Friday, 21 February 2020
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Hi there

I live in South East Asia and have traveled extensively in the region. In most places I have visited, people habitually throw their rubbish in the streets and/or burn it. Some places are better than others, but the problem is extremely widespread (the obvious exceptions being Singapore and Japan). Needless to say, this creates horrific pollution!

When I ask locals if they think it's OK to do this, they typically say they know it's wrong. When I ask why they do it anyway, they usually say it's what everyone does, so them stopping would make no meaningful difference.

How on earth do we persuade millions of people to change their habits?
2 years ago
Hi Lisa

I have lived in South East Asia for 15 years, so I know exactly what you're talking about. It's such a beautiful region and it's so sad too see what's happening with rubbish, other forms of pollution, and habitat destruction.

I think you've asked a very important question! Interestingly, my home country Australia can provide an encouraging example of the improvement that's possible. When I was much younger, it was common for Aussies to throw rubbish in the streets or waterways. As a result, there was a lot of litter everywhere. It wasn't quite as bad as what I see in South East Asia today, but it wasn't good. Now, I'm happy to say that Australia is among the cleanest countries in the world!

So what caused this remarkable transformation? Well, back in 1986 a guy called Ian Kiernan participated in a round the world yacht race. And was horrified by the huge amount of rubbish he saw even in the most remote parts of the ocean.

So in 1989, Ian founded the Cleanup Australia Campaign. It involved an annual event, Cleanup Australia Day, plus a range of ongoing projects to encourage better waste management. It was a huge success and became the catalyst for various government sponsored initiatives including large scale community education programs and substantial fines for littering.

I can't claim to have deep knowledge of this specific campaign. However, my personal feeling is that this it succeeded in creating meaningful change because it changed Australian culture surrounding the topic. It used to be OK to throw stuff on the street, but now it's socially unacceptable – and I think that's the key!

There is also an offshoot global campaign called Cleanup The World which attracts many millions of people for its annual cleanup event. But as far as I know, it has not had the same effect on cultural values as it did in Australia. So what did Australia do differently? I think the main difference it that there was also a substantial community education campaign by the government. Maybe 30 years later, I can still remember the TV ads, and I believe they were effective because they appealed to our sense of national pride.

I suspect that countries with a bad litter problem could have similar success, if they organise:

  1. large grass-roots volunteer cleanup campaigns
  2. large government-sponsored community education programs
  3. environmental education in schools for children of all ages
  4. substantial fines for littering which are actually enforced
  5. efficient and affordable waste collection and processing.

Of course, all of the above takes a lot of time, effort, and money. But my point is that the Australian experience suggests that it is possible to change people's behavior and those changes can be long term.

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

2 years ago
Like Adam Thyer, I'm an Aussie. I can vouch for the fact that Australia has very little litter compared to many other countries. I'm too young too remember the original Clean Up Australia campaign. But I know that not littering is something that's now ingrained pretty strongly into our culture. Of course some people still litter, but most don't.

It's never easy to change the behaviour of a population, but clearly it can happen. I think one of the keys is to change the way that people feel about the topic, in this case littering. The reality is that children are more easily influenced than adults. That's why I think that it's important to include this, and other sustainability issues, in school curriculum. In fact, if you can influence the kids, they might then exert some influence over the behaviour of their parents.
2 years ago
I am working with some young people on exactly this issue in Bali, Indonesia. In my opinion, vital words are care and responsibility. And positive communication. I hope this article gives some perspective. This is a friends-link so you can read for free.
2 years ago
Desiree Driesenaar - I spent 6 months in Ubud Bali in 2017. It's a gorgeous place with lovely people. However, I was saddened by the water pollution and relentless rubbish burning.

I am encouraged to learn about your efforts to contribute to a solution and like the approach that you described in your blog post. I don't suppose you have come across Hannah Widjana, a friend of mine who lives in Ubud? She is very passionate about this topic and lobbies local communities to do a better job with their waste management.

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

I am also quite sensitive with this topic, but on the other hand, I personally think that it is also pretty hypocritical from Western visitors or expats living in SEA to complain about waste management.

We can educate the communities and also ask the governments to improve their waste management facilities. However, the main responsible for this lack of awareness regarding trash is not precisely the Asian community.

How contradictory is to ask people who have no -or very little- garbage management facilities to reduce their trash, when most of their groceries or purchased products come with a plastic packing?

