Updated on February 22, 2019
Updated on February 22, 2019
I was dreaming about gold-gilded temples when a cacophony of street roosters, dogs and children, accompanied by a chorus of Buddhist chants woke me. I blinked my eyes open and peeled the curtains from the window to see the local teashop was open, and already full, and the food hawkers—all women—were walking the streets with precarious piles of sweet watermelon and fried bread arranged on metal platters and balanced on their heads. The sun had already been up for a few hours, my sign to get moving, and to start my search for Myanmar’s famous temples in the rural outskirts of the city of Hpa-An.
Shortly after setting out for the day on a motorbike, I had not yet reached the temples when I found something else that’s become ubiquitous with Southeast Asia: plastic. Like many countries in and around the Asia-Pacific region that were relatively late-adopters to plastic compared to most of the West, Myanmar has poor-to-nonexistent municipal trash collection and recycling systems in its major cities—and none in its small villages—as well a general addiction to single-use plastic items, and poor education about the perils of plastic waste. What’s more, a strong wave of tourism has just begun to flow into this country that was closed off to foreigners until 2012.
All countries—early and late adopters alike—are struggling to reduce their mismanaged plastic waste by making waste systems more efficient, passing legislation to curb use of plastic and incentivize a circular economy. But unlike some of the other places I’ve been, Myanmar locals attempt to cope with their growing plastic problem by using garbage as a resource.
Plastic is a problem because it’s relatively durable. So while it may never break down like natural materials such as wood and glass, it does stick around for a long time in its original form. That means fishers can drink bottles of water or soda and then use the empty plastic bottles to float their fishing nets, and then catch fish to sell and feed their families.
It also means they can pick through a garbage dump and use plastic advertisements to add waterproof siding and decorations to their homes and businesses.
Nearly all food and beverages sold in Myanmar are wrapped in plastic, whether they’re made on a roadside or in a restaurant.
That use of plastic in everyday life has a high ecological cost. Myanmar is ranked 17 in creation of mismanaged waste worldwide, creating at least 460,000 metric tons of waste—mostly plastic—every year. A large amount of that trash is burned in open pits while the rest blows along beaches, rice paddies, and roadsides. The country also creates an additional 70,000 to 180,000 metric tons of plastic waste—mostly single-use items like bags and bottles—that enters the oceans annually. Is it better that people are using the trash they make and find rather than allow it to blow around beaches, roadsides, fields and into the sea?
While inventive use of plastic can help remove small amounts the stuff from streets and the natural environment, even noticeable efforts like those made by people in Myanmar make a very small dent. The issue is that big.
What’s more, new research suggests that there are risks to recycling and reusing waste. For example, on the island of Zanzibar, many locals also repurpose trash for uses such as building and containing food. There, scientists found that disease-causing bacteria were strongly bound to plastic bottles and other trash found on roadsides, in ditches and on beaches. Scientists also know that all plastics appear to break up into smaller pieces over time, both absorbing and releasing toxic chemicals along the way. Wildlife and humans, particularly those living in, on or around the oceans, ingest these toxic particles—with less-understood effects on health.
Waste problems aside, Myanmar’s resourcefulness when it comes to reusing its plastic trash highlights a different kind of human relationship to waste. In the U.S. and Europe, where I’ve lived, people see waste as something we are distant from even though we’ve created it. Perhaps if we were to draw inspiration from Myanmar, where many people see trash as a resource, we might start to reconsider our relationship to it and think more circularly.
And we need to—if we want to slow the world’s rising tide of plastic.