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Stemming Asia’s Plastic Tide One Banana Leaf at a Time

February 19, 2020

By Amanda Bensel and Toffy Charupatanapongse

From the white-sand beaches of Thailand to the lush mountains of Laos, tourism in Southeast Asia is booming. Travel and tourism accounted for 12.4 percent of ASEAN’s GDP in 2015, more than 25 percent higher than the global average of 9.8 percent, and tourism directly supported 11 million jobs in 2016, a figure expected to exceed 16 million by 2027. The government of Laos, spotting an economic opportunity, declared 2018 to be “Visit Laos Year,” drawing 4.1 million tourists to a nation of just 6.8 million people.

But with the influx of tourists has come an influx of garbage in a region already wrestling with solid waste. In Laos, growing prosperity has increased the consumption of convenience goods such as single-snack packages and disposable water bottles, and tourists in general are known to create up to twice as much solid waste per person as residents. Plastic waste is straining waste-management systems, and trash can find its way into gutters and waterways. 

Much of this trash finds its way to the Mekong River—which flows for more than 1,100 miles through Laos—damaging the environment and communities downstream that rely on the river for sustenance, and eventually polluting the South China Sea and the oceans beyond.

Can ecotourism help reverse the tide of plastic waste in Asia? (Photo: Conor Ashleigh / The Asia Foundation)

In early March last year, 50 young entrepreneurs from ASEAN and Timor-Leste met in Luang Prabang, Laos, for the YSEALI Ecotourism Workshop, organized by The Asia Foundation, to consider how to leverage the boom in tourism to make things better, not worse, for communities and ecosystems across Southeast Asia. YSEALI, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, is the U.S. State Department’s signature program to foster youth leadership development, strengthen ties with the United States, and nurture cross-border networks to solve the region’s common problems.

Former U.S. ambassador to Laos Rena Bitter addresses workshop participants. (Photo: Amanda Bansel)

Ecotourism, the focus of the workshop, seeks to harness the economic engine of tourism to environmental stewardship, cultural preservation, and livelihoods for local communities. In five days of intensive group work, the participants developed strategies for their own communities, received one-on-one mentoring from ecotourism experts, made site visits to successful ecotourism businesses, and learned how to pitch their ideas for seed funding.

Participants from Vietnam showcase their display on tourism in their home country. (Photo: Amanda Bansel)

Maxly Inthaxai came to the YSEALI workshop with the vision of reducing plastic waste in Laos. He saw an obvious opportunity in ecotourism to reduce plastic waste and promote traditional cultural practices by replacing plastic food wrappers and containers at local restaurants with locally available banana-leaf packaging. It would be a classic ecotourism win-win: the biodegradable banana leaves would keep plastics out the waste stream while introducing tourists to an authentic local practice. With seed funding from the workshop, Inthaxai has launched an ongoing conversation about single-use plastics with local authorities and food stall owners in Vang Vieng, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Laos.

Maxly Inthaxai presenting his pitch, including a proposed plastics-free certificate (Photo: Amanda Bansel)

Another participant, Roeun Sarin Paren, received seed money to pursue the issue of plastic waste from small Khmer coffee stands in his community in Cambodia. He started with a survey of locals and tourists to estimate how much plastic waste was generated by coffee drinkers. He then had informal conversations with vendors and customers to gauge how they felt about single-use plastics and eco-friendly alternatives such as bamboo straws. Having piqued public interest, Paren organized a one-day workshop for two dozen coffee stall owners and staff, eighteen of whom agreed to cut plastic use in their businesses.

Roeun Sarin Paren discusses alternatives to plastic with a coffee vendor in his community in Cambodia. (Photo: Amanda Bansel)

Inthaxai’s and Paren’s were just two of twelve projects that received seed funding at the YSEALI Ecotourism Workshop. They arrived with an idea, and they left with concrete plans and funds to pursue them. These are small beginnings, but over time, as global awareness spreads about the impacts of environmentally conscious consumption, these small interventions can transform the economic engine of tourism into a source of sustainable prosperity.

Amanda Bensel is a senior program officer and Tassaya (Toffy) Charupatanapongse is a program associate for LeadEx, The Asia Foundation’s leadership and exchange program. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Laos
Related programs: Leadership & Exchanges
Related topics: ASEAN


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