Don’t be a Backpacker. Be a Trashpacker!

The Trashpacker Malaysia

It’s no secret that Southeast Asia has a serious litter problem. More and more backpackers are coming back from their travels telling their friends: ‘Yeah, it was beautiful, but it was such a shame about the garbage everywhere!’ Recently, two of Southeast Asia’s most famous paradise islands completely closed down to tourists on account of the severe pollution to the environment. Such tiny islands are unable to cope with the amount of garbage (mainly plastic) created by tourist visits.

Litter-strewn Otres Beach, Sihanoukville.
Litter-strewn Otres Beach, Sihanoukville.

In June 2018, when a dead whale was washed up onto the shore in Songkhla Province in Thailand with 80 plastic bags and other plastic items in its stomach, the severity of the situation really hit home. The Marine and Coastal Resources Department said that the whale probably mistook the floating plastic bags for food and swallowed them. In the end, the bags made the whale sick and it was unable to hunt for real food, such as squid, octopus and small fish.

plastic whale created by Green Peace
This huge plastic whale was created by Green Peace to raise awareness of the deadly consequences of plastic pollution. It was installed on a beach in Cavite, the Philippines.

So is there anything that we can do, as backpackers, to alleviate the trash problem that Southeast Asia faces?

What is Trashpacking?

β€œTrashpacking is the concept of cleaning up the world while travelling.”It’s very simple. As backpackers, we take a small bag with us everywhere we go and pick up any trash that we come across! While backpacking may be our first goal. Our second goal can be trashpacking – a selfless and noble objective that adds meaning to our travels. Think about it. How much effort and time does it take to fill a small bag with trash? A few minutes plus some extra exercise for our day! The earth will be thankful, as well as your body, your heart, your soul, and the local community. It’s a bit like “plogging” – an eco-friendly craze that began in Sweden where joggers pick up litter as they go. (The word is made up of ‘jogging’ and the Swedish word ‘plocka upp’ which means ‘pick up’.)

Nikki trashpacking in Koh Lanta
South East Asia Backpacker’s Nikki trashpacking in Koh Lanta earlier this year!

Why Become a Trashpacker?


Trashpacking will bring a whole new meaning to your travels, an additional and worthy objective. While people can be very critical of the damaging effects of tourism on the environment, you will be able to hold your head high and know that you did your bit to contribute to a cleaner world. Time is one of the best resources we have while backpacking, so use it well!

Photo: Trash Hero, Koh Phangan
Photo: Trash Hero, Koh Phangan.


Trashpacking is a tool for generating a stronger link between a traveller and a place, as well as with local people and other tourists. It’s an excuse for people to come together towards the noble cause of taking care of our planet. And who knows how far this can go! Imagine a big trashpacking community around the world where tourists and locals work together in a mutually beneficial way to look after beautiful destinations. It’s a win-win-win – for the tourist, the local and the world!

The Trashpacker in Lahad Datu, Malaysia.
Photo: The Trashpacker, Lahad Datu, Malaysia.

Powerful Message:

Cleaning up while travelling (and being seen doing so!) can send a very powerful message that brings more awareness to world garbage problems. When a fellow tourist or a local sees someone cleaning a place they automatically start to think about the issue themselves. It’s contagious.

Trash collecting in Koh Phangan, Thailand.
Photo: Teaching the youth or are the youth teaching us? Trash Hero, Koh Phangan.

Need for a Change: Whatever environmental issue you choose to focus on: climate change, extreme consumerism, plastic waste, pollution of the seas, deforestation, desertification, overpopulation, food shortages, air pollution, fracking, loss of endangered species… (the list goes on)… It’s clear that we are heading towards several serious problems as a planet. While thinking of the enormity of each issue is enough to make your head explode, we mustn’t be overwhelmed and believe that there is nothing that we can do as individuals to help.

As Bill Mollison, the founder of the permaculture movement said: ‘Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.’ Every little thing we do has an impact. It’s up to you if you want to make that a positive or a negative one.

How to get involved?

There is no club to join or test to pass to become a Trashpacker. Trashpacking is an open concept for everyone to adopt. Do you like travelling and do you care about the environment? Then become a Trashpacker! Mariano, founder of the Trashpackers Community on Facebook offers us five simple suggestions to get started:

5 simple trashpacking suggestions

But what difference can only one person make?

These stories below are wonderful examples of how one small act by a single human being can influence others to create a powerful butterfly effect. You never know, your trashpacking efforts could create a tidal wave of altruism that will have a positive effect for generations to come…

Inspirational Trashpacker Story 1: The Cleaning Lawyer of Versova Beach, Mumbai

33-year old Afroz Shah, a lawyer with a passion for the ocean, was devastated at what had become of the local beach on the West coast of Mumbai where he used to play as a child. He had seen it go from a clean beach that people could enjoy, to nothing more than a rubbish tip with garbage piled five and a half feet high!

