “troublesome” by fruit stall aunties who harrumph at having to take extra seconds to wrap her sliced fruits in an eco-friendly food wrap, and having to contend with fast food staff who refuse her requests to pour her drinks into her trusty KeepCup, citing company policies.

But instead of letting naysayers put a damper on her eco efforts, she remains unfazed in her personal Bring Your Own (BYO) movement. Aside from the KeepCup, my friend’s zero-waste arsenal also includes reusable cutlery, non single-use plastic containers, and her favourite food wrap – a thick fabric square with waterproof backing, printed all over with cheerful cartoon alpacas.

When we met last week for dinner and couldn’t finish our chicken wings, I was about to wave a server over to get them packed in takeaway plastic containers when she stopped me. Out came her handy food wrap, instead. Friend: 1, Plastics: 0.

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Of course, her zero-waste ways aren’t just limited to on-the-go tools. She uses bar soaps to reduce plastic waste from bottled shower gels, and has also switched to reusable sanitary pads. More recently, she and her partner have also opted to stop ordering in, she said.

“Do you know how much trash we’re throwing out, just by ordering meals for two pax? The last time I ordered in and saw the amount of plastic containers and paper packaging used, it hit me that that’s more thrash I’m throwing out in one go than in a week, normally!”

Horrified by her observation, and impressed by the level of commitment to her cause in spite of its challenges, I resolved to try and be more environmentally conscious from that day on.

But one other thing that our conversation ignited in me was curiosity, especially about the not-so-positive reactions she continually receives about her arguably divisive lifestyle. It made me wonder why certain ways of living, or causes, seem to invite more than its fair share of scrutiny, dislike, and mockery from others.

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Take the Hamster Society of Singapore (HSS), for instance. When news of their existence was first reported, public reaction ranged from indifference to dismissive scoffs of the ‘Hamsters also need a society, meh?’ variety.

Newly-minted in March this year, HSS’ mission is to “speak out for one of our country’s most vulnerable pets”. In the last three months alone, the team has already been called in to handle over 100 hamster abuse cases.

Clearly, it would appear that the society, dedicated to filling a gap where the welfare of these adorable fluffballs have long been neglected and disregarded, is a much-needed one. Yet, in the short time that it’s been active, HSS has met with a steady stream of ridicule.

A quick scan on social media revealed a fair number of laugh-until-cry emojis, as well as derisive comments like: “We need an Ants Society to counter the abuse of ants, too. I just killed about 15 of them at the balcony!”

While I understand that we can’t possibly create welfare societies for every single creature on earth – a point he seems to be alluding to as well – I draw the line at making light of a cause that’s progressing the rights of animals, both big and small.

Hamster abuse may not be as visible or publicised as the mistreatment of cats and dogs, but they are far from uncommon – to count 100 cases in just three months is worrying, to say the least.

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In an interview with The Straits Times, HSS president Cheryl Capelli, 25, shared some of the most dire cases the society has had to respond to.

One resident in Tampines had threatened to dump his three hamsters down the rubbish chute if HSS did not take them on that very day. In another case, the team came upon a heartbreaking scene when they answered a call in Sengkang: 11 abandoned hamsters – one already dead and trampled upon, another with a crooked leg and missing a front paw, and the rest scurrying about desperately in search of shelter.

Still think hamsters don’t deserve champions for their welfare?

Luckily, Capelli, together with her 20-strong team of volunteers, is determined to make a difference and put an end to hamster abuse.

“HSS is a project born out of love to benefit these small animals. We change as many lives as we can take on, and we are educating a new generation of first-time hamster owners on proper care,” she added.

Advocating for the minority equivalent of the animal kingdom? Respect.

And on the topic of minority, there’s no other diet group more hated than vegans. But if you ask another friend of mine, who’s just converted to a flexitarian diet, he would beg to differ.

Flexitarianism encourages the consumption of more plant-based foods, while taking meat in moderation. It is more flexible (hence, the name) and doesn’t have any clear-cut rules. But because of that, some people get the idea that flexitarians are a bit of a sell-out.

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“Some of my friends would say things like: ‘So can still eat meat whenever you like? Then what’s the point? It’s still enjoying the best of both worlds.’ They may be joking, but there’s an element of judgment for only going somewhat meat-free; they seem to think I’m hypocritical for not picking a side,” he sighed.

He would then have to justify his decision at length, explaining his desire to transition more healthily to a vegetarian and, later, vegan diet over time.

On the flip side, he also noted how people often feel uncomfortable or guilty whenever he talks about his diet plans.

“They assume that I’m condemning them for eating meat, but the thought has never crossed my mind – I don’t expect you to adopt my values or habits just because I’m doing it. And I’m certainly not advocating for my cause; it’s just a personal choice,” he emphasised.

From there, he learnt that if others want to have a conversation about a prickly topic like dietary lifestyles, it helps to focus less on the moralising stop-animal-cruelty route, and more on the health benefits of eating green. “That way,” he added, “I don’t come across as a zealous activist, and they’re also more open and respectful of my decisions.”

It’s a sentiment my eco-warrior friend from earlier shares, adding that it doesn’t have to be a conversation-killer when you engage with those who don’t share the same passion for your cause.

“Some aunties I meet at the hawker centre are genuinely fascinated with my takeaway kit, like my food wrap, for example. They’ll ask me how to use it, if it’s useful, and whether I find it leh chey (troublesome) to bring all my reusables out.

“It’s nice to see people so interested, and I’ve had some good conversations about going green. Just imagine if more of us start having casual chats like that, we might actually be encouraging change without disrespecting anyone or making them feel judged!”

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So, by all means, continue to enjoy your favourite meat burger, use plastic straws, or volunteer at elderly homes because animal welfare isn’t your cause. You aren’t expected to be passionate about every movement in the world – only the ones that matter to you.

But respect goes both ways – so, the next time your eco colleague lugs his zero-waste barang out for lunch, or your sister decides to launch her own Love Goldfish Society, don’t disparage the passion they have for their causes, and don’t make them feel bad just because you aren’t on board.

You do you, and let them do them.