17 Sep 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - In 1995, Oliver Esser Soe Thet came to Myanmar. Although he initially dreamed of going back to Thailand, where he had spent a couple of years as a chef at fine-dining establishments in Bangkok, he felt in his heart that Myanmar was the place to be.

"The roads were empty in Yangon, there were no cars, everything was quiet, everything was green," Oliver says with a nostalgic smile.

Oliver grew up in southwestern Germany. As a child, he played in the forests until they were replaced by junkyards. After that, he played in the dirt surrounded by broken washing machines, discarded TVs and piles of plastic waste. Today, Oliver is 57 years old and he has had it with plastic pollution.

"When I came here there was no plastic. Maybe a little bit in Yangon, but in the villages, you would never see plastic. There was no snack industry besides soft drinks, which had just made their way into the country. But the soft drink bottles went back to the factories to be refilled."

The global plastic revolution found its way to Myanmar 15 years ago, Oliver said. Before that most food was wrapped in bamboo or leaves from banana and betel nut trees.

When Oliver arrived in Myanmar, he said, you would find clay pots full of water in front of every other house, eliminating the need for bottled water. "To do good is to donate water," he says.

"If the people of Myanmar could find their way back to their traditions, the country's plastic problems would be solved immediately. In Dawei, I once met a 93-year-old local woman who was cooking tasty food. She never used plastic. Why would she need plastic to eat and cook now?"

With development comes waste

Oliver has found that there are smaller amounts of garbage and plastic in the less developed areas of Myanmar.

"In the beginning, the push for sustainable change in Myanmar was mostly driven by foreigners. Foreigners were more aware of the bad impact of plastic use and therefore wished to protect Myanmar from going down the same road. Today, you see many local people in the big cities fighting to get rid of plastic and make their surroundings greener," Oliver says as he takes the first sip of his coffee.

He identifies Myanmar's problem with plastic pollution as a lack of law enforcement and initiative by the government.

"It is a very small minority who pollute. The people of Myanmar do not want their surroundings to be dirty and nature to fall into disrepair. But the people who want to do good need proper facilities and an organised system to get rid of their garbage, and they need a motivator," Oliver says.

"Luckily, we now have organisations such as Thant Myanmar and Yangon's Zero Plastic store to help push the country in the right direction. They motivate people to use sustainable alternatives to plastic and to get rid of waste in a responsible way."

Tourism is no bed of roses

Thant Myanmar is on a mission to reduce plastic pollution, and one of the non-profit organisation's goals is to reduce the use of single-use plastic in the tourism industry. Running an eco lodge at Ngapali beach, Oliver is well aware of the plastic problems that tourism causes.

"The water bottles are the worst. Tourists drink water all the time – and as long as they are not presented with other solutions than small single-use plastic bottles you cannot blame them."

Two years ago, Oliver calculated that if all 49 hotels and guest houses in Ngapali swapped their half-litre water bottles for 20-litre bottles, they would use 3.5 million fewer water bottles a year.

Large water bottles save money

"A 50-room hotel would save US$3000 during the high season from November to April if they replaced their small water bottles with 20-litre bottles. This would also make things easier for hotel staff. The 20-litre bottles are collected and refilled, but the staff has to figure out how to get rid of the half-litre bottles," Oliver says.

"At my eco lodge in Ngapali, we have used 20-litre bottles since 2002. Initially, it was not due to environmental reasons but because I wanted to save $3000 a year," he laughs.

Another way the hotels can reduce the use of plastic water bottles is to provide tourists with an alternative water bottle made of glass, aluminium or the like. With Thant Myanmar's Yea Ku Tho initiative, which is based on Myanmar's tradition of donating water, tourists can refill their water bottles at refill stations all over the country.

Oliver E Soe Thet at a café in Yangon: “Myanmar is in a unique position to skip the whole plastic era and step right into the new, non-plastic generation of sustainability.” Photo - Anna Katrine Søgaard Jensen

Do you need that straw?

Although they are very small, straws have been Oliver's nemesis for many years.

"Honestly, do you know why a straw is called a straw? Because it was made out of straw from the field! So why does it have to be made out of plastic now?" Oliver asks with frustration in his voice.

"Luckily, more and more people in Myanmar, including myself and my eco lodge, use bamboo straws. I think this is mostly due to the 'No Straw' campaign initiated by restaurants in Yangon last year." The campaign urges the tourism industry to reduce the use of plastic straws by replacing them with alternatives such as bamboo or metal straws.

The market for sustainable and reusable straws is growing rapidly, according to Oliver. "Everywhere you go you see bamboo straws now. It is fantastic. Myanmar has a good chance to enter the lucrative export market for reusable straws. The country is green, and bamboo is available everywhere, so why not?"

Plastic-free zone

Inspired by the "No Straw" initiative, Oliver and his staff have been serving drinks with homemade bamboo straws for the past year at Laguna Eco Lodge.

"We continuously plant bamboo in our garden at Laguna, and soon we will be ready to export bamboo straws to the world directly from Ngapali. My staff needs something to do during the rainy season when we have no guests, and they enjoy making bamboo straws."

Oliver has also found a way to eliminate the use of plastic in menu cards.

"The outermost layer on big bamboo trees peels off at the end of every rainy season. The peel is shaped like a heart, so we write our menus on them. A member of my staff also made me aware that betel nut leaves have a nice shape. On those, we write welcome letters to our guests."

The impossible made possible

Nearly 25 years ago, Oliver bought a piece of land by the beach in Ngapali, and in 2001 he started building what has today become Laguna Eco Lodge.

"I went from village to village in southern Rakhine to ask if somebody wanted to sell their house to me. I looked specifically for a house made of ironwood, which is a very solid type of wood. Finally, I found some people who wanted to live in a stone house and therefore were willing to sell their wooden houses to me."

Oliver bought the houses and dismantled them. "I wanted to use the old wood for Laguna, and I managed to build up the eco lodge with more than 95 percent reused wood. The grandmothers and grandfathers who built the houses told me the wood was 50-80 years old and would last for another 100 years as long as I took good care of it."

Towards a non-plastic future

Small wrinkles form around Oliver's eyes as he says, "The plastic pollution is not particularly bad in Myanmar – on the contrary, what is happening here plastic-wise is tragically normal."

But hopefully, a greener way of life is not far away.

"You only need one big fish, and the rest will follow. That is why I was so happy to learn that Myanmar's biggest hotel chain and largest travel agency, Amazing Myanmar, will go green next year by taking steps to eliminate single-use plastic throughout its corporation."

According to Oliver, Myanmar is in a favourable position. "Since Myanmar is a developing country, there is no big lobby, no big factories, no big interests, and no big jobs depending on the plastic industry yet. So Myanmar is in a unique position to skip the whole plastic era and step right into the new non-plastic generation of sustainability. There is no doubt Myanmar's global reputation would benefit from the implementation of a sustainable agenda," he says.

Anna Katrine Søgaard Jensen is a volunteer communications officer at Thant Myanmar, a local non-profit group fighting plastic pollution in Myanmar.