He decided to take the matter into his own hands and began cleaning the beach single-handedly, which he soon realised was a mammoth task. He encouraged others to join in and before he knew it he had hundreds of people spending their weekends cleaning the beach.

Since 2015, they have collected over 9 million kilograms of trash from the beach in what the United Nations calls the world’s biggest ever beach clean up! Afroz is also working with local communities to educate them on recycling and trash disposal.

Inspirational Trashpacker Story 2: The Dutch Backpacker of Lahad Datu, Malaysia (Featured Image)

A few weeks ago, a Dutch traveller, Tijmen Sissing, decided to clean up a dirty waterfront in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. As he began to clean, locals and tourists got involved in helping him. The next day, there were a lot of people helping to clean up and even machines and garbage trucks making the job a whole lot easier!

The story went viral and was featured in local Malaysian news, as well as online newspapers in Southeast Asia and China! Tijmen is now in discussions with local authorities about the pollution problem in Malaysia and many people all over the world are inspired by his story. You can follow ‘The Trashpacker’ on Facebook.

Inspirational Trashpacker Story 3: The Cycling Trashpacker of the Philippines

Last year, Anna Dawson, originally from New Zealand, cycled 2000km (on a bamboo bicycle) along the coasts of Luzon and the Visayas in the Philippines to raise awareness of plastic pollution. The inspiration for the project came when Anna and her husband sailed from her hometown of Aukland to the Philippines and witnessed first-hand the extent of the plastic problem as they stopped at remote islands along the way.

Many of them, although uninhabited were completely devastated by plastic. Her quest was called Plastic Free Philippines and along the way, Anna was joined by her husband, one-year-old son and a whole host of volunteers and school groups with who Anna was communicating with along her journey. You can read her inspirational story here and check out her Facebook page here.

Anna Dawson doing a Beach Clean Up for Plastic Free Philippines
Plastic Free Philippines: Anna Dawson cleans up Manila Bay, the Philippines.

Inspirational Trashpacker Story 4: The Backpacking Bin Women of Hoi An, Vietnam

Whilst staying in Hoi An for 5 weeks, Rachel Francesca and her wife decided to take action on the litter issue that they’d seen plaguing so many beautiful spots across Southeast Asia. They got involved with Hoi An Kayak Tours who organise a three-hour kayak expedition along Hoi An River where around 10 volunteers each week pick up trash as they kayak. They collect 25+ huge sacks of plastic from the river every week!

Kayak and Clean Up Tours in Hoi An, Vietnam
Kayak and Clean Up Tours in Hoi An, Vietnam!

Inspired by the kayak clean, Rachel took the initiative to chat with her favourite restaurant, The Fisherman Vegan Restaurant on An Bang Beach about organising a beach clean. They joined forces to coordinate a regular clean-up event on this popular stretch of sand.

Clean Ups Initiatives Across Southeast Asia You Can Join!

  • Trash Hero is active in many places across Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and other parts of Asia. You can find out if they have an active community in your area here and get involved!
  • Clean Up Vietnam engages local communities up and down the country to clean Vietnam. Keep up to date with their clean up projects on their Facebook Page.
  • Plastic Initiative Cambodia are trying to spread awareness of plastic issues across Cambodia and Southeast Asia and supplying re-usable water bottles.
  • Clean Up Jakarta Day is an annual event that you can get involved in. In 2017, the day enjoyed 30,000 volunteers cleaning up Jakarta’s streets!
  • Keep Bali Clean organise regular beach cleanups across the island. Check on their Facebook page for updates.
  • Gili Eco Trust is committed to protecting the reefs, removing the waste and encouraging recycling on the tiny Gili Islands. See their Facebook page here.
  • SEA Movement or Siargao Environmental Movement is an environmental group based on Siargao Island, the Philippines who have regular beach cleanups and environmental awareness days. See their Facebook page.
  • Get Involved Koh Tao is a group of dive schools joining forces to conserve the environment of Koh Tao, organising beach cleanups, eco days and fighting for a plastic bag and plastic straw free island! See their Facebook page here.
  • Koh Tao Festival is an annual event on the turtle-shaped island active that promotes marine conservation and awareness of the environment. Find out about the next event on their Facebook page.

If you know of any more cleanups happening in Southeast Asia, please write them in the comments below. It’s also a good idea to search on Facebook for any events happening near you! Oh and don’t forget, it’s…

World Clean Up Day: 15th September 2018!

The problem of where to put the collected trash?

The problem in Southeast Asia, particularly on many of the islands, is the actual disposal of the waste once it has been collected. Yes, you can collect 100kg of litter off the beach, but where the heck do you put it?

