By Frankie Lewis
Since moving to Bangkok, I’ve noticed how easy it is to fall into bad environmental and eco habits. Single use plastic bags are thrust upon you in every shop. Having a drink without a straw is considered madness. The popularity of takeaway food results in corresponding mountains of food boxes. Sustainability in Bangkok is a long way off, though Thailand is making steady improvements. Bangkok is far from a green, environmental paradise today.
I definitely found myself overwhelmed at the beginning. How can you possibly be eco-friendly when your sausages come individually plastic-wrapped, inside another single use plastic wrapper? Having lived here a while now though, I’ve finally got to grips with green basics in Bangkok (as well as associated Thai phrases). Here are some of my top eco tips for sustainable living in Bangkok:
Beginner Level (green shoots):
1. Always carry a water bottle with you
Bangkok is hot all of time, even when it is raining. Chances are you’ll need to drink a steady supply of water throughout the day. It will therefore come as no shock that my first recommendation on being green is to carry a water bottle.
Refilling it throughout the day is relatively easy as there are a number of water refill stations on the street (usually costing only a couple of baht per use), or you’ll often find that temples and other public attractions (ditto airports) have refill points or water fountains for free. If slurping on water all day isn’t your thing, there are also many street vendors offering flavoured iced drinks and juice, who will happily pour your selected beverage into an on the go container.
2. Refuse the plastic bag (bonus points: Carry a reusable shopping bag)
Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Recycling is great. Reducing and Reusing is better. Refusing is best of all. If you’re serious about sustainability, saying no is one of the best weapons in your green armoury.
Single use plastic is the most noticeable sustainability problem in Bangkok (with the air a close second). Bangkok shop assistants like to shower shoppers in bags like some sort of plastic snow storm. Bought a banana as an office snack? Bag. Single tin of tomatoes for your dinner? Bag. Ice cream to nibble as you stroll home? Bag in bag. I’m sure you get the idea.
If you don’t want a bag, it’s usually best to tell them as you hand your basket over in order to avoid the awkward moment when you remove your groceries from the bag they’ve just handed you. (Or as was often the case when I first arrived, being too embarrassed to refuse the bag, and then being annoyed with yourself as you stomp home, plastic bag swinging from each clenched fist).
Mai ao tung – I don’t want a bag (pronunciation guide: tung – there isn’t an easy example in English for this sound! The best way I can describe ‘tung’ is to clench your teeth and say ‘tongue’ very quickly.)
Mii tung leeo – I already have a bag (pronunciation guide: mii – ‘me’ of medium, leeo – ‘lay’ as in ‘I lay on the sofa’ with an ‘oh’ on the end)
3. Refuse Plastic Straws/ Cutlery
Refusing straws in restaurants is another classic, and Bangkok like many cities is guilty of putting a plastic tube in every glass. Unlike other countries, this happens not only in restaurants, but also convenience stores.
The popularity of food to go means that your well-meaning 7-Eleven employee will try to give you chopsticks for your noodles, a spoon for your yoghurt and a straw for your drink even if you are planning on eating your haul when you get home. Generally shaking your head and flapping your hands will prevent them from handing over this single use plastic bounty, but if you fancy flexing your Thai muscles, here are a few of my most used phrases:
Mai ao loort – I don’t want a straw (pronunciation guide: Mai – like ‘eye’ but stick an ‘m’ on the front, ao – ‘ow’ like you’ve stubbed your toe, loort – ‘law’ like the legal profession, but stick a soft ‘t’ on the end)
Mai ao choorn – I don’t want a spoon (pronunciation guide: choorn – ‘ch’ of choose, followed by ‘awn’ of awnings)
Bonus points: For the many situations when you have too many groceries to pick them up in your hands, carry a reusable shopping bag! Reusable bags pack away into tiny spaces so it’s best to keep one in your handbag/ backpack or pocket for opportune moments. I can hear you all groan and slow clap as I state the obvious, but it can take time and some confidence building to work up to practices that aren’t common in Bangkok. Not all shop assistants are used to this level of proactivity, so I tend to physically hand the bag over to them.
