Putting the Grrr back in Green

Posted by - February 20, 2012 | Category: Library

Garbage Really Gets My Goat

A couple of months ago in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, I noticed a kid — no more than 7 years old — take an ice cream sandwich his parents had just purchased, unwrap it, then waltz right past a garbage can and throw the wrapper into the street. You know what I found most surprising? 

That there was actually a garbage can.

funny garbage canI’m a little angry today, and it’s another ice cream induced headache. (It was a Cornetto for those keeping track, Magnum is well out of my budget range.) I bought one here in Bangkok last night, and once the chocolatey goodness had gone, I found myself with sticky fingers, and an even stickier dilemma…

What to do with the ice cream wrapper?

Surely there’s a garbage bin outside the store where I bought it, I thought. Well, no.

That’s okay, 7/11 just up the road will have one for sure. Nope.

In fact, in the 15 minutes it took me to walk back to my hotel, I did not see one public garbage can.


I ended up taking the wrapper back to my room. Even the lobby in my hotel didn’t have a trash bin.

That makes me angry.

Dr. Andy Nazarechuk, President of Asia-Pacific CHRIE at ASEAN Tourism Forum 2012, Manado Indonesia

The theme at the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Tourism Forum in Manado, Indonesia last month was ASEAN Goes Green. There was a rally cry on all things green at the outset of the conference from Keynote Speaker Mr. Taleb D. Rifai, Secretary General of United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Then a well received call to arms from Dr. Andy Nazarechuk, President of Asia-Pacific Council on Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Education (APacCHRIE). And Jim Boyles, GM of Melia hotels in Bali, Indonesia went on to give an enthusiastic speech about the economic and earthly benefits of hotels turning the green corner.

And that’s kinda where it ended. There was little else green about the conference. But more on that in a bit.

Building a Better Bin

Dr. Andy’s presentation centred on an example of the development of Boracay in the Philippines over the years, complete with photos he had taken himself only weeks earlier.

One of the photos was of what he called the perfect garbage can.


So why is this the ultimate in trash receptacles? Well, it’s made from concrete. That means it’s going to last for decades, and unlike plastic trash bins, it probably won’t end up in a garbage dump anytime soon. It also means it was made locally, which lessens the carbon footprint used to create it. And bonus points to Boracay for creating local jobs.

So we’ve got the perfect garbage bin. But what ends up happening to it? Something like this…

overflowing garbage can on the beach in Boracay Philippines

You see, tourists DO want to dispose of their trash. But when facilities do exist, the local infrastructure is often ill-equipped to handle it. Garbage collection is infrequent. Garbage is oftentimes just burned, or even worse, dumped into the ocean. Take a look at this article from Time Magazine about the problems garbage is causing for Bunaken Island in Indonesia.

At the ASEAN Tourism Forum, the tourism boards from the 10 member nations presented their plans for 2012. Mostly they centred around projected numbers of visitors for the coming year, infrastructure developments, and accolades each country received in the previous year.

The only one that appeared to have a green strategy was Thailand.  They called it the “7 Greens”.

Thailand 7 Greens Strategy

And they backed it up nicely by offering a USB key to media members filled with PDF brochures instead of the stacks of paper brochures and booklets the others member nations handed out. Nice touch.

But try finding a public garbage can in Bangkok.

Some of the ASEAN countries mentioned a focus on eco-tourism in their presentations. And that was quite welcome…but…you can have all the green hotels and green attractions in the world, but when your beaches end up looking like this one in Phu Quoc, Vietnam…

Garbage-lining-the-beach-in-Phu-Quoc-Vietnam.jpgOr this one in Krong Koh Kong, Cambodia…

Garbage along the beach in Krong Koh Kong,  Cambodia

…tourists are going to have something like this to say,

“The hotel was fabulous, but the garbage on the beach was atrocious.”

So what’s the answer? Well, garbage cans are a start. But what happens downstream from that bin needs to handled a lot better as well. If Tourism Boards are serious about putting their greenbacks where their green mouth is, they should consider something like what’s happening at the Chiang Mai Sunday Market in Thailand.

Chiang Mai, Thailand Sunday Night Market food bazaar recycling program

Looks complicated, but they even have an attendant there to assist you with disposing of your waste properly. Now that’s going green.


An initiative from NoFoam.org in Chiang Mai is also attempting to convince local food vendors to quit serving their dishes in foam plates and containers. It looks like they are having some success – many of the stalls serve meals in containers made from banana leaf.