Collecting litter in Koh Lanta, Thailand
Where should you put the rubbish that you’ve collected?

You may have seen locals burning plastic and other waste in front of their houses and wondered why on earth there wasn’t a more environmentally friendly (and healthier) way to dispose of the trash. Sadly, due to lack of adequate recycling in Southeast Asia, disposing of trash remains a huge problem. Often, the garbage simply ends up in massive landfills. Off the beaten track and hidden by trees in the centre of many of the tropical islands, the local authorities are hoping that no tourists stumble upon these landfills during their visit. If you do (like we have done on several occasions!), be prepared for a sensory overload! Organisations like Trash Hero who do beach cleanups on a regular basis, try to be as responsible as possible with the waste that they collect. Here’s how they dispose of the trash in the best way possible, which will give you some tips of what you should do if you plan to start your own beach cleanup. 1. Recycle as much as possible: You should separate the collected trash and pass as much recyclable material as you can on to the local municipality or professional waste management companies. Plastic bottles, glass bottles and tin cans are usually the most recyclable items.

Recycling bottle tops in Thailand.
Recycling bottle tops in India.

2. Creative ways to recycle/upcycle:  Many of the branches of Trash Hero work with local companies who recycle the plastic collected in creative ways to create new and attractive products. In Koh Phangan, Trash Hero send the flip-flops they find to the social enterprise, Tlejourn, who make pretty trendy flip flops out of old flip-flops! In Bali, the company Peduli Alam makes new bags out of the plastic collected by Trash Heroes in Bali.

YouTube video
If you’re organising a cleanup, find out what social enterprises or art organisations can make good use of the things that you collect! 3. Make Eco Bricks! Eco-bricks are plastic bottles packed solid with more plastic, crisp wrappers, toothpaste tubes and more non-biodegradable stuff. You don’t need a machine to make eco-bricks, you can simply do it yourself! In Thailand and Indonesia, many of the Trash Hero chapters are creating and donating eco-bricks to build new schools and community buildings. See Precious Plastic If you’re serious about recycling, why not get involved with the community Precious Plastic who are developing innovative machines, tools and techniques to recycle plastic in the best possible way. Read more here.You can read more about best practices for where the collected trash goes on the Trash Hero website here.

10 Final Simple Tips on Becoming a Trashpacker!

1. Buy a Reusable or Filtered Water Bottle. (You can even ask for your fruit shakes to be poured into your washable bottle. Why not?) Some filtered water bottles such as the LifeStraw allow you to drink tap water (or any other filthy water for that matter!) on the road as the filter gets rid of 99.99% of bacteria.

2. Take a reusable cloth bag with you to buy groceries. 

3. Refuse straws. Become part of the movement #thelaststraw and encourage business to only provide straws to people who request them.

4. In 7-11 and other supermarkets refuse plastic bags, spoons, straws. (In Thailand, simply say ‘my ow ka / kap’)

5. Choose drinks in an aluminium can or a glass bottle as they are more easily recycled in Southeast Asia.

6. At street markets ask for your food on paper plates or banana leaves instead of styrofoam boxes.

7. Smokers don’t leave your cigarette butts on the beach.

8. Join beach cleanups and get involved in local recycling initiatives where you can.

9. Share the enthusiasm! Chat with others about becoming a trashpacker too!

10. And finally, share this article on social media to raise awareness of the movement.

Trash Hero. Spread The Love!
Trash Hero. Spread The Love!

“Individually we are one drop. Together we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Satoro

I’ll give the last word to Rachel Fransesca, bin woman of Hoi An:“Lastly, the reality is, the “someone else will do it” attitude is what got us into this mess in the first place. It’s all of our jobs to try to save our beautiful planet. Travelling the world massively increases your carbon footprint in itself, so if you want to give something back, grab a bag and get trashpacking! Can you imagine the difference it would make if each of us collected just 1 bag?”

Who are the Trashpacking Players?
Who are the Trashpacking Players? Infographic by Mariano Dotras: Trashpackers Community.

Contributors to this article:

  • I would like to thank, first of all, Mariano Dotras for bringing the concept of ‘trashpacking to my attention. You can join the Trashpackers Community founded by Mariano on Facebook.
  • I would like to also thank Tijmen Sissing ‘The Trashpacker’ for his story and the photos, as well as Anna Dawson of Plastic Free Philippines and Rachel Fransesca, bin woman of Hoi An.
  • Finally, I would like to thank Valerie Paquin who is part of the group ‘Trash Heroes Koh Phangan’.

Did you find this article inspiring?

Pin it to your Pinterest Board for other Trashpackers to see!

Trashpacking in Southeast Asia
Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

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