How can most expats living in SEA forget about their waste management education and stop disposing their own garbage in a selective way? I live in Vietnam, and that there is no governmental selective collection of waste, it does not necessarily mean that the country does not recycle. Because the community does, and a lot. The difference is that it looks as if even those who have received waste management education, forget about it in here, and with this behavior, we all are making people to manually dive in our trash to be able to proceed to separate and recycle it. Maybe we could be more considerate with them by just separating our trash in different bags, I personally keep experiencing how much they appreciate it and I also consider this a simple but a great way to raise awareness on this topic in SEA.

How paradoxical is to complain about the garbage that SEA dumps into the ocean, when most of this garbage is produced by Asian industries whose main markets are those "highly developed countries"?

How am i going to dare to point out to an Asian citizen about how to keep their streets clean when maybe this citizen is working in one of these industries and is therefore aware of how the garbage is "managed" on a large scale?

How am I going to dare to proceed with occasional cleaning up events in the weekend, when during the rest of the week I am contributing with my full time job, with my life-style and purchases to keep polluting these part of the world, and by extension, the whole Globe?

I work very closely with Vietnamese communities and I do suggest improvements for them in this regard, but of course not just right after I meet them. I first need to gather as much information as I can about their particular environmental and socioeconomic frame and above all, establish meaningful bonds with them. Only when i know the challenges and issues they are going through and the support they have to overcome their challenges, I dare to provide them with my suggestions, which curiously, are usually more welcomed by the Southeast Asian communities than by the Western ones I used to work with.

So, I personally think that the best way to persuade the millions Southeast Asian citizens to change their habits, would be to persuade the millions citizens of highly developed countries to be more conscious of the global impacts of their daily habits. And this way, communities from both sides of the Globe would also be persuading industries and governments worldwide to really work towards a more sustainable production and consumption.
2 years ago
Hi all

Many thanks for the fabulous responses!

I agree with Adam Thyer that the Australian experience might offer some useful lessons. I wonder if anyone has ever assessed how a similar program might be achieved in developing countries? I think James Miller is undoubtedly correct about the benefits of educating children. I also love the advice given in Desiree Driesenaar's blog post.

Natalia da Cunha Álvarez, I think you made some excellent and entirely valid points. However, the focus of my post was how we might go about persuading millions of people to stop throwing rubbish in the streets (I should have also mentioned waterways) or burning it. Whereas your response seems to have passed the responsibility back onto developing countries. Of course, I agree that there's the much wider problem of wasteful consumerism and unsustainable packaging. Yes, this originated in developed countries, not Asia. And yes, there's the issue of inadequate waste management facilities (both in developing and developed countries). I wholeheartedly acknowledge the need to solve these problems. However, they're not things that will be be solved overnight.

In contrast, if people stopped throwing rubbish into the streets/waterways or burning it, there would be a massive and immediate reduction in the amount of pollution going into the environment. I would like to emphasise that I'm 100% in agreement on the need for cultural sensitivity and an understanding of the local circumstances before offering any advice. I would also say that while it might be appropriate for outsiders to play some kind of advisory role, the only way I can imagine achieving the necessary scale would be for most of the impetus to come from locals.
Hi there,

I'm afraid that i don't share your vision in here guys.

I know that the main topic was how to persuade locals from throwing rubbish in the streets and i am of course not encouraging this behavior at all, but what I intended to communicate on my previous response, is that I personally think that we are in that tipping point where pollution issues must be tackled bearing in mind which the priorities are. It would be wonderful if all the issues could be tackled at the same time, but this is only dispersing the efforts till such a point that we are going nowhere. Hence, a focus on the priorities could be a nice strategy to try. And once these first priorities are fixed, then the next priorities could be established as well.

Reducing the rubbish in the streets would not mean any massive immediate reduction of pollution as it would be to tackle the main causes of air, water and land pollution, which are industrial production, construction, mining, transportation, agriculture, and *not* the trash in the streets of developing countries.
So, focusing on this `minor cause´ of pollution, would basically mean no efficient advancement towards the protection of our planet. And efficiency and coherence it is being something urgent since way too long in order to readdress the situation.

