Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Green travels to developing countries

Season's greetings, all! I was traveling abroad in Malaysia and Singapore for a few weeks this December. It was a wonderful trip and I loved being there. Southeast Asia is culturally similar to East Asia in many ways, but there were refreshing differences, such as the interesting mixing of Malay, Chinese, and Indian influences in the region. The food especially was amazing - I couldn't stop eating the street food, it was too delicious! That brings me to my next point - waste.

Street food in Asia used to consist of using reusable containers (glass jars for water while traveling, plastic containers for food) or compostable newspaper to wrap food with. What could be reused was and what left was thrown away, but because the material was compostable, there was little environmental impact. But with the rise of convenient and throwaway plastic bags and containers, the same habits of throwing things away created huge trash issues. During my travels in Malaysia and my past trips to China and India, I observed so many rivers clogged up with trash, city streets littered with plastic bags and bottles, and land covered with huge piles of waste.


Trash casually thrown away - my grandfather's hometown village in Guangxi province, China

At one point during my travels in China, my friend and I got so fed up with the constant plastic bagging of our street food that we decided to start reusing the old bags and chopsticks. Sometimes the hawker stall vendors would insist on giving us new bags or chopsticks. But eventually we got our way. It's a small victory to prevent one plastic bag or a pair of chopsticks from being thrown into the streets, but I hope that it gets people thinking about what they can do to prevent the waste from piling up.

Traveling to developing countries does make me realize how complicated the rise to first world status is. Environmental impact is just about the last thing the government will be thinking about when economic productivity is on the line. But I think that environmental sustainability is key to achieving first world status and it is not a luxury only to be obtained once economic success is had. Without sustainable foundations, society will be very unstable. I don't have any quick and easy answers to how to maintain that goal, especially when there are many other pressing problems to address in developing countries. But I do think that having that solid foundation will help ease the tension in the other areas.