How To Be Zero Waste As An Expat In Asia

As a writer for Attitude Organic, I started reading more and more about the zero waste movement. I am not a zero waste expert but I do want to help the cause. The thing is: I live in Asia, in a country where you have almost no choice but to buy your veggies packaged individually and where recycling is not cared about. This is how I wondered: “Is it possible to go zero waste as an expat in Asia?” Read this article to get the answer and to find some tips to start with.

The waste management system in Asia

I know it is not going to be the funniest part of the article dear readers but you need to be aware of the waste management situation in Asia to understand the issue. First a figure! In Thailand in 2011, only 26% of the waste was recycled. They burn the rest like they were doing 500 years ago. It was efficient back then as everything was organic but since the 20th century and the plastic apparition, it is a real problem.

Thus, as it is clear that the zero waste movement makes even more sense in Asia than in western countries. If the government does not have any efficient program, you should fight at your scale. The main point to remember here though, it that “zero” should not be over focused. It is more about the concept behind and how you can tend to it than the zero itself. Below all my advice, as an expat to reduce your waste.

1. Avoid the waste when you go shopping

In Asia, they still give plastic bags when you go shopping so make sure you own a cloth bag when you go to the mall.

Also, everything comes in useless packaging here but you just need a bit of Zero Waste material to avoid it. Get a Mason jar, go to the market and ask people to place what you buy inside.

2. Eat Zero Waste

First thing first, avoid food importation! Ask and eat local. Locals will be happy to tell you about the best food market.

Besides, people tend to eat outside because it is cheaper than cooking at home. If you go to a local food court and ask for a take away, they will give you plastic cutleries, ten paper napkins and a plastic box. Therefore, either you eat in or you bring your own material: water bottle, mason jar, and stainless plate… They might find it a bit strange at first but they are very friendly and will not dare saying no.

Even if it is fun to go to the local food court, as a French person, I am perfectly aware that it is not possible to live without my cheese for 6 months. Two options here. On one hand, look for similar products than you could find home and cook. You could make Bolognese everywhere I guess. Then, allow yourself a weekly exception to not feel homesick. On the other hand, go to a nice restaurant. Those kind of expat restaurants are usually expensive but you will less likely eat in a plastic plate. So no need to bring your own cutlery for once 🙂

3) Go fully digital

Good news, Asians live on their Smartphones. I never thought I would write that one day! You could turn this habit into positive by reducing your paper consumption. Avoid printing at work, go for QR codes plane tickets… For expats who like reading, be aware that it is almost impossible

to find good western books in local bookstores. It is very tempted to import some via Amazon but the best option is to buy an ebook online. No carbon footprint and no paper waste.

4) Use less toxic products

In European countries, it is relatively easy to find natural skincare and no toxic cleaning. In Asia, it is very difficult. Moreover, as people are not as educated as we are regarding organic regulations, Greenwashing is severe. Thus I advise to make your own products. As you can read in our clean green article, there is nothing that baking soda and essential oils cannot clean. You are also able to make your own natural beauty products, as the main ingredients are easy to find (honey, oat, banana, essential oils…). Refer to our 3 DIY face masks to get ideas.

Finally, go for local cosmetics brands and make sure that you read the composition properly.

5) Get pretty in a sustainable way

Locals look for cheap price over high quality so it can be hard to find sustainable products. I have a few advice on how you still can be chic and sustainable there. Try to find local brands. It can come in unexpected ways so stay open-minded. In Vietnam, you can find tailor made stores. Even if you do not know where fabrics come from, you are at least sure that the clothes are made for you in small batches and that they are ethically produced. Moreover, it is a great experience to have your measurement taken.

You can also find organic cotton brands, which is relatively easy because locals are sensitive to the comfort of the cloth.

Finally, get a capsule wardrobe made from basics. In all big Asian cities, you will find an H&M to be stylish in the end without harming the earth too much.

6) Make a to do list for when you go back home

Some products, such as menstrual cups cannot be found around or they can but it implied terrible transportation. Instead of importing it, wait until you go back home. Each time I go back to Europe, I make sure that I have time to buy all I will need later on (organic tampons, menstrual cup, my absolute needed dress from people tree uk, my antipodes moisturizer…)

7) Reduce your energy consumption

The good news is that you do not need to dry your clothes in a machine, as it is hot all year long. Just air-dry them. The bad news is that as it is hot you will be tempted to use the air conditioning. Try to use it consciously. You surely can fall asleep by 25 degrees, no need to have 19 degrees in the room. Most important, turn it off when you leave the flat.

In Asia, the public transportation is late. The cities are huge, the subway network is not developed, there is no walking area and Ubers are cheap. I know it can sound very tempting but I think you should avoid it. Therefore, chose to live in an area that is close to the main commodities so you can walk to the market.

Another thing to keep in mind, you will not walk into a organic cafe and booking a Uber to go there might cause more harm than good. Indeed your carbon emission to get there will be more harmful than if you go in your next-door cafe and use your own cup.

8) Compost

If you live in Asia, you will probably have enough space to make your own compost. That balances the fact that there is usually no initiatives taken about it at the country scale. You can refer to good websites to learn how to make your own.

9) Recycle

The main problem I face living in Asia, is that even if I live in a high-end apartment, I cannot recycle in the commodities. There is literally no green bin in the area. The only solution I found is to bring some of my waste at work, the only place I know that recycles. Obviously, I cannot bring my food waste there but it is already a good start and I hope you could do the same.

I hope that you will find this article useful if you plan to move to Asia or if you already have. If you have other tips, I will be more than happy to read them as I am constantly looking for new ways to be more sustainable on this side of the world. If you are interested, have a look at my website, you will find more advice there.


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