By David Brearley from Laos
It has been three weeks since I arrived in Laos. My initial positive impression of the country and its people hasn’t altered. In fact, the longer I stay here, the more I find myself falling in love with every aspect that this country has to offer.
Travelling from Thailand to Laos was a long, tiring journey, followed by a day of sitting at border control, getting our boats and other equipment checked. It was at this point I realized how much water you have to consume to survive in the constant dry 30oC+ weather. If you are unprepared or just can’t carry enough, plastic bottles of water are often the only thing you have available. Even if you do bring lots of water, it will soon become terrifically warm and you will crave a cold 500ml that are sold everywhere.
A LifeStraw, or other filtration device, is the only way to minimize your plastic footprint while travelling in rural areas as the tap water is otherwise undrinkable. However, one of the team had a LifeStraw like filtration device and it broke almost immediately, and he had to resort to buying bottled water. If you have the money to spend on a high-quality product, then this is what I’d recommend. However, no matter how good it is, you cannot become reliant on such an item, as there will be times it will be packed away, or left at the hostel, and you desperately need water. Be safe, buy the bottled water preferably in sealed glass bottles.
I have seen 25L water containers, and if you go looking, you will find them. This is probably the best method of staying hydrated as you don’t have to worry about the cleanliness, and it is much cooler than the tap water. Be wary of the ice by the way, this is often contaminated water, so you can choose between having cold, perhaps unsafe drinks, or slightly warmer clean drinks. My team went for the first option, as keeping cool is your primary concern in this area, and we had no problems.
When you get bored with water, grab a can of something or a glass bottled beer. Everyone recycles these. There are constantly full beer crates with empty bottles outside restaurants, waiting to be sent back to BeerLao. They also collect the tins and send them to a recycling plant and get paid for the material. Why? Because they don’t burn… That’s right, everything that can be burnt and turned into ash, will be.
They don’t have a central landfill for non-recyclables. Instead, they make big piles of rubbish and burn it. This is how it is. In Indonesia, they were used to having natural materials and so rubbish they threw into the river, would go back to the land and degrade in a short amount of time. When plastic came around, they did what they had been doing for hundreds of years and threw it into the river, creating the situation they now have.
I couldn’t comment on if burning your plastic was better or worse than throwing it into the river, but at least it is relatively contained to affecting those close in proximity, rather than contributing to global mismanaged plastic waste (MMPW) problem. I would be very interested in any articles on greenhouse gas contributions and other environmental damage achieved from burning as much plastic as the Laotian people do, but as of yet, I can’t find any such data.
This being said, a bit of rubbish finds its way into the Mekong from Laos and gathers on the banks and in eddies. The majority of rubbish I saw was in the high-density tourist locations, such as below Khone Phapheng. The river level varies so much that a large amount of the rubbish gets dumped on the sides. But from first impressions, it is nowhere near as bad as what you find on rivers across England and mainland Europe eg. the Rhondda, Wales, where a photo was published in a British Canoeing article I wrote.
I have seen a lot of good reuse of plastic products as well. From practical uses, like using inflated plastic bottles as lobster cage markers, to decorative use, such as beer crates as flower pots and straw segments as decorative spacers to shell bunting, the Laotians make use of everything that western society considers ‘rubbish’.
Talking to locals, MMPW is being talked about in regular conversation and has even begun to make its way into a few of the city schools. It will still take a lot of time for the rural areas to become aware of their contribution to the problem and the health effects of burning plastic. However, programs such as the Plastic Free Cambodia, help with the speed of education on these topics. Currently these education efforts are preferable, instead of the clean-up process that is too monumental to carry out across the thousands of kilometres which the Mekong spans.
The next step in my project will be to kayak the whole 500km of the Cambodian Mekong, trying to pinpoint where any worthwhile clean up efforts could make a difference. This journey should take me around 10 days, in my whitewater kayak, (not at all suited for the type of paddling I will be doing, but more to the style of 4,000 Islands where I will start) and I will be passing through Phnom Penh around the 8th February. My journey will conclude in K’am Samnar Kraom Village and then I shall return to the capital to begin the write up process of what I find along my journey. I will try my best to send a quick daily update, but with the initial nights camping in the jungle, I have no idea how feasible this will be.
I am raising money on a Go Fund Me page (Cleaning Up Our Rivers, Southeast Asia – Mekong). The money raised will go towards the awareness and clean-up operation along the Mekong during and after the expedition. Donations will fund the ability to make a larger impact by creating opportunities to visit the local communities and industries, as well as equipment for documentation, to raise awareness and help divert plastic waste to sustainable projects. Any excess once the trip has concluded, will be passed onto Plastic Free Cambodia and Surfers Against Sewage, who contribute to clean-up efforts in their local rivers and oceans. I invite you to join me on my trip, either physically (it does not matter about your kayaking experience as this is only a small part of the overall project) or by following me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and reading the articles I will be writing for various websites and organizations throughout the coming months. I welcome any form of support and encourage you to message me on the mentioned platforms for more information.
Together, we can help turn the tide in the plastic pandemic!