Intermediate Level (eco aware):
1. Carry your own straw/ chopsticks
While you are popping your reusable shopping bag into your handbag/ backpack, go the extra mile and include a reusable straw and a pair of chopsticks. Having a straw makes iced drinks much easy to enjoy (unless you fancy a face full of ice with each sip) and the vast majority of restaurants provide single use chopsticks (generally made of bamboo, so some environmental points, but they are always sealed in plastic…) so it’s best to bring your own if you want to raise your Green Game to Intermediate Level.
Also carrying cutlery (fork, spoon etc) is an option, and might be best if you tend to eat food on the go, but almost everywhere in Bangkok provides stainless steel cutlery when eating in so I don’t carry around this extra weight on a daily basis. (I do however pack cutlery when going to Lat Mayom market as I know they’ll try to give me a plastic fork and spoon).
Advanced Level (sustainable champ):
1. Take your own containers for takeaway
Taking your own container to the takeaway shop is super easy, however I’ve classified it as advanced as many people fear the embarrassment factor. Having tried this in both London and Bangkok, I say ‘fear not!’ and encourage you to embrace the Tupperware.
In Bangkok (and Asia in general), Pinto (aka Binto/ Tiffin) is a popular food transportation device. People normally use them to transport food from home to office, but they are perfect for takeaway transportation. I keep one under my desk in the office for trips to the food court and the market (special shout out to our lovely office cleaners who wash up my Pinto afterwards). I have another at home that I take when getting takeaway from one of our local restaurants (which happens a lot).
n.b. I have absolutely no idea how to transport a takeaway pizza home without the box. Giant Tupperware? Roll the pieces up and put them in a pinto? Answers a postcard (or, y’know, in the comments).
Chuai sai glong daimai? – Please can you put it in a box? (Pronunciation guide: Chuai – ‘chew’ like ‘chewing gum’ with a ‘i’ on the end, sai like the name Simon, but only say the ‘Si’, glong – like ‘gong’ but throw a ‘l’ in there too, daimai – ‘dai’ like the ‘di’ of ‘diamond’ mai as above)
Chuai sai glong koong chan daimai? – Please can you put it in my box? (This is far too much effort to say, and weirdly formal, so I’d recommend the above and generally wave your box around while asking)
2. Produce bags
If you haven’t yet heard of vegetable bags, you are missing out. When I first moved to Bangkok, I noticed that bagging and weighing fruits and vegetables is common practice in supermarkets. The same is true of UK supermarkets, but as the scales tended to be self-serve, I would weigh my goods and then stick the price sticker directly onto the items.
In Bangkok, all the machines are employee operated, and I have nowhere near the sufficient level of Thai language skills to explain that I want the stickers stuck to the produce itself. Therefore, the discovery produce bags was a very happy day. The bags themselves are very simple contraptions, made of translucent mesh so you can see what is inside. Put your selected fruit or vegetable inside, and then hand over to the scale operator.
3. Water delivery
So this one is currently only in planning stage, to be executed in July… The water is technically safe to drink in Bangkok, but no one, literally no one does drink it. I’m yet to find out exactly why, but one theory is that it has higher than desirable levels of pesticides. As I don’t feel brave enough to buck the trend, I’ve resorted to buying 6L bottles of water and decanting them into a fridge jug/ my reusable water bottle.
I thought my only other option was to install a water cooler at home, but I have recently discovered that you can get a special pump to attach to a water cooler sized bottle which takes up far less space. The water cooler bottles are delivered and collected for refill by local companies, resulting in minimal waste. Sprinkle seems to be the most popular choice in Bangkok.
And there you have it! A few steps that will make a big difference to your green and sustainable behaviours!
It has taken me six months to work up to this level, and I’m still getting back to my previous levels of proactivity, so allow yourself time to adjust. Every change makes a difference, so celebrate even the smallest of steps and before you know it, you’ll be an eco, green pro.