Southeast Asia Has a Plastic Problem and Here’s What We Need to Do
After 8 months travelling through Southeast Asia there is one thing that many of the countries I have visited have in common – they’re obsession with plastic.
It’s literally everywhere – every bus you ride, every hotel you stay in, every tour you take; there is always someone ready to hand you yet another plastic water bottle or another plastic bag.
Now you might be thinking a few things – 1. Well the tap water quality isn’t good enough so what will I drink? And 2. What’s wrong with a few harmless plastic water bottles? Both those questions are very fair ones except that the situation with plastic in these countries is becoming considerably worrying.
Firstly, countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, who are amongst the 5 worst ocean polluters in the world, simply don’t have the modern infrastructure to deal with the excess use of plastic in their countries. When I speak about modern infrastructure I mean even the simplest of things like systematic garbage collection or recycling facilities. In the Philippines the closest thing they have to recycling facilities are the country’s poor scavenging through trashcans, picking out what’s worth recycling and then selling it off to the highest bidder. While this is work for these poorer people, it is the kind of work that involves harsh and unclean conditions. A better solution would be implement recycling and rubbish collection facilities and provide fairer working opportunities to these people, both of which can be done.
In places like Myanmar and Cambodia, although predominantly land locked, plastic waste ends up in waterways and mass landfills due to the countries lack of trash collection. In Myanmar the only parts of the whole country that have any sort of trash collection are the main cities. Imagine that – no one to ever collect your trash? What would you do? You’re most likely to throw it on the ground or burn it, which is what these countries have learned to do. It’s all they know. Throwing a piece of plastic into the river is as similar to them as throwing away an apple core. However, no one has educated them with the information that a plastic bottle will sit there for a few hundred years and the apple core only a few weeks.
Then there are the more affluent countries whose problem with plastic and trash comes from a different motive. In places like Vietnam it is considered below them to pick up trash. The trash collectors are considered lower-class citizens and this leads many people to think that it is not their responsibility to pick up their own garbage. Picnic spots and natural landmarks that are frequented by Vietnamese locals are often filled with trash despite there being bins to put it in. While the situation is slowly improving with education, the class system has a lot to do with Vietnam’s plastic problem.
Thailand, and other developing Asian nations, have a similar issue whereby plastic is considered to be a luxury and the use of plastic is a practice imitative of Western culture. It is considered modern and fancy, as it was to us once upon a time. Nowadays in the markets of Thailand everything you receive will be in plastic, and then in more plastic. Buy a drink in a plastic cup and they’ll put it in a plastic bag too. Thankfully Thailand is ahead of other nations with their trash collection and recycling one of Asia’s highest standards, but this still doesn’t combat the main issue – overuse of plastic.
So what will combat the issue?
After my eight months in Asia I firmly believe that not even the most effective trash collection and recycling facility in the world can solve the plastic problem in this part of the world. The solution must come from a trend away from plastic usage and towards more sustainable initiatives. Just like what is happening gradually around the world.
This year Morocco, the second largest plastic bag consumer in the world after the US, passed a bill to ban plastic bags and move towards more environmentally alternatives such as paper and fabric bags. In 2015 San Francisco become the first city in America to ban the sale of plastic water bottles. Even African country Rwanda was ahead of the game and banned plastic bags years ago in 2008. As you can see it’s not only the West who is jumping onto this greener bandwagon, but developing nations as well.
Asia needs to jump on that bandwagon too. It needs people to lead by example and start looking at widespread sustainable solutions – like the obvious water refill station! Probably one of the best ways that Asia can provide clean water to its visitors. Bus stations should offer water refill stations, hotels should offer water refill stations, and there should even be water refill stations and filters set up at all major tourist attractions. While many hotels and guesthouses have already implemented this practice, I found a considerable number who weren’t, and instead, offered plastic water bottles day in and day out.
The use of plastic bags needs to diminish. An organisation in Cambodia is leading the way with an innovative solution that creates biodegradable bags made with cassava, a root vegetable grown throughout Southeast Asia. The cassava allows the bag to biodegrade in less than five years, whether it is in water, soil, or even buried in garbage. Another organisation is turning plastic bags into household goods like placemats and rugs, by colouring them and crocheting them into creative designs. The solutions are there, they just need to start becoming more widespread.
What can you do?
You might be reading this thinking “What can I do to solve this problem occurring in Southeast Asia?”
There are many ways that we can make an impact. From the smallest act like starting a conversation with your hotel about implementing a water refill station, to something larger like starting your own petition against the use of plastic. Get in touch with local activist organisations, take a reusable water bottle with you when you travel to the region, participate in a clean up campaign. All these things will help to reach a solution, which is inevitably, stop the ocean having more plastic than fish by 2050.
Southeast Asia is in a period of modernisation. Many countries are slowly transforming from developing, to developed nations, and with that comes greater awareness about environmental issues. If we push just that little bit harder we should see some of these worldwide initiatives spread into the region. Things like a ban on plastic bags or increased access to filtered water will see a shift towards lesser plastic usage and in 5 – 10 years we could see many of these countries clean up their backyards, which will have a positive ripple affect on our planet. The time to act is now.
This is a guest post written by Bianca Caruana.
Bianca is a freelance writer from Sydney, Australia with a strong passion for responsible tourism, fair trade and community development. She has travelled to many parts of the world and is currently spending the year travelling through south east and southern Asia sharing stories of good will and finding ways that we can travel ethically and responsibly around the globe. Follow her blog The Altruistic Traveller for more stories.