Ugh, the garbage/plastics situation is not good, in fact it feels dire.  As my friend Lisa said, the longer you live in Asia, the more hopeless the garbage situation feels; efforts that we put forth in the states can not even begin to make up for the amount of plastic used here. But don’t give up, there is hope. Shifting the collective subconscious from dispose to reduce reuse recycle takes time, patience and persistence.   There are some people making changes in select communities.

If John were writing this, he would have some useful statistics about plastic use and production, plastics in our oceans and what it’s doing to the planet. But, that would require some additional research so take my word for it or look up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Okay, I did some research.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a plastic mass twice the size of Texas, 9 feet deep.  There are 5 major ocean patches on the earth.

7 billion pounds of non recyclable plastic are produced every year

only 7% of the plastic in the US is recycled.

The issues I witnessed in SE Asia are two fold:

In some areas, garbage disposal is a problem.  There are not well executed systems for collection and disposal. Insufficient systems lead to people dumping or burning their garbage, which is of course toxic for the people and the planet.

The other issue is plastic production.  ALL THINGS COME IN COPIOUS AMOUNTS OF PLASTIC.  The packaging situation is out of control.  Most drinks, even if it is not take away, is put in a plastic cup with a straw or two, then put in a plastic bag or a special plastic strap holder so you don’t have to hold your drink.  I’m not sure the purpose except maybe so your hand doesn’t melt the ice?????  Even plastic water bottles can be purchased with a straw and a bag for carrying the plastic with water in it.


In Indonesia upon first encountering the garbage, I had mixed feelings.  On one hand I wanted to be at a clean beach or clean jungle path free of garbage while on my vacation.  On the other hand, I knew it was important to see it and be in it because that is the reality.  The clean swept beach is an illusion and the garbage that was removed for your viewing pleasure in paradise, is piled up at the end of the beach, ready to be burned.

Mia has been vigilant about not accepting bags for our purchases and bags and holders for our drinks.  We have not been so vigilant about straws.  Our friends, the Mangelsdorfs order drinks with no straw knowing that it will always arrive with with one.

We have seen some recycling efforts.  In Cambodia – recycled art.  John got a rubber tire belt, we all have paper wallets, I have a necklace of beads made from wrapped paper.   We saw people going through garbage pulling out plastic bottles, indicating some sort of reuse or recycle.  Les Manguiers guesthouse in Kampot had recycling bins set up.  The Green Umbrella school had a garbage compressing machine that makes garbage bricks to be used for walls.

I don’t know very much about the problem world wide.  I’m certain, like all things, the problem is complicated.  Introduction of fast food, westernization of production without infrastructure for disposal and transport, lack of refrigeration but increased production of transportable foods.  The banana leaf, although still used as a bowl, bag, wrapper, plate etc, just isn’t keeping up.

So, the garbage situation is bleak but let me leave you with this little nugget of hope and good times. One morning while at breakfast on Sriboya, a french expat invited us to join a trash clean up effort partnering with the local school.  Great, we were due for a project and a give back.   He started the Sriboya chapter of Trash Hero, an international community based program focused on education and cleanup efforts.  They have a facebook page if you want to check it out.

We met the next morning at 8:30 and walked the beach 1 kilometer to meet up with the students age 8-11.  We divided into groups and headed out to do the clean up.  What ensued was the same group dynamic with a large group of kids in a loosely organized activity that I have witnessed everywhere I have ever worked with kids.  The separated groups immediately became one large scattered mass of friends, loners, hard workers, slackers and defeated adult volunteers.  Most of the girls were picking up garbage, the smart studious boys were picking up garbage and then there were the packs of naughty little boys destroying things, turning plastic bags into wind kites, hiding in the trees.  Ant and I got a few packs of the naughties to engage and fill some bags.  One boy communicated clearly to me through body language that he simply did not pick up garbage, it was below his pay grade.  I stuck Ant on him and he filled a whole bag with Styrofoam.  In the little packs there was usually one girl, you know, the girl that runs with the boys.  Who do you think was doing the job when the group was approached?  She was.

There was one pack of girls huddled up in the tide pools so I checked up on their progress.  They were smashing shellfish attached to the rock and scraping out the tiny slimy animal inside.  TO EAT!  I thought that was Badass and left them to it.

The whole group gathered to sort the garbage and have a snack. Mia and Porter worked hard.  Mia jumped right in despite the searing heat, sorting the garbage until the job was done. We played games with the kids, tried to communicate, took selfies.  At one point, Mia started quietly singing the cup song with a water bottle.  At first the girls became quiet to listen, then the boys were silenced with curiosity, then the girls all squatted down to see more clearly what she was doing.  Her voice got stronger and a pack of 20 kids were silently listening.  It was Awesome and Brave, everyone cheered when she finished.  After that Mia had a few little cuties that wouldn’t let go of her hand.


A job well done, hopefully some education about the problem and for us, some fun connections with kids.