The loose cannons in this equation are people like that kid in Ho Chi Minh City. And his parents. If the locals don’t give a damn about where the garbage is going, what message does that send to tourists?

I would argue that it’s not tourism that is responsible for the massive garbage problem in Southeast Asia, but its own inhabitants who shoulder most of the blame.

Perhaps that’s where some of the focus should be.

What are your thoughts?

Further reading:

  • For Dr. Andy Nazarechuk’s and Jim Boyle’s presentations at ASEAN Tourism Forum “ASEAN Goes Green” educational conference see: ATF Indonesia — Update (April 2012): It appears that the ATF Indonesia website is down. If you would like a copy of Dr. Andy Nazarechuk’s presentation, send me a message via my Contact Form and I will send a copy your way.
  • For the full Tourism Authority of Thailand media briefing at ATF 2012, including speaker’s notes, check out: TATNews.org

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50 comments - add one
    1. It’s such a widespread problem in Asia. Shop owners in Thailand do a pretty good job of keeping out front of their stores clean, but that’s apparently a way of giving thanks to Buddha, and not entirely related to having a clean environment.

  1. Those pictures of the beaches are really disturbing. I absolutely hate seeing places that have been ruined by littering. Such a shame that there were no rubbish bins for you to put your ice cream wrapper in, but so glad that you carried it with you. I always do too. Many wouldn’t bother.

    1. If it’s so hard for municipalities to provide something as easy as a garbage can, it makes me wonder what they are doing when it comes to more complicated infrastructure demands…like garbage dumps and water treatment. 🙁

  2. Yesss… thank you so much for writing about this! Chiang Mai seems pretty on top of things, but even when we’re walking around the markets here (Sunday Market included) it’s difficult to find trash cans. We get small items of food as we walk, and then end up with our hands full of trash and no where to throw it! We’ve started to make note of where the trash cans are so we can unload periodically. So if CM is the shining example, then I can’t imagine what it’s like elsewhere… =/

    1. It is horrible elsewhere for sure. And most every market is like that too — zero trash cans. Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok is no different. Usually I have to search in someone’s store behind the cash register to find a little plastic garbage bin.

  3. I agree, it’s not a tourist problem, it comes right down to personal level. People don’t seem to care about their surroundings, I see examples of it every day in Thailand, people throwing empty wrappers out the car window, people walking the street dropping their litter without even a second thought.

    I simply amazes every time I see it, it’s a terrible attitude to have toward your environment, I just just don’t know how they can do it.

  4. People literally trashing the places they live is mind boggling to me. I know a lot of this has to do with access to services and the culture, but…

    I hate to be nihilistic, but seeing that trash on the beach makes me wonder if we can survive as a species.

    Now you’ve got me upset and rambling…

  5. This reminds me of Costa Rica. Trash piled up in the cans the same as you’ve shown here. The town I lived in went through a major beach clean-up, which was awesome. But in the barrios, the trash would often go weeks. I took photos once and never posted. You’re awesome for doing so!

    1. Thanks Abby — I think more tourists (and bloggers!) need to show the real picture when it comes to travel. And inevitably, that means putting up with a lot of heckuva lot of garbage.

  6. In the UK a number of national parks and public places went through a phase of removing all the bins because of what you show here – people will use them until they are barely visible under the pile of trash. The theory was that by removing the receptacle, people would be more likely to take their garbage home, which seemed mostly to work. I think education is the key to this sort of issue.

    1. I wish it were the same in Asia. Singapore is probably the only place that has it under control. And that’s only because they use their garbage to build more Singapore!

  7. I need to write more of these article thingies where I write about important stuff and stuff. I could actually sell those more often. Maybe. Or I’d just wad it up and toss it out the window. One of those.

  8. I totally agree. I think it is everywhere. I see it in Boston all the time. Kids do what they are taught to do.

    If that’s what beaches look like in Asia, I’ll be heading elsewhere. Maybe that will get people to change their habits.

  9. Thanks for this post. I think you raise a lot of interesting points about the way trash is disposed of in developing countries. It upsets me when I see beautiful world heritage sites, ancient ruins, beaches etc being used as sites for people’s garbage. Hopefully people will become more aware and it’ll change before those sites get ruined forever (esp. in the case of natural environments like rivers, beaches etc).

