Southeast Asia has often received flak and a bad reputation when it comes to environmental sustainability. In the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index 2019 released by the World Economic Forum, Southeast Asia, as a bloc, got a score of 3.8 out of 7 on factors that contribute to environmental sustainability.
Given that the region is mostly composed of developing countries which are seeking to boost their economies, is it correct to assume that care for the environment is not within the peoples’ radar?
In this, I beg to disagree. And I will show you why in some case studies I have compiled below:
Southeast Asia’s plastic waste problem — who’s to blame?
Yes, Southeast Asia has a plastics crises. In the Philippines, plastics are clogging and choking waterways causing floods and other problems. Just this year, a coastal clean up on Manila Bay island yielded 16,000 kilos of trash, and that’s according to the country’s Department of Environment and Natural Resource official reports. Yes, partly, the trash is due to undisciplined acts of some of the residents themselves. But are you aware that the Philippines is actually among the countries that have become the dumping ground of the so-called “developed” countries?
In 2015, plastics production has ballooned to 381 million tonnes worldwide. Of this number, the United States alone produces 37.83 million tonnes of plastic waste, dubbed by the Borgen Project as the “country with the highest political (sic) waste per capita ratio.” In an investigation conducted by The Guardian, the U.S. in 2018 sent 68,000 shipping containers full of plastics to “developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.” This practice adds undue pressure and compounds the problems being faced by these developing countries.
Of course, it is not just the U.S. that is guilty of this. In 2013, Canada sent 1,300 tonnes of trash in 103 shipping containers to the Philippines. The containers were declared as plastic scraps for recycling but were in fact trash consisting of adult diapers, plastics, etc. In May of this year, 69 containers, out of the original 103, were finally sent back to Canada, after six years of calling attention to the issue.
Also in May of this year, Malaysia ordered the return of 3,000 tonnes of plastic garbage back to their countries of origin, underscoring that Southeast Asian countries are now fighting back against the powerful developed countries that illegally dump wastes upon their shores.
It is also crucial to stress that the dumping of plastic wastes is a violation of the Basel Convention, an international treaty signed by 187 parties or states against toxic wastes dumping, specifically by developed countries into developing ones. The Philippines and Canada are both signatories to the Basel Convention.
Political will for sustainable tourism
In early 2018, Boracay, the Philippines’ tourism jewel, was closed off to tourists for rehabilitation purposes. The outcry was massive — various hotels and businesses were forced to close, many people were out of jobs, and the entire tourism sector posted a revenue share of just 14.3% of total direct gross value added, the slowest since 2013. However, government officials were adamant in the closure of the island, world-renowned for its beautiful beaches. Boracay was suffering from overtourism and had become a stinking cesspool due to improper waste management.
But when Boracay was reopened in October 2018, there was marked improvement, the waters were clear, business owners were more conscious of environmental laws, the people of Boracay themselves became more environmentally conscious, and tourism was controlled. Everyone helped out — from the big hotels who were forced to clean up their act or close their business altogether, the airlines which had to decrease their flights to limit the number of tourists on the islands, to the tourists who had to be more responsible, and to the residents who were more conscious of their environmental impact. Boracay is a success story, proof that it is possible to clean-up and protect the environment if only there is political will.
The story of Boracay does not end here. There are similar talks of managing overtourism by the many local governments in the Philippines, as well as in the Southeast Asian region. Maya Bay, a beautiful cove in Thailand that was featured in the film “The Beach” starring Leonardo di Caprio has been closed since late 2018, until perhaps two years more, in order to allow it to recover. Maya Beach is bordered by the picturesque cliffs of Ko Phi Phi Leh island which provides a stunning vista.
This just goes to show that Southeast Asian countries are working hard to preserve their natural resources, despite pressures and loss of revenues.
Environmentally-conscious communities in Southeast Asia
One of the beautiful places that really holds a special pull to my heart is Yogyakarta, in Indonesia. Yogyakarta is well-known for the majestic Borobudur and Prambanan temples which have been recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The place is the cultural hub of Indonesia — with batik artists, street art, puppeteers, historic temples, healthy food, and a sustainable and environment-conscious mindset. Perhaps due to the fact that Yogyakarta is the guardian of Javanese culture, you can actually see and feel their steep traditions and care for the environment in their culture and way of life.
Everywhere you go in Yogyakarta, you can see restaurants that offer healthy and fresh cuisine. Healthy food is a regular fare in Yogyakarta. In fact, everywhere you can find Gado-Gado, also called Lotek, a salad with different types of fresh vegetables, boiled eggs, potatoes, the traditional soy-based tempeh in peanut dressing. Yogyakarta is the epitome of healthy Indonesian fast food — fast because they can literally serve up your order very quickly. But unlike the regular “fast food chains,” the local food is always made fresh, and from organic and local produce.
There is even a slow lifestyle tradition in Yogyakarta. While Wi-Fi signal is everywhere, there are some places that allow you to disconnect, enjoy good food and bonding time with friends and family. Take for example, Milas, a vegetarian, organic restaurant with a very relaxing ambiance and no Wi-Fi. There is piped music, a garden, and water installations that fosters relaxation and bonding. They also have a shop that sells funky upcycled items.
In Malaysia, Penang has a similar vibe to Yogyakarta with its heritage architecture, artsy and hipster places, and good food. While maybe not as eco-conscious as Yogyakarta, Penang is on its way there, and boasts of conscious cafes and shops that sell delicious healthy, vegan, or organic food.
Aside from these, there are various other stories that show how countries, governments, and the people of Southeast Asia show their care for the environment. I remember a friend who once responded to a video of a so-called influencer criticising Southeast Asians for having lots of plastic bags. He said that yes, Southeast Asians do get a lot of plastic bags but all these are carefully stored in kitchen cupboards and re-used until they aren’t usable anymore. This story is true for a lot of Asians. Of course, I am not saying that we should continue to use plastics or even praise those who store it. The entire point is that Southeast Asians should not always be seen as the bad guy when it comes to environmental sustainability. We do what we can to ensure environmental protection. But yes, there is always room to do more.
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Feature image via Pixabay.