Laos Needs Another Revolution but This Time with Single-Use Plastic

Intentionally observing and exploring how much I consume plastic in my daily life, I started my morning with iced coffee ordering from one of the carts at this market. The vendor handed me a bag of iced coffee encased in a plastic bag tightened by a rubber band, which surprisingly, is in another paper bag with two straws. Then for lunch, I bought two meals and sticky rice. This lunch alone has created six pieces of single use plastic. Less than one day, I have already generated ten pieces of plastic.

fruit juice
Teaser Image Caption
A fruit-shakes vendor in Vientiane, Laos

Sometimes, at the market, a drink cart vendor can sell more than 100 cups of fruit shakes or iced coffee in one day. Hundreds of such food and drink carts in Vientiane’s streets together with markets, and other industries rely heavily on single-use plastic packages that could create a mass of plastic.

In the last few years, some coffee shops in Laos started to use paper, stainless steel and bamboo straws to reduce single use plastics. Bamboolao is a good example of a sustainable solutions against plastic problems in Laos. It was launched in 2017 as an inspiring initiative to reduce the consumption of single use plastic straws with bamboo alternatives produced by local villagers in Laos. Arounothay Khoungkhakoune, a friend I met on Facebook is the founder of this Bamboolao straw project. Her bamboo straws are just one product that can raise awareness about making better choices for the environment.

Bamboo products
Bamboo products are not only straws, there are also drinking cups, stirrers, mini rice and snack bowls. (Courtesy of BambooLao)

 “In our first year we produced over 50,000 straws and have already prevented over five million plastic straws ending up in the Mekong, since each straw can be used over 100 times. And in three years, we have produced 1 million straws,” added Arounothay.

Like in any other country, plastic is widely used and it is everywhere to be found in the Lao PDR, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia with a population of 7 million people. Plastic has become part of our modern life. And its low-cost and material advantages make it necessary for everything in our daily life. Yet as one might think as useful as it is, our ever-increasing reliance on single-use plastics, our throwaway culture and poor waste management system have created a huge problem.

Single-use plastics such as plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, water bottles and most food packaging are seen almost everywhere especially at busy Kaudin market in Vientiane capital of Laos. A number of drink carts meet here selling flavorful cold drink from fruit shake to iced coffee to the thirsty buyers.  These cart vendors place clear plastic cups with various fruits covering with plastic lids and colorful plastic cup carriers on top to attract customers. This seems to work well for both vendors and clients without realizing about the impact of single-use plastic.

Vientiane Capital is expanding like any other cities in the world. Due to the increase of the city‘s population, the improved standard of living and the economy, the amount of garbage, particularly plastic materials, has increased. According to Vientiane City Office for Management and Service, about 650 tonnes of waste, including plastic materials which account for 12% that are discarded everyday by people in Vientiane Capital. Therefore, about 78 tonnes of plastic waste is produced in a day for the Lao capital city with population of about 700,000 people.

Patuxay, the Victory Arch in Vientiane

Only about half of the garbage is managed to the landfill site while the rest is dumped or burned just about anywhere. Only a small amount of plastic is separated and sold to available recycling plants. With the growth of population, the amount of plastic waste is going to increase continuously. Due to a lack of waste management system, there is no doubt that people living along the Mekong river will throw waste including plastic into the river and its tributaries which that can negatively impact natural ecosystems and human health. Mekong river is claimed to be one of the most polluted in the world. Those plastic thrown into rivers where it may be eaten by fish, which are then consumed by local people. This can cause health problems from ingesting chemicals from the plastic. There are also common occurrences of irresponsible disposal and burning of garbage including plastic, which can lead to air and soil pollution, and canal blockage. According to the Environmental Challenges for Green Growth and Poverty Reduction in Lao PRD 2019 , some 11,000 people die annually due to environmental health risk factors. Household air pollution alone represents 45 percent. This was 22.7 percent of all deaths in the country.

Taking only half day, I already generated 10 pieces of one single use plastic. I can ensure that they will go to the landfill site because a garbage truck usually picks up the garbage weekly from my place. However, even when they are sent to the landfill site, these plastics that cannot be biodegraded would be dumped and stay there for hundreds of years.  Therefore, by not having a strong infrastructure to handle the plastic waste, the best way I can do as a citizen is to reduce my own plastic consumption.

However, to win victory over plastic consumption, this country needs another revolution. I also need big revolution to change my own behavior. I started small by saying no to a plastic cup lid, cup carrier and a straw—that normally you would get these when ordering a drink from street vendors. My request seemed to confuse the old man vendor selling coconut juice to me. My drink coming with only a plastic cup could help cutting down on the plastic waste at least. After I did it, I felt so proud of myself and empowered like a superman for contributing to reduce plastic consumption. My revolution road will continue with a non-plastic cup to further reduce my reliance on single-use plastic.

Garbage dump site

In Laos, people are likely to appreciate and routinely use plastic despite some knowledge and awareness of the problems with plastic. Plastic consumption has become the norm and the throwing away garbage has been an ongoing problem. For an example, at this year's Boat Racing Festival you can see all sorts of waste littering the area including the Mekong river.  Sometimes, you can see that many drivers, passengers and even pedestrians throw rubbish onto the streets. Such throwaway mentality of many Laotians is a combination of our own convenience, ignorance and disrespect of the environment which is not the right way to live our our lives. We need to keep this in mind: “It is not other people’s responsibility to clean up for the mess that we created. “

Laos’ economy has depended mainly on its natural resources and assets. Even though the country’s GDP has grown with an average annual rate of 8 percent, the impact on environmental degradation is huge due to the expansion of hydropower projects and mining industries. In addition to this, the increased amount of solid waste including plastic disposal into the rivers and burning of plastics are another environmental problems that contribute to health problem. The cost of environmental health problems, natural resource degradation and natural disasters in the Lao PDR is equivalent to 20.63 percent of the GDP. Despite these challenges, the government of Laos has to give priority to environmental reforms and interventions as the country is joining other ASEAN countries in environmental initiatives such as the Bangkok Regional Declaration on Marine Litter and the ASEAN Action Framework on Marine Debris.

Since we cannot wait for the establishment of a proper waste management system, individuals taking action on single use plastic is at least a small thing we can do. But if more people can change their cultural preference from single use plastic bags, straws, cups and bottles to reusable products, the impact would be much greater. I know that to win a victory over plastic use is not easy because people use plastic in many more ways and but we all can start by asking ourselves whether we really need to use a straw at the first place or need a plastic bag for a pack of snack from a supermarket? Can we all tell our children not to litter? Or can’t we re-use this plastic?