A plastic problem for a genuine people: how rubbish is threatening south east Asia’s future

Plastic bottles, plastic bags and the stench of rubbish greeted us as we left a suburban train station in Kuala Lumpur to spend a few hours at one of Malaysia’s most revered Hindu temples and natural attractions, Batu Caves. It was a sign of things to come as we made our way past filthy souvenir stalls, more rubbish and tacky attractions to the temple. The Malaysian Hindu women were dressed to the nines in their elegant, colourful and immacuate saris, but their overwhelming beauty was tarnished by the litter they passed as they made the trek up 272 steps of the temple which has been built into the side of a huge and impressive limestone range and cave system.

Rubbish greeting tourists and pilgrims as they make their way to the world’s most prominent Hindu temple outside of India.

The Hindus removed their shoes for their pilgrimage while the tourists kept theirs on. As we climbed past a huge gold statue of Lord Murugan, the pavement and steps were wet and dirty rubbish, thieving monkeys persecuted those carrying food and roosters strutted wherever those chose. The magnificence of the huge cave, now with a cement floor and railings, the partly vegetated cave walls, and the beautiful statues embeded in the cave’s natural ledges were interuppted by the souvenir shop selling clocks with flashing lights that played Hindu chants, minature versions of the statue which stood so valiantly at the entrance to this great contradiction and hundreds of trinkets to remind the traveller of their visit to Kuala Lumpur. My memory won’t be of the Hindu god of war. It will be of filth.

Standing at 42.7 m (140 ft) high, the world’s tallest statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity, is located outside Batu Caves, near the city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
There is litter beside every one of the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves temple and shrine.
 

It was obvious religion was cashing-in on both tourists and pilgrims. As a non-Hindu, I felt like I was western, white privileged voyeur. I was invading a special place I had little understanding of. But like most tourists, “it was cool to see”. It was something encouraged by the locals, keen to make a buck.

Without the rubbish, the cement and the souvenir shops, the Hindu pilgrimage to the temple within the Batu Caves is a sight to behold.

My cynicism and sentiment was echoed by a woman I met in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

“There is corruption here and religion has sold out too,” she scorned as she explained the unregulated and poorly planned development that dominated this once peaceful and beautiful part of the world. Monstrous blocks of ugly flats encroach on mountainous rainforest that I had a glorious time hiking through in Tanah Rata. Highrise apartments spoil the views of guesthouses that have been operating for decades, nestled unobstrusively into a hill. A local businessman alleges a mammoth sum of US$100,000 would have been made to the person or people responsible for the approval of a large apartment block nearby. He shrugs forlornly as he tells me he’s lived in the small town all his life. 

The picturesque and rainforest-rich Cameron Highlands is fast becoming a place of unregulated development which is threatening the tourist potential of the region.

Effective waste management is non-existant in south east Asia. And the use of plastic bottles is rampant, with no effort to even acknowledge the problems they cause let alone to manage them. They and plastic bags litter roadsides, streams, culvets, gutters, yards, roads, bloody everywhere. 

Bottled drinking water is provided in all hotel rooms with only some of those hotels providing opportunities to refill them with filtered water. You see, few people drink the tap water. And with the ever-increasing number of tourists flocking to these cheap holiday destinations the plastic problem is a looming disaster for both the environment and tourism. 

It’s not only visitors contributing to south east Asia’s plastic pollution. Gifts from the locals to their Gods also contribute. A shrine on every corner is littered with food and drink gifts in plastic – chips, cokes, sweets.

The tidiest shrine I saw in my month-long Asian travels. This was beside on of Bangkok’s main roads.

I’m not sure which God would appreciate the destruction of the natural environment and I’m at a loss to understand why people so dedicated to their God and religion would let any place of worship get so ugly. South east Asia is an incredibly beautiful part of the world. You’ve just got to look past the plastic.

In Cambodia my local guide explains “it’s a cultural thing” as I question him about the litter strewn at a pretty lotus farm not far from Siem Reap. 

“As a child we were allowed to throw it by the roadside. Everybody did it. It’s only now, as an adult, that I realise how bad it is. But not many people care. The plastic will last 400 years, you know.”

A polluted creek is used to irrigate the lotus plants on a lotus farm not far from Siem Reap.

I queried the role of government in offering waste management options as I explained the large emphasis that Australian local governments place on managing waste. He looked at me gob-smacked as he said there was no rubbish collection, no waste management, and no litter education, let alone recycling options. 

Another guide told me it is each household’s responsibility to manage their rubbish. As a result most of it is burned in piles that sit close to each house, contributing to toxic dioxin emmissions and the stink of those villages that tourists pay big tourist dollars to see. Even as I sat on a small boat to tour the remote floating villages on the floodpains of Tonle Sap lake at the floating community Kompong Khleang, my tour was interupted twice as the boat’s skipper struggled to remove the pastic bags that has enveloped the boat’s propeller.

Rubbish is burned on the banks of the river that provides the livelihoods of a Cambodian fishing village.

But all is not lost. There is a very small movement starting to bubble in the dirty and polluted streets of Cambodia. Driven by international interest there is evidence that at least some people recognise the looming disaster. There is at least one campaign encouraging businesses to join the “war on waste”.

Refill Not Landfill is working to minimise the one-use plastic bottles that the initiative says amounts to “355,000 bottles discarded by tourists every day”. It aims to offer refilling opportunities but, during my travels throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia, I saw few establishments that offered a filtered water refill opportunity.

Cambodia is an evolving tourist mecca, with predictions tourism numbers will more than double to 10 million per year in just a few years. Any waste initiative will only work if more business come on board, and quickly. 

By far one of the most encouraging example of waste management education in Cambodia is by non-government organisation HUSK. Funded by a popular local tourism venture that offers guided tours, HUSK has built two schools made of plastic water bottles. Yes, the school walls are made of bottles filled with plastic bags covered by a concrete render. The local community in Kompheim was paid for their plastic rubbish and, with the help of generous western donors, a school was born. The locals call it the plastic bottle school. I call it a good place to start.

South east Asia has a monstrous plastic problem. As tourism continues to boom it’s a problem getting worse by the day. It’s not going to go away until governments offer waste solutions for their people. The plastic problem is threatening the health of villagers, their agricultural production and their tourism lifeblood. 

It’s a beautiful part of the world, filled with lovely people, great adventures and memorable experiences. But, for me, what I will remember about the month I spent in south east Asia is poor countries drowning in plastic thanks to ignorant and allegedly corrupt governments who would rather count their short-term tourist dollars instead of encouraging the long-term economic, agricultural and ecological prosperity of their people. 

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