The Garbage Problem

Anyone who has traveled in Southeast Asia acknowledges that trash is a problem.

In fact when looking at the biggest polluters, a pattern emerges: South East Asia.

Dealing with trash seems straight forward from a privileged rich nation: Put your trash on the curb and the local municipality makes it magically go away.  (Obviously it is not that simple, and as someone who as visited a dump its a complex business that is constantly trying to figure out how to get people to waste less.)

However, what happens when there is no trash pickup?  There really is only 3 choices: Bury it, burn it, or dump it somewhere.  Most resorts and households keep their properties clean.  People rake and sweep regularly.  But what then.  Many people burn it.  In the mornings and evenings the scent of burning rubbish filled the air.  Dumping it is a popular solution.  On my walks in Chom Thong, Koh Mook, and Koh Jum, I frequently encountered “dumping spots”.  Sometimes it would be a mountain of diapers.  Other times bags of plastic.  Many times it was discarded building supplies or demolished building guts.

In the forest while on a trail walk.  Macaques were scavenging through the plastic and scattered once they heard me.

Trash Hero (Click Here) is an organization that motivates people to pick up litter.  More than this they run education campaigns and are working throughout Asia to reduce the amount of waste.  They sponsor regular clean up and educational events.  I personally think that people who pick up litter are less likely to litter in the future.  We tried to work with them before but just missed scheduled events in the Flores Islands, Yogyakarta, Vietnam, Chiang Mai, Koh Mook.  We were excited to work with them in Koh Jum.  However 15 minutes before the scheduled time, the heavens opened and it rained for the next 3 hours.  They canceled the event.

They do meet every Monday and had over 70 clean ups collecting over 6.000 kg of trash, saving 197,000 plastic bottles.

We decided to do our part.  We spend nearly 30 minutes with a makeshift team of six people picking up trash.  We collected nearly 3 kilograms of waste in a short time.  Straws, broken glass, rope, and plastic tops galore.

Picking up plastic on Koh Jum’s main beach.

At Sabay Beach in Koh Mook we saw a sign saying: “Imagine if everyone took just one.”  Motivated by this we collected a small trash bag of rubbish – nearly a kilogram worth.  I put in our kayak and paddled it back to the main beach.  However, I don’t know if it was disposed of properly after that.

Even though there are dedicated individuals trying to pick trash throughout Thailand, The Thai government recognizes it has a problem.  The government has tried using incinerators-to-energy as a solution, but the waste they get is not sorted well enough which has led to Thailand importing sorted garbage rather than dealing with their own garbage (Click Here).

There are other initiatives such as banning plastic bags that have seen some impact, as well as the death of a whale that was found to have swallowed 80 plastic bags. (Click Here).

Tourism is part of the problem.  Tourists crave single use plastic items (shampoo bottles, water bottles, individually wrapped goods to guarantee cleanliness, plastic shake cups, straws, etc).  Even though we brought reusable containers for water, we had a hard time finding clean water to put in them.  Pick any solution and drill down and it becomes extremely hard to implement a systematic approach.  The problem is such a s sticky wicket, that people get caught in analysis paralysis and there is no movement forward.

We met someone who had visited Thailand 10 years ago, and they said: “As bad as it is now, its much better than it was.”  Progress?




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