Scrolling through social media, it is easy to find “Zero-Waste” or “Eco-friendly” labels and shout-outs. There are tips and tricks for how to reduce plastic in New York, Portland, or LA, photos of grocery stores moving towards organic packaging in many parts of the United States. What most of these companies and individuals have in common is this: a focus on Western and developed nations.
So what about those of us living in developing countries? We need role models for sustainability that are practical for the every day realities of our surroundings.
There are two big oversights I find in most Western-oriented no-waste programs, and I want to address them here.
First, potable water. Second, refrigeration. And within both of these, discrepancies in GDP and average incomes play a large role as well.
In Cambodia, the water is not potable. Unsafe drinking water is not unique to this region, either— according to the CDC in 2015, more than 663 million people worldwide lack access to improved water sources. We even saw this play out in the USA, when the toxic chemicals in the water in Flint, Michigan came to light.
What does this mean? If you can’t drink the tap water, you become reliant on bottled water. When I first moved to Cambodia, I noticed that the majority of my plastic waste came from bottled water—for one thing, the temp sits around 90 all year round. And most people live in traditional-style houses with little or no ventilation inside, and so spend much of their time outside, getting thirsty under the hot sun. But water is one of the necessities of life. So how can we deal with this paradox?
1- Buy big. Most shops offer large, 20-something-liter jugs of water. While still not ideal (there is a Plastic-Free movement in Cambodia to remove the plastic that currently wraps each of these jugs), these containers can at least be refilled from the manufacturer and resold, and last longer than a 500 ml water bottle. They are also more affordable — only 1$ for one jug.
2- If you have access to a filter, it can prove indispensible. Yes, it requires more cost up front: my current Steripen UV light filter cost around 100$. But it can purify some insane amount of water (more than 8000 treatments on one light). Another catch— it requires electricity to recharge the battery. But if you are trying to reduce your plastic footprint, it is an awesome option.
3- Invest money in systems like sand-filtration systems for rainwater. This is a very cool movement right now in Cambodia, with the added benefits of training local people how to design and implement these filter systems.
Okay, so the second problem: refrigeration.
As in, it doesn’t really exist in much of the country. Most refrigeration (if you’re not an expat) is done in a cooler with a hunk of ice you buy daily. And currently, the electricity across the country is quite unreliable, with long days of blackout in the middle of the hottest summer on record. This creates a problem for buying items in bulk — you can’t buy meat for more than one day or it will spoil; you can’t buy bulk items that can rot in the wet heat, or will attract insects, because people just don’t have the air-tight homes and nicely purring refrigeration systems common in the states.
However, a positive side to the lack of refrigeration— most families go to the market every morning to buy the foodstuffs for the day, which means they’re buying local, and supporting small families as opposed to giant supermarkets or international chains. Plus, Cambodians are very good at buying the right amount of food so no food is wasted, which is a good thing in my book.
And another positive aspect of buying in bulk—using recycled or reusable containers to store food— is still practiced here in Cambodia. The difference is, instead of mason jars, people here re-use plastic water bottles and 1 L soda bottles for everything from soy sauce to gasoline. Not as good as the elimination of plastic, but better than letting a single-use plastic get only a true single-use.
And finally, a staggering impact on plastic in the environment comes from the differing abilities of nations to successfully collect and process plastic waste. This is no small issue, either. Recent studies have shown that most plastic consumption comes from countries with the highest income per capita. (As seen in the 2010 statistic of 344,698 tonnes per year of plastic waste in Cambodia, compared to 37.83 million tonnes per year in the USA.) However, richer countries tend to have better systems to deal with those plastics after consumption, resulting in less leakage into the environment and damage to the ecosystem—87% of Cambodia’s waste was improperly managed in 2010, according to OurWorldInData.org.
Yet despite the depressing numbers about plastic trash, there are amazing projects underway in Cambodia and large swaths of the developing world. Check out Clean Green Cambodia, an initiative focusing on helping restaurants transition to biodegradable materials. Or Plastic-Free SEA, an organization doing the same, with helpful tips for those of us living in the Kingdom. Cambodians have until recently used their environment in lieu of plastic— bamboo and leaves for buildings, cutlery, straws…palm leaves or lotus leaves as organic packaging materials, and coconuts for hydration, sustenance, storage, etc. With a little prodding, and investment into the movements taking place, we are hopeful to reverse the reliance on plastics and start healing the earth. Check out all these organizations and see how life in a developing country can be shaped with an eco-friendly approach while working within the current society and restrictions.