  10. Yeah, the rubbish is definitely a problem in many places in Asia, people just throw their garbage anywhere. But even with the lack of trash cans I was surprised how clean Bangkok was, thou I agree that Chiang Mai was handling the issue even better!

    1. It’s so true — a lot of countries promote ecotourism and ecotourist resorts, but they fail in promoting recycling and green alternatives to their own people.

  11. It’s such an important issue – good for you for highlighting it. We are amazed at how bad the situation is in Asia, especially India and Nepal.

  12. I have found this issue most frustrating whilst travelling through Asia! Other travellers’ attitudes often surprise me too. I have come across a fair few who assume local attitudes to things like littering, throwing their trash out windows and onto streets, even though they know better! I think it’s so important to set an example – not in an “I’m holier than thou” way but to introduce new or different ways of thinking.

    1. I was out for dinner a couple of nights ago her in in Chiang Mai and saw a woman who, while waiting for her to cross the street, saw a Coke bottle on the ground, and instead of picking it up and recycling or even putting it into the garbage, she kicked it into the moat!

      I wanted to kick her into the moat.

  13. The perfect trash can sounds.. perfect. We’re currently in Singapore and I don’t know what or how they enforce it here, the city is spotless. Not even a gum wrapper but probably because chewing gum is illegal here. Lol. I often carry a small plastic bag around with me to collect our own trash because like you, we’re shocked at how hard it is to find a trash can especially in Asia.

  14. I remember the trash heaps in the backpacker area of Bangkok. No trash cans, just heaps of neatly piled trash. Only times I had difficulty finding trash cans in China (that people rarely used) was when I took trips to more rural destinations.

    1. Folks in Bangkok have this habit of just chucking everything on the ground, then some little old lady comes by in the morning and sweeps it up. There’s gotta be a better way.

  15. Raymond, thanks so much for this post – the garbage issue is a topic that we’re extremely struggling with while traveling the world. We have been finding ourselves walking around with garbage in our hands so many times now in Thailand, refusing to throw it on the floor like everybody else does. The place we found the most environmentally unfriendly was Honduras where we saw dirty beaches similar to the one you visited in Cambodia, and people would throw out their Styrofoam cups and plates out of the window of the buses constantly – the sides of the roads looked terrible and we were asking ourselves how they did not see the garbage everywhere (or were they just ignoring it?)

    Anyway, initiatives like NoFoam.org are a good start and I hope they’ll spread all over the globe ASAP!

    1. I remember the bus station in Tegucigalpa and thought it was actually the city’s dump site it was so filled with garbage. So sad that people are ruining the planet with their junk.

  16. I always get upset when I see these kind of pics when people don’t care about our environment. We should understand that we haven’t inherited our planet from our grandparents, we’ve just borrowed it from our grandchildren. And they want to live on a green planet, too.

  17. It’s so frustrating not being able to find a garbage can. I’m currently in Seoul, and the other day I walked around for 15 minutes with my garbage in hand just looking for a place to toss it…I’ve just started stuffing it back in my purse, very hygienic, right? 😉

  18. I had a really hard time with seeing people throw their trash on the ground or out the car window with no regard. It does seem silly that they talk about going green at these conferences, but the biggest problem of actually having trucks come to pick up the trash is not addressed. It’s the same way in Mexico. Loads of garbage all around the trash cans that just never get picked up.

  19. I’m an expat living and working in Taiwan. I also have a dog, and I’m responsible with my dog’s little nuggets of joy. However, garbage collection being what it is in Taiwan, I prefer not to store little baggies of poo to ferment in the soupy heat of my kitchen. I look for a trashcan.

    And there was a time when I could find a public trashcan on nearly every corner of my neighborhood. But since trash collection requires you buy a special government bag, many people instead opt to use the free bin. Imagine that. So trashcans were filled to over-flowing with all kinds of household trash. It was messy, and stray dogs (as well as dogs just allowed to wander the streets alone) would come along and spread their buffet across the pavement.

    Now the city is cracking down on it. By removing all the trash cans. And suddenly… there’s trash strewn about the park. How did that happen? The youth of today has no respect. And I need to walk an extra 3 blocks to find a trashcan for my dog’s dumps.

    So I’m with you. There needs to be an effective infrastructure that is government run for trash cans and FREE collection. Anything else, and people are going to find cheaper, easier ways to remove their trash.

  20. I feel that they are at where we were about 50 years ago when it comes to waste disposal. With continued concerted effort from authorities and citizens on this matter, things will continually improve and get better!


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