A Banana Leaf Revolution

An article has been circulating the internet recently, congratulating Asia for its green transformations – specifically the diminishing usage of plastic. Published by Next Shark, the article uses the example of the supermarket Rimping in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to declare that “supermarkets in Asia are now using banana leaves instead of plastic packaging”. The introduction continues with a second sweeping statement claiming that Vietnam is following suit, adopting this initiative from Thailand.

I had actually read about this Thai supermarket back in March, as articles published by Forbes, Ecowatch, Economic Times and many others were reptitively applauding Rimping, calling their use of banana leaves “genius”. I happened to be in Chiang Mai in April, and with an interest to see the eco-friendly efforts of the supermarket in reality, Rimping was high on my agenda of things to visit. When I arrived with eager anticipation, as it had been SO gushingly praised about online, I was surprised and disappointed to see…plastic packaging. Lots of it. Banana leaves are used here and there to hold together a few vegetables or line a basket of fruit, but other than that, there is still plenty of plastic being used.

The application of banana leaves for cooking, wrapping up food and serving food is common practice across all of Asia and has been for centuries, so while it is fantastically resourceful and organic, there is nothing new, innovative or revolutionary about this at all. In every local open-air street food market across Asia, you are guaranteed to see banana leaves used in this way. Contrary to the implication of all these copycat articles, the Rimping supermarket is not a pioneer leading the way for the rest of Asia.

Further into the Next Shark’s article, a few of the supermarket chains in Vietnam are called out, Lotte Mart included, claiming that they are following in Thailand’s footsteps and experimenting with banana leaves as a plastic alternative. I am currently in Vietnam and happened to be in a Lotte Mart just a few days ago. I can report not a single sighting of banana leaves, but inevitably, lots of plastic.

I am not writing just to draw attention to the fabrication of so-called news online, but also to address the reality that Asia faces as the Western side of the world is desperately striving for more sustainability. According to a report from AirVisual in 2018, 99 of 100 of the world’s most polluted cities are in Asia. The air quality is so bad in the cities that most people wear face masks all day, everyday. Speaking to school teachers in Malaysia and Thailand, I found out that when the air quality reaches dangerously unhealthy levels, schools are forced to close and the government advises people not to leave their houses at all. It is never my wish to share negative news, but the exaggerated and misplaced praise of the banana leaf related articles gives such a wrong impression that with first-hand knowledge, I felt compelled to share my own insight.

Environmentally friendly solutions for Asia are not that simple. In Europe, we can easily ban plastic bags and bottles etc. We have easy access to alternatives as well as the infrastructure for more sustainable communities to be developed. In Asia, it is a completely different story. People are often reliant on plastic packaging as there are no alternative options for them. They cannot stop buying plastic bottles as the only clean water they have access to is bottled water. Water purifiers are not an option due to cost and accessibility. When it rains (which in certain places at this time of year can be sudden and unpredictable), single-use plastic waterproof ponchos are handed out and worn by pedestrians and motorcyclists.

Plastic bags cannot be banned because all the small street food stalls rely on them. They package sauces and soup directly into plastic bags, sometimes even drinks too, using a rubber band to hold the bag together with a plastic straw sticking out of the top. When I was in Bangkok, there was a popular local lady who set up her little table on the side of the street every night and always had long queue of people lining up to buy her food. She had the sauces all ready to go in plastic bags, to ensure maximum speed and ease for customers to collect. This woman, like so many others, would not be able to run her business without using plastic bags. Even as I write this article, I am sat in a small, local restaurant/café in the centre of Vietnam, watching the staff pull ready-filled plastic bags out of a large tub, placing them in Styrofoam boxes alongside a plastic pouch containing extra chilli flakes, another plastic pouch with extra sauce and a final plastic bag of vegetables. This is all put together in one final plastic bag ready for home delivery. It is the same process for the majority of small food joints across Asia.

Although this is the reality with regard to plastic, there is definitely growing awareness in Asia of the importance of sustainable living, and consequently action is being taken. Small businesses are doing what they can: I have been impressed on my journey to see paper, metal and bamboo straws being used in many different cafés across Southeast Asia. Utilising renewable energy in Vietnam is on the rise. With hydropower already the main energy source, plans to increase biomass, wind and solar are additionally in place, but significant support is needed from international investment for these goals to be achieved. Greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced in Thailand, and more energy-efficient buildings are being constructed. Just last month, Thailand hosted one of ASEAN’s largest building expositions with the theme “Living Green”, to promote eco-friendly construction and sustainovation in building materials.

Sustainable development is slowly improving in Asia, but it is important to not become complacent when reading articles that generalise and spread inaccurate news. A lot more work still needs to be done, and more support is needed to help developing countries reach the environmental target goals we all need for our planet to survive.

Image copyright: Thai Thanh Tu, EyeEm

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