Giving a sustainable s*it: what Asia can teach us about being green

Written by Rebecca Jones on 25th Jul 2019

In the Western world we are wont to believe we are leaders on sustainability. Particularly within Europe, where we have long outsourced our dirty manufacturing to Asia, we point to the world’s most polluted cities in India and China with scorn, reproaching them for their lack of care for the environment.

Similarly on ocean plastics, many cite the fact that 90 per cent of plastic pollution in our seas comes from 10 rivers in the developing world (8 in Asia), using it as a convenient excuse to do less – or nothing – here. “Why bother cutting down on plastic bottles? We recycle!”

Of course over the past year the scandal of this situation has been revealed. Since China refused to stop taking our trash in January last year, and with other South East Asian nations following suit, unwanted plastic in Europe and the US is piling up to crisis levels.

As it turns out, the trash flowing into the ocean from these rivers was largely ours all along. Plastic recycling is, and always has been, a myth. With tons and tons of new plastic being produced cheaply every day by the oil majors, there is simply no market for recycling it.

The only market for plastic trash has been poor countries accepting payment from rich ones to take theirs and chuck it in the sea. And now they’ve had enough, with Cambodia this week sending an ‘insulting’ shipment of trash back to the US.

Slowly sustainable

Now, then, we are faced with the fact that we need to use less plastic – radically less plastic – if we are to have any fish left in the ocean by 2050. As we wrote recently in ‘Sustainability isn’t new, ask Nan’, we need to only look to the past for many of the measures we must implement. However, we could also look to Asia.

We in the fast and hard living West are slowly coming to realise that being more sustainable is going to require we live our lives differently: that we stop relying on plastic-packed convenience food and takeaway coffee and learn to sit down and take the time to eat real food, perhaps with real people, again.

In many parts of developing Asia, this is standard. In Vietnam especially, where your writer lived for over two years, lunchtime is non-negotiable. At 12noon every day businesses shut down and workers head to the lunch stalls, where vendors have worked frantically all morning preparing steaming vats of food.

You eat these meals, priced at around £1 each, on small tables on the street from real plates, with metal cutlery, and surrounded by people. The idea of taking a packaged sandwich back to your desk while you carry on answering emails is a bizarre one. There’s a word for workaholic in Vietnamese, but its only ever applied to foreigners.

Socially zero-waste

Similarly, coffee is drank in the coffee shop. Again, pulling up a tiny chair in a small cafe, customers are quickly served with an iced black coffee in a glass, which they drink slowly over long chats as the ice melts to dilute the knockout strength of the traditional Vietnamese blend. Takeaway is not an option.

Dinner is similar to lunch – very few people cook at home and street food is the norm. If one is peckish there are no end of real, whole food choices for low prices. Here in the UK, if you don’t have the time or inclination to cook, the choices are an expensive restaurant, or heavily packaged and processed convenience food and takeaways.

Those that do shop for food, though, do so in the food markets that cluster on almost every street corner. Here, if you take your own bag, there is zero packaging. Indeed, even in supermarkets only the really fancy stuff is in plastic – everything else is loose and the rest wrapped in banana leaves.

Ultimately, if we truly want to become sustainable, we have to slow down and stop eating and drinking on the go. This really is a key point and one that is not given anything like the airtime it deserves. Probably, one suspects, due to the millions of pounds businesses and the packaging industry stands to lose.

As with the energy sector, though, retail and catering need only change their models to meet the needs of a sustainable world – and first movers will gain the advantage. Imagine a small shop outside your office building that sold plates of delicious, fresh, whole food for £2 between 12 noon and 2pm every day. Do you think it would do well?

Toilet taboos

Finally, one of the most hygienic and sustainable habits we should all take from Asia is the bucket and scoop, or for classier establishments, the ‘bum gun’. This is something that Westerners (except the French, of course) find bizarre; so divorced are we from the functions of our own bodies the idea of using our hands to wash after the toilet is – to most – vomit inducing.

However, consider this: if you – somehow – got some poop on your arm, would you just wipe it off with some tissue and go about your day? No? Well then.

There is no need for toilet paper in Asia: you wash and go. Some might have a few squares on hand, but the rolls are tiny, designed for drying purposes only. And you CERTAINLY don’t flush it down the toilet.

There are habits that are entirely second nature in developing Asia that we must all adopt if we want to sustain human life in a natural world. Aside from the above, these include conserving energy by never leaving unused electronic items plugged in, never leaving the fridge door open longer than absolutely necessary and never leaving the tap running – among others.

Far from being ahead, our busy, modern lives have put us in some ways far behind in the sustainability stakes. We can do better though, and the benefits to the planet – as well as our own health and happiness – are clear.

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