Living Sustainably in Laos (or at least trying to)

Each morning I pull up to the same stand to get my morning coffee. Each morning the same woman scoops my coffee and hands it to me with a smile. And each morning the coffee is poured into a massive plastic cup, with a huge lid, a plastic straw, and a plastic handle.

My morning coffee featuring Caroline Morin

My morning coffee featuring Caroline Morin

Most people I have encountered do not think twice about the waste created by simple interactions like the one I described. I have now learned to say “bor sai taw dood” to ask for no straw and have kept a plastic cup, lid, and handle to reuse each day. The first time I said “bor sai taw dood” the woman looked at me with utter confusion and repeated it back to me to make sure she heard me right. Such is the trend here. It is as if sustainability has never crossed most people’s minds. I often wonder why it is that I have met so few people here who think about the waste generated through things such as plastic bags. I think much of it is a lack of educational programs that discuss the climate crisis, ways to mitigate your footprint, and just how dire the climate situation is.

Sustainability is absolutely a development issue, which I see first-hand every day. The best example: water. The water in Laos simply is not safe to drink. Nobody drinks the tap water; everyone drinks water from at-home watercoolers or bottled water. This phenomenon expands beyond the city, I have seen the presence of water jugs in every place we have visited. As a result, the amount of plastic generate from the most basic human necessity is shocking. Luckily, the watercooler containers are reused, but the same is not true for water bottles which are served at most restaurants. I have been guilty many times in my time here of not practicing sustainable no-waste living, but at times there is not a single water refill station, and I have no choice but to buy multiple bottles of water in a day.

Along with a lack of access to water, which leads to an excessive use of plastic, Laos lacks a recycling infrastructure. There are trash cans scattered throughout the city, but I have not seen a recycling bin. One day I was walking to a waterfall with my coworkers, and all five of us picked up plastic along the walk until we could not hold anymore. At that same waterfall, one rock in the middle that escaped the flow of water was covered in plastic. If people collect recyclable goods and bring them to a recycling plant, they can sell them and the bottles, cans, etc will be recycled, but not everyone has the ability to go to these locations. As a result, most plastic goes in the trash or is left along the streets.

I have seen some hope for reduced plastic, it is not all doom and gloom. A prominent Southeast Asian café chain, Joma, has a skip the straw campaign, and I saw a store advertising a water refill station with a sign saying, “Save our planet, it’s the only one we have got!” Many fair trade and handicraft shops in downtown Vientiane avoid using plastic and instead make bags from old newspapers, but there is still a long way to go. Exhibit A: when cashiers bag my groceries even though I am holding my reusable grocery bag.

2000 K = $0.12 USD to refill a large water bottle

2000 K = $0.12 USD to refill a large water bottle

The past weeks in Laos have had a profound impact on the way I view my role in the climate crisis. I have always done my best to minimize my waste and recycle, but I am starting to realize that I am lucky to have the ability to live a very low-waste life. And since I have that ability, it is my responsibility to this planet to exercise it daily. What I am still grappling with daily is how can sustainability practices be improved effectively in Laos in a way that will not negatively impact the population?