Therefore, in order to tackle the main causes, we *must* look for its roots. I neither passed this responsibility to the developed countries nor to the developing ones, since in my opinion, both parties have their respective amount of responsibility. But the origin which is provoking the most massive impacts to our environment is the unconscious production and consumption, which started with the 2nd revolution in the West and it was and it is being passed to the East.

Apart from the local circumstances, we really must do our own research regarding the global ones as well, so that we can have the whole picture, which is not provided by Eastern nor Western Media. In this regard, I also disagree with fact that countries like Australia, the States or Europe were doing a great job with recycling, since *****one truly green country must also take into account their global impacts out of its boundaries*****

We can have the best national waste management propaganda and plan in our country, but I would not call "recycling" to the fact of sending our trash to China as AU, EU and US used to do till very short time ago. Plus it cannot be said that this exportation helped to reduce any carbon footprint either.

So... I really think we should be more critical with our governments back home. Common sense, coherence and priorities is what must be implemented first if we want to achieve any improvement.
2 years ago
Hi Natalia

I agree with almost everything you've said. However, I can't grasp why you think one thing (tackling root causes) precludes the other (more appropriate waste disposal). I also believe you are wrong to downplay the benefits of eliminating littering and illegal dumping. You say that stopping rubbish from being thrown into the streets and waterways would "not mean any massive immediate reduction of pollution". I disagree. A 2017 study showed that 90% of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from just 10 river systems and eight of them are in Asia. The plastic gets into the rivers because people discard their rubbish into the streets where it gets washed into stormwater systems and then into a river or ocean. Vast amounts of rubbish are also dumped directly into waterways. More than eight million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year from the land. So I strongly dispute your assertion that it is just a "minor cause" of pollution.

Is the most desirable outcome to eliminate all single use plastics and other forms of unsustainable packaging? Of course! But what are we supposed to do about the problem until that dream becomes a reality?

As I said in my reply above, I wholehearted supporter the measures you are advocating. However, I do not know why you are so dismissive of using behavioral change that would reduce or eliminate the:

  • vast majority of plastic pollution in our oceans
  • unsightly rubbish that covers the land and beaches almost everywhere in Asia
  • microplastics that make their way into both natural and agricultural food chains
  • toxic smoke from households burning their rubbish (especially plastics).

As well as these environmental and health benefits, there will also be benefits for tourism which is a significant part of the economy for many countries in the region. Having cleaner streets, natural habitats, and beaches would greatly enhance the desirability of these destinations. A more pristine environment would attract more affluent visitors. And this in turn would provide additional income for local communities and potentially facilitate more sustainable tourism models.
Hi Lisa,

Not sure if you checked them out, but the links i added above may offer a nice picture about why the rivers in Asia are the ones dumping more plastic into the ocean.

Trying to sum up my response about your question, i think that the best way to persuade people to stop throwing rubbish in the street would be persuading our governments and the industry to drastically change the production policies. A dream? Maybe. Especially when worldwide citizens are not aware of the fact that their national waste management facilities aren't that great on a global scale.
It should be also a dream then to try to persuade people to change any sort of behavior if they do not count on the respective facilities to do it.

So it looks as if we were both dreamers :/

However, in this case, i really think that it is not about the people, but about governance, *local and global governance* - and it is here when we can really make a difference on a local scale.
2 years ago
I used to write the annual "Clean Waterways Report" for Sydney Water (Australia's largest water utility). The advice that I received from the scientists and engineers who provided the data for this report was that the vast majority of rubbish in the rivers and oceans was the result of it being washed from the streets into stormwater systems. I also know that in Asia, large amounts of rubbish are thrown directly into the rivers by individuals and businesses.

There is more visible rubbish in Asia because more people throw it into the streets, vacant land, or rivers. Also, waste collection and management in Asia is often poor, or sometimes not existent. And yes, until recently, there was the absurd situation where huge amounts of solid waste were being exported to Asia from Westen countries for "recycling". It would not surprise me if much of it was dumped in landfills or rivers.

I think that it's entirely appropriate to try to prevent rubbish from being disposed of inappropriately. For example, here's an article talking about the problem and some of the proposed solutions underway in Bali.

That said, I also agree that the long-term solution MUST be the elimination of unsustainable packaging.

I don't think either goal needs to remain a dream. Both approaches are achievable. The trickiest part will be getting governments out from under the thumb of vested interests such as the petrochemical industry.

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

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