Conversations with Dr Nanthinee

By Kelvin Sng

Dr Nanthinee is the Director of EARTHYS Sustainability, and is currently developing solutions that support the formation of a circular economy. In this article, she shares about her work in the sustainability industry and advice for youths at their educational crossroads. She also reveals her opinions towards climate change, carbon neutrality and the Green Plan 2030.

My day usually starts off with emails and meetings. After clearing up and sending out some emails, I usually attend my meetings, each time with different people. It can be a potential client or simply a person interested to know about sustainability in different organisations. Of course, I also have internal team meetings where we correspond to see how the projects are coming along. 

I usually spend the second half of the day on my own work, such as writing reports. I also oversee the progress of different projects. There are not too much in-person interactions going on right now because of COVID. 

Currently, we are also working on a project with NUS High School. Through engaging with the students in the school, we hope to find out more about how youths view sustainability and react to it. It is interesting to learn more about how youths today think when it comes to practising sustainability.

Work-life balance is a choice. While employees are often given a job scope to focus on, a Director or Founder has to look at different aspects of running a business, and it can be quite a lot of work. Nonetheless, work-life balance is a choice. Personally, I always make an effort to set aside time for myself and my family, especially when I feel exhausted or unproductive. It can be difficult, but I think it is still possible to squeeze in some time to do things that I enjoy as long as I plan my day well.

Since I was young, I have always loved the environment. It started off with animals, such as dogs and cats, and it gradually expanded to include the wider environment itself. Sustainability was not really a thing when I was in secondary school or high school though. I remembered the topic only started to gain more attention when I went into university. Back then, I used to watch a lot of news reports and documentaries on the environment. Learning about what is happening to the natural environment resonated very deeply with me. It also bothered me quite a lot. 

For my career, I was sure that I wanted to do something meaningful and enjoyable in my work; I must wake up every day excited and happy about it. As a result, venturing into the sustainability and environmental field was a very natural move for me. Although there are definitely setbacks along the way, I am still happy to be doing this job and contributing to something meaningful to the environment.

One thing that I am really happy about and think is important is that sustainability is going to be driven by the public sector. In my experience working with clients, a lot of them want to know what the government’s stand on environmental issues and sustainability is, whenever we try to encourage their businesses to go green. Is building a sustainable business mandatory, is it a requirement, or is it just a plus factor? In Singapore, businesses tend to look to the government and the public sector for guidance and direction. As a result, I am really heartened to see that more emphasis on environmental issues and sustainability has been placed through this plan.

Beyond the plan, I believe that human activities are the primary driving forces of climate change. While there was some mention of green citizenry in the Green Plan, I think more emphasis can be put on the people. We can address infrastructure, transportation and financing, but these efforts would be futile if people are not supportive of these ideas. Hence, I think the greater challenge we face here is learning how to convince and influence people to care about environmental issues. Nonetheless, I am optimistic that we can find a way around this problem in the future as long as we make a conscientious effort to.

To add on to the previous point, I think education is an important channel to inculcate sustainability mindsets amongst Singaporeans. While there are currently programmes about sustainability taught in primary and secondary schools, I think more can be implemented in tertiary institutions. By building the concept of sustainability into the syllabus, regardless of what the students specialise in, students will automatically bring along this knowledge when they enter the workforce and will be better equipped with skills to identify and address the environmental issues we face today. In the long term, this will allow the concept of sustainability to be built into their way of life. This is something that we need to look into. 

Carbon neutrality comes down to how it is actually calculated. While it is possible to achieve carbon neutrality when the right metrics and scope for analysis is used, it is, in reality, extremely difficult for any country to become carbon neutral, in the truest sense of the word. If you look at your laptops, tablets and all the electronic items, the minerals and metals that are used to manufacture the phones contain a huge carbon footprint. So if you are to calculate everything consumed, it would be substantial.

We really need to focus on behavioural change. A very good example of this in Singapore was the haze. When the haze situation worsened our air quality a few years back, people stood up against deforestation and became more conscious of using paper products that are responsibly produced. This shows how the haze incident was able to drive change from the consumer end, and in turn bring about a positive impact on the environment. While it is important to work with businesses and organisations to promote sustainability, I feel that addressing consumer behaviour is a much more direct approach to tackling the issue. For instance, encouraging consumers to use products made from sustainable methods can possibly lead to an increase in demand for green products, which can in turn encourage businesses to go green in order to maintain profits. Nonetheless, changing consumers’ behaviour and mindset does not occur overnight, and it is something that we have to continuously work on. 

One interesting project that I worked on with my interns was on reducing water wastage in public toilets caused by automated flushing, especially in female toilets. I was curious about this issue because I often see toilets flushing multiple times, and that is a lot of water wasted each day. We then conducted a study to find out more about the amount of water wasted each time due to automated flushing, which can be quite substantial. This was not a big project or even an intended project, but it was still interesting to see how the first step towards achieving sustainability is simply about being curious and observant about our surroundings.

Go for where your passion lies. For me, I studied a bachelor’s degree in Molecular and Microbiology, a subject that was not completely environment related, as I wanted to be practical by choosing something that I can build a career on and be financially sound. Although I enjoyed the degree and enjoyed studying it, I soon realised that working in the research sector and staying in the lab all day was just not my cup of tea. Not to say that there is anything wrong with that – some people enjoy it and that is fine – but this job was just not for me. 

After that, I spent quite some time asking myself: what do I want in my life? Do I want to feel miserable or happy when I wake up each day? That is when I decided to go down the path of environment because this, I know will be the best choice for me. 

While some people may choose their degree based on practical choices, my advice would be to make your choice based on what resonates with you because the field you choose will probably be something that you will be doing for pretty much the rest of your life. If you don’t like what you do, it is going to be torture every day. The second advice that I hope to give would be to try out a variety of options and not limit your options too easily. It sometimes takes a bit of a journey to experience different things before you figure out where your passion lies. For instance, try to do a variety of internships in your undergraduate days; try out jobs that are not related to what you are studying. This process will hopefully allow you to better learn about yourself and your preferences, allowing you to chart a better career path that you’ll enjoy. 

I would encourage them to go for it! However, one interesting point to note is that sustainability is not just a subject of its own; it is in every field. For instance, one can be an administrator at a hospital working on sustainability by finding ways to reduce waste and maximise the usage of available resources there. I strongly encourage youths to think of interesting ways that they can merge their interests in sustainability and in other fields together. Find the space where two things come together.