Green Vientiane + Let’s Do It Laos = changing mindsets and behaviours around plastic waste

Written by
Jim Sharman
June 17, 2024

Continuing the current focus on the East Asian region, we hear from the Let’s Do It Laos County Leader, Serge Doussantousse, as he breaks down for us the challenges faced in their country, as well as the winning formula and positive initiatives currently driving improvement in societal and commercial attitudes towards waste, especially plastics.

[Serge Doussantousse on a cleanup with volunteers in Vientiane.]

Please could you introduce yourself, where you're from, where you are now, and what you do?

My name is Serge Doussantousse and I am originally from France but have been living in Laos since 2003. I created ‘Green Vientiane’ in 2011 as a response to the growing problem of plastic waste in Laos, a country that heavily relies on plastic and currently has poor waste management infrastructure in place. Green Vientiane has driven the Let’s Do It Laos campaigns for World Cleanup Day since 2018.

In Vientiane itself, waste collection is weak. Fewer than 50% of households participate in municipal waste collection, and most of the waste collected ends up in landfills. Recycling is poor in Laos overall, and street-level waste-pickers are essential to the recycling system.

[Serge surveying the mismanaged waste issue at street level.]

How did you come to learn about Let's Do It World (LDIW) and World Cleanup Day (WCD), and what motivated you to lead the campaign in Laos?

I met my now good friend, Pål Mårtensson (LDIW Regional Director for Oceania,) in Laos in 2012 at an environmental conference in Vientiane dealing in topics affecting the people in the region. He gave my name to the Let's Do It! team, and I was then invited to a workshop event in Albania in 2017. After that, following our first cleanup as part of the 2018 WCD campaign, I attended the January 2019 Let’s Do It ‘Clean World Conference’ in Tallinn.

[Serge and Canadian family, promoting WCD back in 2018.]

What are the biggest challenges you face in a country like Laos, and how are you overcoming them?

One of the biggest challenges is that waste management is not a priority for the people of Laos, as they often see waste production as a byproduct of their consumption habits. To overcome this, we are working on engaging more organisations and promoting sustainable practices.

For example, recently we organised a clean up in Vientiane, my initiative prior to the rainy season starting, which will end in October. We were able to call around 150 people, mainly students but also villagers and BeerLao staff. We were supported by WWF, GGGI, Inthira Group, and VCOMS, the municipal agency in charge of collecting the waste.

[Cleanup in Vientiane on 1 June 2024, with 150 volunteers collecting 6 tons of waste.]

We also have a Partner called ‘Go2Green’, who created an app to help collect recyclable waste in and from people’s homes.

What has been your biggest success so far in terms of getting World Cleanup Day on the map in Laos?

Although we have made progress with our annual clean-up events, the country still faces challenges in establishing a daily collection waste routine. Despite this, we continue to engage with local communities and promote sustainable practices.

Inthira Group, mentioned earlier, is a growing tourism company, committed to a clean Lao for more than just the sake of its business – they also care about protection for the environment too, and we work well with them to increase awareness around the need for waste management and prevention.

The LDIW movement aims to engage 5% of each country’s population, which will create lasting societal change in behaviour towards mismanaged waste. What do you think needs to change in Laos to reach that magical 5% figure?

We believe that engaging more organisations and promoting sustainable practices is key to reaching this goal. It is therefore very important to show the reality.

For our people, trash blindness is the biggest issue – we have to show how dirty some parts of the country truly are. So, we make sure to display pictures of the waste and littering on our Social Media channels so people can see the issue, rather than just hearing or reading about it.

[Serge and local volunteers, leading by example in cleaning up the countryside.]

What lessons have you learned over the years that you would like to share with the global network?

We have taken a diversified, multi-pronged, and multi-channelled approach to driving change. This enables Green Vientiane to get involved in a range of different initiatives, e.g.;

1) Including improving waste management and segregation in hospitals.

2) Increasing the role of retailers in collecting back recyclable materials

3) Supporting the Lao government-backed nationwide ‘Plastic Action Plan’.

4) We also actively support and promote the Go2Green app mentioned earlier.

5) UNEP’s Global Plastic Treaty (which could serve as the trigger for a more sustainable waste management globally)

When it comes to retailers, Sokxay, a growing and innovative minimart company here, is involved in the recyclable collection  and segregation project. They are developing a growing interest in training their staff about our ‘Baby Bin’, to promote the message to their clients about the service that ‘Baby Bin’ is offering. Essentially, people can bring back their recyclables and we take care of the recycling for them!

[Baby Bin, Serge, and staff, outside a branch of Sokxay.]

What approach to waste are you taking in Laos that you believe will inspire others around the world?

We firmly believe that reducing plastic production and consumption is the most crucial element towards the creation of a healthy, waste-free world.

We also support the Global Plastic Treaty, which has the potential to make a lasting impact on

our country, therefore we encourage every other country in the LDIW Network to follow suit and get behind the initiative to dramatically reduce plastic production, therefore positively impacting on the waste problem at source.

The Global Plastic Treaty should help reduce the plastic crisis by addressing oil extraction, plastic manufacturing, marketing, and waste management. It's essential to promote and support this treaty and lobby in each country where Let’s Do It is active. This is our call to action to you!

What's your personal vision when it comes to the future of waste in Laos and, indeed, in the world – how can we create the healthy, waste-free world we all envision?

My vision is for a world where plastic production and consumption are significantly reduced, no longer causing harm to our planet.

The waste crisis is a result of uncontrolled global consumerism, initially meant to satisfy the masses. Now, consumerism and waste threaten individual freedom and the environment's integrity. Few of us resist the ‘massification’ (mass production, mass marketing) of consumption, and each has limited impact against mass production.

But more and more people try to repel the danger. As the waste risk becomes clearer, consumerism may be seen as an antagonist of humanity and the environment. Furthermore, the exacerbation of social inequality amplifies environmental imbalance, as the wealthiest consumers are least affected by the consequences, leaving the poorest communities to bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation, further widening the chasm between those who produce waste and those who suffer its consequences.

In the end, I suggest we fight the consequences of negative consumption – by cleaning up – and consumerism itself – by changing the paradigm of our economy.

Is there anything else you’d specifically like to share with our Network and readership about the excellent work you and Green Vientiane are doing in Laos?

We need to promote cleanliness, but also encourage plastic producers to take much more responsibility for the solutions needed, because at the moment the producers are non-existent in solving the problem in Laos.

Instead, they are part of the problem, because they are flooding the environment with single-use plastic products. They should reduce its production and participate in collecting end-of-life products. In Laos, we are struggling to get them on board. The Lao government has yet to bring them into the loop of plastic prevention.

[Serge setting the example of why plastic is an important issue in Laos.]

In summary, LDIW and WCD should be at the forefront of promoting the reduction of both plastic production and its consumption, which requires cooperation from those primary oil-producing countries and plastic corporations. They need to take action – positive and tangible steps to solve a crisis to which they are directly contributing.

And here I have my last thought. In Laos, the main beer company is ‘BeerLao’, 60%-owned by Carlsberg –  and it's difficult to get this Danish company to promote a clean environment and have their Lao branch take responsibility for its plastic waste footprint. A global project like World Cleanup Day could start lobbying from country to country, promoting a united effort to tackle the plastic crisis.

Let’s Do It Laos Country Leader, Serge Doussantousse, breaks down for us the challenges faced in their country, as well as the winning formula and positive initiatives currently driving improvement in societal and commercial attitudes towards waste, especially plastics.
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